Insights Into Consumer Behavior From Historical Studies of Advertising

Richard W. Pollay, University of British Columbia
[ to cite ]:
Richard W. Pollay (1987) ,"Insights Into Consumer Behavior From Historical Studies of Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 447-450.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 447-450


Richard W. Pollay, University of British Columbia

Our understanding of our contemporary consumer culture is often handicapped by our very immersion in it. Surrounded by trees we can only dimly perceive the shape of the forest. This is not much of a problem in Studying the consumer in microcosm, but we poorly study the context in which consumers operate, the consumer culture in gestalt. While many of the managerially significant questions can be (at least partially) addressed through study of the consumer in microcosm, the socially significant questions cannot. Generally speaking the more meaningful the issue, especially to those beyond our discipline's managerial bounds, the less valuable is conventional consumer behavior. History is one of (hopefully) many alternative intellectual approaches which offer important supplemental perspective OD consumer behavior.

The realization of this potential of historical methods can be illustrated through the methods and conclusions of recent studies in the history of advertising. Three such studies will demonstrate both a diversity of documents studies and a diversity of inferences that can be drawn. The oldest such study is Curti's (1967) analysis of the changing concept of human nature held by the advertising trade from 1890 until the post-war period. This analysis is based on careful reading of the texts, professional journals, and trade papers such as Printer's Ink. Recent work by Marchand (1985) illustrates, for the 1920-30s, the richness of insights derivable when careful analysis of the content and tableaux of advertisements is supplemented with information from archives, trade press, biographies, interviews, etc. Leiss, et al. (1986) conducted a content analysis that benefits from its intellectual eclecticism. Rooted in the field of communication studies, the core concepts are drawn from anthropology, as the authors delineate the changing relationship of Americans and their goods.

These three papers vary in the way that they rely on and reflect: a) the theory about consumers guiding the production of marketing's most visible and vibrant tool, advertising; b) the culture of the organizations producing these ads; c) the ads themselves, and d) the culture of consumption. Each of these handles on history has some value. Let us consider each of these studies after a quick overview of the literature of historical aspects of advertising .


Not so long ago, many authors expressed dismay at the paucity and quality of major works discussing advertising's history and influential role in modern industrial society. Since then we have gone from famine to feast. In the past very few years there has been 8 sudden wealth of high quality books written by very capable and insightful historians. Barnow's The Sponsor (1978) discusses the modern television age. Pope's The Making of Modern Advertising (1983) describes the emergence and institutional development of modern agencies and practices at the turn of the century. Fox's The Mirror Makers <1984) uses a group biographical approach to capture the development of variouS schools of advertising practice and thought, and Schudson's Advertising<. The Uneasy Persuasion (1984) is a sociological view which sensitively covers the agency client relationship and its constraints. But except for Schudson, few of these works dealt effectively or at length with the social content and cultural influence of advertising. While often fascinating and colorful in the characters, campaigns and conflicts described, both marketing scholars and historians missed a comprehensive discussion of the culture of consumption and the role advertising played in the emergent culture of abundance.


The first, and for a long time only, historical study of advertising of relevance to consumer behavior was Curti's (1967) analysis of the changing concept of human nature held by the advertising profession Judged by study of the texts and trade press, the observed changes are provocative but a little uncertain in their interpretation In general he notes an evolution from a "rational" view to a "din/irrational" view, but how this is to be interpreted is debatable, through no fault of his

The observed changes can be obviously taken at face value as exactly what they are, the models employed by the makers of advertising Beyond that, however, it is not clear if the changes in these models reflect a) the changes in academic psychology, b) the increasing realization of the potency of advertising to change consumer behavior and guide choices, c) the evolution of the professional, knowledgeable craft of copy writing as distinct in its craft knowledge from media placing, the preoccupation of the previous era of advertising, or d) actual changes in the nature of consumer behavior over this time span, as the mass markets went from subsistence to affluence The root of this uncertainty is the chicken and egg conundrum that always confounds discussions of advertising, that of what is cause and what is effect in observed changes Are the actual consumers changing (such) over this time span, or is it just that advertisers are slowly becoming aware of the way people are (and have always been)? To what extent can observed changes to attributed to just expanded awareness about consumer behavior, versus true changes in that behavior? Since advertisers have always been highly motivated to comprehend consumers, and have many financial resources at risk and to bring to bear on this issue, presumably it has not taken then 80 years to comprehend what was always true Presumably then the observed changes must be assumed to be in part reflective of true changes

The major shift that Curti (1967) notes is the shift from a view of the typical consumer as a rational, self interested individual to a view of consumers as inherently irrational, fickle, malleable, emotional, even though still egocentric While both of these views have coexisted throughout the twentieth century, and still do, the rational view was dominant in the trade press at the turn of the century and shortly thereafter This was not the result of naivetI of professionals, for the academic psychology of the era also emphasized "reason" and "will" over emotion or feelings This rational view argued for no nonsense copy styles, suitable for the "hardheaded" reader whose time was a scarce commodity Self interest of these consumers was seen as including the immediate family, but the presumption then (as now) was that the consumer was able and adept at a careful calculus of costs and benefits and was unswayed by emotions, symbols, puffery, flattery, impulse, etc

In contrast the irrational view, which came into full dominance by 1930, assumed that consumers were basically emotional and often fools Immersed in their feelings of hopes and sorrows, basically vain, prejudiced, eager for compliments and flattery, these consumers were malleable and susceptible to suggestion, conditioned by repetition of pleasant stimuli, appealed to easily by sentimentality and sensationalism and that all of this was of far sore importance in determining purchase behavior than consideration of product utility Basic fears and drives such as social shame, competition, seeking of approval and social status were commonly recognized in the advertising trade long before social science academics "discovered" other-directed personalities in modern society This dir view of consumers is a long tradition as shown by the Printer's Ink (1891) editorial observation and admonition to "write to impress fools Don't prepare (ads) for ministers and college professors, but for ignore uses, and you will just as likely catch college professors " By the post war period the prevailing view was that, however rational consumer decisions might sees, or be portrayed by academics or consumers themselves, consumer choices were actually deeply influenced by emotional forces conscious, subconscious and unconscious

Logic for Living

Marchand's (1985) research and reporting, undertaken with the goals of interpreting the contribution of advertising to "the vocabulary and syntax of American common discourse," studied some 180,000 ads from major periodicals for persistent patterns Drawing heavily on the trade press and agency archives as well, he a asses an impressive and eclectic array of information about the backgrounds, constraints and biases of the advertising practitioners The study focuses on the 1920/309, by when the advertising industry was relatively substantial and nature Ads the selves were increasingly given over the portrayal of consumers and consumption situations, providing vignettes of life-style, priorities and a logic of living, a rhetoric of consumption The boasting self-assurance of the 20s and the troubled self-doubts of the early 308 lead to a trade press filled with revealing gossip In later years, a rising sophistication lead to ads of greater subtlety, more covert communication and a trade press that was coy in the face of competition, critics, government regulators and cynical consumers Thus, this period is well chosen as an era to begin this social history

After a thoughtful theoretical and methodological introduction is a portrait of ad agents and their function just prior to 1920, drawn largely from the trade press Caught up in the exhilaration of change, agencies were functioning OD an unprecedented scale and tempo The expanded role for advertising before WWI is illustrated in extended discussion of Crisco's 3 million dollar campaign, the Sunkist effort and success at branding a commodity, the development of institutional advertising and the use of advertising a part of the war effort The establishment of advertising as an integral element of corporate marketing strategy was at least symbolically completed by Henry Ford's reluctant capitulation to its use in launching the Model A in 1927, but throughout these day the advertising community was doing such to dispel the imagery of snake oil suckering inherited from P T Barnum and nefarious patent medicines of the 19th century

The evolution toward a modern marketing orientation is demonstrated in increased attention to consumer benefits, rather than product attributes, and the shift in copy tone from salesman to confidant, a tactic of personalization of appeal (see also Pollay 1985) These are exampled in three major case histories; the marketing of Fleischmann's yeast (as a vitamin source, and later as a laxative), the dramatic and influential success of Listerine (as an astringents aftershave, dandruff cure, douche, etc but most successfully as a cure for halitosis, and only later for colds and DOW dental plaque), and the launching of the totally new product concept of Kotex, a challenge to communicate in good taste

In a manner consistent with, but supple ental to, Fox's Mirror Makers, (1984), Marchand turns to the people who created the advertising Capturing the conflicting approaches to professional status (technical practical expertise v cultural leadership and uplift by means of high educational standards, public service and dignity of behavior), he finds this conflict permeating the trade debate about copy styles, media choice, and agency selection But transcending this conflict, the industry increasingly presented itself as an ambassador Of the consumer population and their interests The character of the personnel serving in this role is displayed in the results of a study of the backgrounds, occupational attitudes, social and institutional ties of persons employed by the twenty largest agencies This discloses a largely sale culture, with good discussion of the small but sometimes influential roles of women and (less often) ethnic minorities The tendency toward an urban inbreeding was countered with recruitment of staff from far and wide in hopes of staying sympathetic to the great mass of common everyday "just folks," although this intent was unfulfilled as staff of major agencies inevitably became urban elites with life styles quite different from the hoi polloi

The agency as an organizational subculture is wonderfully described, giving rich life to the conflicts inherent in being courtiers to the clients, being judged by improper standards, emasculated by revisions, given no credit for accomplishment and victimized by tension and insecurities While no one personality type dominated, the circumstances bred competition and cynicism as well as craftsmanship and soon became a young man's profession Senior veterans complained of the ephemeral insubstantial nature of the work and a surprisingly large number suffered breakdowns from being habitually "perched on the edge of anxiety " Using backstage tales and trade talk, Marchand shows how this stress was handled by learning techniques for psyching one's self up to a state of delirious enthusiasm, by tension reducing self parodies, and by rationalizations for various "benign deceptions," those little white lies

Practitioners viewed their audience from a "we-they" framework, not unreasonably since the dominant conception was a lowest common denominator of an "emotional, feminized mass, characterized by mental lethargy, bad taste, and ignorance" (p 69) Given the successes of tabloids, funnies, matinee movies, and confession magazines, and the success of ads which imitated these in their art direction, this ignoble view is understandable, especially given the very limited role played by research Another view, most vividly portrayed in media representations, was a more self-serving idealization of an affluent class audience, more cultured and cosmopolitan.

Throughout this period the industry drifted toward an abandonment of the great genteel hope of advertising as cultural uplift This drift, accentuated by the depression, is manifest in changing industry norms and practices in art and copy styles, use of more intrusive media, use of bold competitive campaigns, scare tactics, editorial camouflage, etc An extended discussion of radio demonstrates the evolution from a reluctance to intrude into domestic sanctity through a variety of increasingly noisy and obvious techniques The funnies for at, seen by any spokesmen as the nadir of utter mindlessness and low taste, was accepted as a necessary evil, fearing that consumers would not accept serious advice without a "dream world of frivolity and fantasy".

But art direction and style involved far sore than just imitating other popular media for Is Art was seen as critical for its abilities to speak a language of emotion to less literate populations, to finesse the counterarguing that words invite, and to convey dense images rich in meaning As happened again in the 1960s, advertising embraced diverse styles of modern art forms, ultimately to retreat to sentimental realism, but photographic styles were dramatically altered in this period Use of color and styling played an important role in the general merchandising strategy, and not just the formatting of ads Product lines were extended into multiple colors and the concept of integrated aesthetic ensembles were promoted in an amazing diversity of products; the obvious fashion items, of course, but also appliances, utensils, room decor and even cameras, plumbing fixtures, and cellar boilers This challenged traditional values of permanence and practicality, values held by the industry as well as the population, values whose reappraisal was obvious in coined phrases like "progressive obsolescence" and "creative waste".

All of the preceding material is very well researched and convincingly presented, but to my mind the remainder of the book is Marchand's strongest contribution, his analysis of advertisements as "social tableaux" These are seen not as mirrors of reality so much as of aspirations, ideology and the presumptions and biases of the ad writers through whose minds the images have been refracted Examining both the context of activities and the roles of the multiple people portrayed, sensitively interpreting both text and visuals, the next chapters discuss the social roles of family members, the "great parables" and the visual cliches and then how these parables and cliches were revised during the depression

Ads gave more veneration to the "smart set, in the know" than is now common Other minorities, like ethnics or the elderly, appear infrequently and usually in pronounced stereotypes The greatest amount of display and information is on the family unit, with men and children narrowly cast as the businessman (not working man) and as the hope of the future respectively Women's roles were far more variegated, but still domestic in focus The range of behaviors modeled was from decorative object, to club woman, to fussy parent, to the quite common metaphor of wife as domestic executive purchasing agent All of this is still seen and studied in wore contemporary materials

Not yet well demonstrated in contemporary studies is the analysis of common meta-themes, the great parables presented repeatedly by advertising to for a secular logic for living The Dost prevalent are the following parables

"the first impression," tragedies of manners that projected a persistent critical judgment by myriad others;

"democracy of goods", and its negative counterpart the "democracy of afflictions" which conveyed similarities of ConsumptiOn styles and opportunities between classes quite different in wealth and political power;

"civilization redeemed", that would restore the via and vigor that Nature intended, counteracting either decadence or the stresses of high strung modern situations;

"the captivated child", a reflection of popular theories that companionship and sweetened temptations were family management tools superior to coercion and discipline

These parables, especially first impressions and the captivated child, were certainly metaphoric truths for the ad industry and must therefore be seen at least in part as projections from their job experience_

The visual cliches, the ichnographic representations are manifest in the display of poignant moments, entranced and worshipful gazing, heroic proportionings, enshrinement of objects in radiant beams, distorted perceptual angle and various other art techniques The common cliches were

"Executive dominion," viewed through expansive windows overlooking miniaturized scenes;

"family circles", where harmony and nostalgia occur in soft focus;

"heavenly future" urban landscapes, of radiant alabaster cities;

"pristine bucolic villages," whose solitary steeples symbolize a social harmony with spiritual depth

"Advertising in Overalls" covers the modifications of these parables, visual cliches and ad style more generally, during the depression This is interwoven with information about the early ineffective attempts to use advertising to counteract the psychological impact of the crash and the emergence of new agencies with an associated shift in style in both copy and layout Except for trace remnants, the elite effete styles seen in the 1920s give ground to hardboiled, shirtsleeve copy styles of "buckeye simplicity " Art shows strained determination in clenched fists and faces and layouts become bolder, colder, cluttered and literally blacker, dense with ink But style changed more than substance as copy premises were familiar The advertising parables were slightly revised, primarily increasing their severity The importance of captivating children to eat and study well, for example, was made vivid with threats of skinniness leading to social mortification and the "unraised hand" predicating future failure All of this was underscored with a "failed fathers" subtheme The trade press discloses self-flagellation, pep talks, heroic portrayals of men fighting with their backs to the wall, and inspirational messages of mutual reassurance, holding out images of hope for themselves as well as their economic community

The last chapter, the "therapeutics of advertising," recapitulates and synthesizes the main themes with fresh examples, citations and arguments Assessing probable effects, as distinct from the industry's claims of importance, Marchand examines how advertising exposes audiences not just to product attributes but also to standards of taste, social correctness and potential psychological satisfactions; a schooling of sorts that provides a language, both visual and verbal, that aids the assimilation into a modern culture of high technology, complex economic and social relationships, and urbane sophistications The integrating themes are urbanity, complexity and the problem of scale; proliferating choices and the vacuum of advice; and the re-personalization of American life

Attitudes Toward Objects

Another historical study demonstrates how a semiological content analysis of advertisements can be informative about the relationship people have to the objects advertised This helps us understand the materialism on our culture by tracing the evolution of attitudes and affect presumed and displayed in the ads Leiss et al (1986) write about advertising from a communications orientation, greatly enriched by its historical perspective An eclectic analysis theoretically, their study also draws heavily on anthropological concepts In summarizing their work, they note four eras during the twentieth century, within which there are different cultural frames for goods This periodiziation, like all such historical periodizations, is a simplism that defines what is distinctive or emergent in each era while generalizing over any exceptions and cases which echo previous for s or presage for s to become more common at later dates

They observe that advertising tactics evolved during the twentieth century through four identified phases, spanning roughly two decades for each phase While this is not totally consistent with more detailed analysis of changing tactics (Pollay 1985), the trends identified are unmistakable Ads were at first informative, descriptive of product attributes and the inherent utilities In the 20s and 30s ads became more symbolic, with portrayals of prototypical elites shown with the products as props to a successful life After the second world war, ads became more personalized, promising consumer gratifications in an intimate manner of a confidant More recently, lifestyle advertising displays people and places, but also an attitude through techniques of film editing and use of sound tracks The e four periods are identified as displaying a cultural attitude toward goods as idolatry, iconology, narcissism and totenism.

Since these terms are unfamiliar to most consumer researchers, some elaboration is in order Idolatry is the chosen typification of the period 1890-1925 because the great bulk of ads in this era were messages which convey a tone of veneration of products This was reflective, perhaps, of the awe induced by the abundances of rapidly expanding productive capacities in the land The sales strategy was direct and "rational", describing the products and their qualities, linking these to common sense advantages such as saving tine, money or energy The texts are often dispassionate and elaborately reasoned, presumptive of audience intensity of interest and willingness to read great quantities of advertising copy Manufacturers displayed abundant pride in their lavish descriptions and art work used a number of cliched portrayals of putting products on pedestals, in halos, or in frames that elevate the product and its apparent stature Ad copy turns around theses of status, family, social authority and a kind of "white magic" wherein the products seen to capture or control some potent by vaguely specified forces of nature

Iconology typifies the period from 1925-1945, they argue, as the symbolic properties of the product come to dominate the utilitarian properties in the advertising Presentations no longer focused on the manifest properties or appearances of the good, or on allegations about the personal needs The earlier denotative discourse become subordinated to a more expansive connotative discourse "rooted in suggestion, metaphor, analogy and inference (Leiss, 1986, p 284) " The focal point shifts from the object to the person as intended user, but only part way The goods are still icons with captured qualities, such as cars symbolizing modernity, soaps symbolic of family integrity, shoes signifying sobriety or status Similarly, the art work used exemplars of reigning social values, not typical consumers, showing a "class, not mass" appeal The ads themselves display a system of meanings far sore than they evoke or represent feelings These were not a psychologically sophisticated set of productions, effective because they induce affect Instead, products and person displayed seem frozen in time and space and reader involvement and identification is relatively passive

With the narcissism phase, 1945-1965, the focal point moved closer to the person/viewer and brings emotion more clearly into view The discourse displays greater psychological depth, and in its portrayals of the inner most regions of the psyche, the meaning of products were presumably sore likely to resonate for the reader and to become internalized Consumers were encouraged to consider in sore intimate direct teras what the products would do for them personally and selfishly Ads offered products as parts of a total personality, and the art style showed faces gazing directly at the reader to create identification It's interesting to note that this advertising format predates the cultural attention to the "me generation" identified in the 1970s The themes of narcissistic advertising were self transformation toward glamour, romance, sensuality and the "black magic" of being able to control the perceptions and attitudes of others towards ones self

Totenism is the last phase they identify This terr is chosen because totemic objects constitute a code of social meanings, providing for the "signification and valuation of personas, occasions, functions and situations (ibid , p 295) " In this period, features of previous for s of advertising are recalled and synthesized, such that utility, symbolism and narcissism are aggregated under products as signifiers Consumption is meant to be a spectacle, a public enterprise, with the products and serving as enables and badges for social collectives, what Boorstin (1973) identified as consumption communities, or what we more commonly see as lifestyle groups At tires the brands or trade arks are totally abstracted from the products and literally worn as badges of identification by consumer citizens Today's products serve as sources of identity, with clan membership purchasable in the democratic marketplace so that anyone who chose can wear the props of "a macho an" or "a yuppie" or the any highly fragmented groups such as joggers, bicycle racers, windsurfers, etc All that's required is buying the correct gear, whose meaning is conveyed through its advertising and use of symbols Consistent with this group related consumption pattern, the ads emphasize friendships, groups and leisure social activities, with the emphasis on an activity


These three studies demonstrate some of the variety of approaches possible in historical studies and the various inferences that can be made The analysis of trade concepts of human nature shed light on the intellectual history of the field of consumer behavior, the growing realization among advertisers of their capacity to influence consumers choices and perhaps, the changing nature of the average citizen in the increasingly consumption focused society The analysis of advertising for a particular era to identify the meta-themes in co' on usage specifies that parables for living that advertising was promoting among the population, and a series of such studies would be a wonderful history of modern culture The analysis of themes and tactics of advertisements over a long time span permits the identification of macro trends, such as the slowly changing relationship of consumers and the goods that they own and use These changes impact what kinds of goods are sought, what criteria of employed in choices and how these goods are utilized - in short everything that effects their meaningfulness


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Boorstin, Daniel (1973), The Americans The Democratic Experience NY Random House.

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Fox, Stephen (1984), The Mirror Makers A History of American Advertising and its Creators NY William Morrow.

Leiss, William, Stephen Kline and Sut Jhally (1986), Social Communication in Advertising Persons Products and Images of Well Being NY Metheun.

Marchand, Roland (1985), Advertising the American Dream Making Way for Modernity 1920-1940 Berkeley University of California Press.

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