Sourcing Elitist Attitudes in Early Advertising From the Archives

ABSTRACT - This paper is an historical search for the source of elitist bias in advertising using research from J. Walter Thompson Company archives. Condemnation of popular media and audiences echo from early agency documents. By the 1920s advertising messages conveying upper class predilection begin setting the tone for how Americans should perceive themselves. Managerial values are reflected in advertisements that resonate from snobbery consistent with their own class-consciousness. By exploring the early dissemination of such sentiments as agency philosophy we find that contemporary invectives wielded by academics are not the only voices disparaging popular culture, consumers and advertising.


Barbara Olsen (2000) ,"Sourcing Elitist Attitudes in Early Advertising From the Archives", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 295-300.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000      Pages 295-300


Barbara Olsen, SUNY Old Westbury


This paper is an historical search for the source of elitist bias in advertising using research from J. Walter Thompson Company archives. Condemnation of popular media and audiences echo from early agency documents. By the 1920s advertising messages conveying upper class predilection begin setting the tone for how Americans should perceive themselves. Managerial values are reflected in advertisements that resonate from snobbery consistent with their own class-consciousness. By exploring the early dissemination of such sentiments as agency philosophy we find that contemporary invectives wielded by academics are not the only voices disparaging popular culture, consumers and advertising.


Marketing’s influence on consumption is well grounded (Ewen 1976; Fox 1984; Lears 1994; Marchand 1985; Peiss 1998; Pollay 1985; Schlereth 1991; Schudson 1984; Strasser 1989) as is the legacy of advertising creating media dynasties (Damon-Moore 1994; Garvey 1996; Scanlon 1995). The historical effect of learning to consume forged interlocking synergies connecting marketing and all forms of media with an evolving popular culture that has been defined as "...entertainment that is produced by the culture industries, composed of symbolic content, mediated widely, and consumed with pleasure" (Fowles 1996, p.11). Popular culture as opposed to high culture has been derided as an intellectual wasteland (Bloom 1987; Horkheimer and Adorno 1972; MacDonald 1957; Marcuse 1964; Packard 1957) that is perpetuating the stupor of the masses who are increasingly dependent on media entertainment (Postman 1985). Over the twentieth century a transformation did occur in how Americans lived that was increasingly driven by consumption defined by popular culture and this should be analyzed more closely without derision. This paper follows suggestions from Scott (1994) and Kover (1995) to look more closely at copywriters’ agendas and the values they impart to audiences since "Values are the core of the advertising message... " (Pollay and Gallagher 1990, p.364).

Many current studies of advertising images suffer from misconceptions about the conditions under which advertisements are actually invented, tending to underestimate the impact of personal agendas, assumptions, and philosophies on the final text (Scott 1994).

By looking at early agency records we are able to view how advertised goods over the twentieth century became loaded with meaning on how to live an upwardly mobile modern life. As early as 1905 Calkins and Holden proclaim (p. 7-8),

It may be doubted if any other one force, the public school system, the church and the daily press excepted, is acquiring so great an influence as advertising. To it we largely owe the prevalence of good roads, ... sanitary underwear, water filters, hygienic waters, biscuit wrapped in moisture-proof packages, and breakfast foods at low prices, well prepared. These are only a few of the things which the public has been taught to use, to believe in and to demand. ...They buy, believe and think the things that the advertiser wants them to buy, believe and think.

Lears’ notes, "Ad men realized that, by dramatically unveiling an appealing world of abundance, they had helped to create a new set of norms defining high-level consumption as the 'standard of living’" (1984, p.364). Holt and Mulvey contribute a new research stream with a "cultural theory of advertising" by contesting that ads contain meaning. Any advertisement comes to mean anything only through audience interaction (1997, p.98). Similarly, using Hodder’s (1994) guide to archival interpretation, meaning "does not reside in a text but in the writing and reading of it" that is "always socially embedded" (p. 394). My motivation in this research is to explore how advertising is socially embedded in class dynamics. As advertising "...reflects only certain attitudes, behaviors and values... that serve the seller’s interests" (Pollay and Gallagher 1990, p. 360), I searched the J. Walter Thompson Co. advertising archives (henceforth JWT) from the 1910s-30s for how managerial attitudes, in historical context, informed early advertising. While Lears (1994) researched the JWT archives and also found executives and copywriters projected their own problems on the ads they created, most notably, child rearing, keeping up-to-date and "status anxiety" (p.382), a precise examination of how executives’ values infiltrated emulative advertising remains unexplored. In particular, the research question addressed is how do executives’ personal gendas influence advertisements’ becoming voices of authority to create and alter consumer behavior?


Research was collected from two visits to the Duke University Library, which contains all the archives of J. Walter Thompson’s advertising dating to the 1880s. Particularly I researched in the "Minutes of the Meetings," verbatim accounts recorded from 1916 to 1938 and in account product history files. Thousands of documents were photocopied for later analysis. From this period, emotional copy appeals emphasizing snobbery and fear, as well as honesty and sincerity, become prominent to sell various products. Many readings of minutes from meetings and associated product histories were reviewed for correlation with snob sentiment. By using a hermeneutical analysis (Hodder 1994, p.398) I historically situate and interpret JWT copywriter elitist attitudes that correlate with a JWT copy category called the "Snob Appeal" ("The Snob Appeal," by Frances Maule, The J. Walter Thompson News Bulletin, No. 96, March 1923). Early sales messages for seminal brands were laden with emulation and ostracism to keep up with "modern" times. Situated between the great wave of immigrants near 1900 and the boom of the 1920s and the bust of the depressed 1930s, social identity became more firmly class defined. A perusal of magazines collected from this era revealed both ads and articles reflecting class consciousness. Early promotional appeals act as a window on how citizenry were supposed to look, feel, and behave at home and in society. Many themes established then resonate in our ads and cultural values today.


What suasion converted the first generation to mass produced goods? Marchand (1990) suggests social historians plumb business archives for research data (p. 108):

Historians seeking to observe historical phenomena through the lenses of cultural anthropology need only to observe that the greater part of the pageantry, ritual and iconography of American culture in the twentieth century has been generated by major business corporations to recognize the pertinence of business archives to their examination of the roles and meanings of such cultural practices.

J. Walter Thompson established his firm in 1878 beginning with a staff of 1,200 instructed to focus on magazines because women bought most of the goods and were magazine readers (Howard Henderson, Vertical Files Information Center, JWT Advertising Archives, Duke University Library). Thompson began "The Thompson Method" to make better ads. He said, " even before a line of advertising is issued the plan of publicity should be carefully mapped out" (The Thompson Blue Book on Advertising 1904-1905, p.10, JWT Archives, Duke University Library). He also wanted precise product copy with an illustration to "demonstrate, without a word being said, their everyday value. ...It practically sells the goods before buyers enter the store" (p.14). Thus by "Attacking the brain from a different direction, it often finds a vulnerable spot to impress the mind" (p.13).

In 1908 Thompson hired Stanley Resor from Proctor & Gamble where he created brand names and targeted instructional ads for middle and lower classes to parody the rich (Fox 1984, p.81). A Yale graduate (1901) influenced by Sumner and Darwin, he also appreciated research statistics. During the 1910s "marketing" came to stand for "commerce," trade," and "distribution" (Kreshel 1990, fn 19, p.90), and Resor began applying "scientific" management to professional "marketing" for clients. Resor’s logic wasbased on "...laws of human behavior which could be discovered through 'scientific’ investigation, and a redefinition of advertising as a marketing tool" (Kreshel 1990, p. 81-82). His "science" by 1912 took the form of the Thompson T-Square approach. Before beginning any ad the JWT staff had to consider five pertinent questions regarding a new campaign: 1. What are we selling? 2. Whom are we selling? 3. Where are we selling? 4. When are we selling? 5. How are we selling? (Vertical Files, JWT Archives, Duke).


In 1916 Resor bought the agency from Thompson, assumed presidency, and with co-worker Helen Lansdowne (later his wife) perfected marketing research as an advertising tool. In 1920 Resor hired James B. Watson, behavioral psychologist, to help legitimate advertising. Watson remained a consultant until the 1960s. At the 1935 exhibition of the Montreal Advertising Club, Watson suggests how advertising works (John. B. Watson, "Influencing the Mind of Another," 1935, np, Publications File, JWT Archives, Duke University Library). In particular, Watson knew the stimulus should be emotional and it should be integral to the agency’s interpretation of what the product would represent to the consumer. He stressed:

The IDEA is what makes advertising go. It must be a single simple idea that touches both human need and human emotion. Everything else is secondary. Only EMOTIONAL IDEAS get under people’s skin and bring action!

Executives at JWT "positioned" products (before the term became popular) by focusing brands with emotional appeals to particular audiences. The T-Square Plan articulated that advertising focus on a "proposition" to generate sales. Believing women were the shoppers, since the 1910s JWT had a "Woman’s Department of women writers" for those products that had particular appeal to women. These women knew how to write about interests shared with other women. They made field trips to stores looking for the Idea, pretending to shop while chatting with clerks and shoppers to get raw material for copy (JWT Accounts, Plans, 1941, Vertical Files, JWT Archives, Duke University Library). In 1916 Resor began educational forums for agency staff and clients that were more than inspirational gatherings. These lectures (often by female copywriters) provided insight on the public with histories of clients’ brands and instructions for advertising execution.


Weekly meetings were where executives’ prejudices were aired for instructional purposes and their values influenced the authority and direction advertising would take. During the 1920s and 1930s advertising messages relating class sentiment begin setting the tone for how the American public should perceive themselves. Lears (1994, p.196) notes that ad executives by the late 1920s and 1930s became " extraordinarily privileged elite, increasingly elevated above and isolated from the concerns of ordinary Americans." Resor and his executives were white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants, educated in ivy league schools of the Northeast. Residing in comfortable suburbs of Connecticut and Westchester, they wrote from their own point of view, selling their own values, biases and aspirations. In meetings we hear executives criticize the masses’ "low" intelligence level and advocate the easy manipulation of women by stirring their emotions.

Resor, as director of this executive elite, chose to portray social climbing in ad campaigns because it was a familiar notion. Listen as JWT executive Wallace Boren gloats to his peers about the irony of their status regarding their sales efforts(Wallace Boren, "Bad Taste in Advertising," JWT Forum, Copy Trends Staff Meeting, Jan. 7, 1936, p.6, JWT Archives, Duke University Library):

While 5% of all homes have servants, 66% of our writers are blessed with domestics. Only one in eight does his or her grocery shopping; half buy their own drug supplies and about 60% shop in department stores. The men writers are virtually unanimous in their agreement that shopping is something to avoid entirely. All this in an agency that depends on the retail sale of staple consumer goods to the masses for its principle income!

We find great concern for how to write to those with low intelligence. The agency relied on government data obtained during W.W.I where the US Army calculated the average citizen’s IQ as that of a fourteen year old (JWT Forum, "Apology for Today in Advertising," by William Day, December 7, 1937, p.5, JWT Archives, Duke University Library). The creative problem was whether to write "up" in a literary journal style or "down" in the "True Story" magazine format, or use the comic strip (around since the 1890s) genre in an ad. William Esty, who joined the agency in 1925 as a Representative to guide client decisions (he left in 1932 to found his own agency) delivered five presentations on ad copy in 1930. In Esty’s second speech (Group Meeting, September 30, 1930, "General Talk on Copy," by William Esty, JWT Archives, Duke University Library) he says, women are important to advertisers not just because they are shoppers in control of increasing amounts of money, but because "they are studying and restudying values and haven’t come to any conclusions yet but are in a more or less chaotic condition of mind. When minds are unsettled it is a good era for politicians and for advertising people..." (p.7). Esty thought he knew the audience and continues, "We have got universal literacy without very much accompanying judgment; people are eager and anxious to be told what to do and how to do it and when to do it, all of which is very good for advertising" (p.8). He further instructs the creative staff to (p.11-12): what the mob reads, understand what the mob likes; certainly go to the movies very frequently... run of the mill movies because ...the people in Hollywood have found the greatest common denominator of all humanity...

We say the Hollywood people are stupid, the pictures are stupid: What we are really saying is the great bulk of people are stupid and personally I believe, if you are going out to trade with the natives you take along coral beads, or calico or whatever they like and not fight with bookshelves or anything unless you are trying to improve them. I think that the improvement of the human race is for scientists, educators, etc.; I don’t look upon it as a function of advertising where clients spend money trying to raise the level of intelligence of the country, even if it could be done.

Esty rationalizes the reader is more the "audience represented by the New York Daily News" and lower and middle class women from cities and towns rather than rural. To reach this group, he suggests "narrative advertising" connected to morals, marriage, and romance in which an episode demonstrates the product in use from the beginning and end with "what her husband said afterwards, etc." (Group Meeting, 9/30/1930, p.15, JWT Archives, Duke University Library). He suggested ads offer women who live "menial" and "sordid" lives the same "luxury," "love," and "lackeys" that movies provided patrons.

JWT executive William Day, who worked at the agency from 1924 until 1941 as head of the copy department and later Director of the agency, was obsessed about the perceived low intelligence level of the American public. In a leture to clients from Standard Brands (Staff Meetings, Standard Brands Sales Training Class Lecture, by William L. Day, Fourth Class, May 1, 1931) he provides his agenda for eugenics to cure low intelligence. After detailing the social and genetic life of a bee colony, Day lectures the class about Mendel’s Law of Breeding to pass on better traits. Incredibly, he says "If one had a standard for human beings... any competent animal breeder would guarantee that inside of twenty generations such a human could be produced by exactly the same principles of breeding used today for cattle or horse" (p.9). The problem he was addressing was the need to make advertising understandable for easier sales (p.11):

What we are all struggling with is this very bad reasoning capacity in the mass public. We have nothing to work with except a public vast and inert and regulated by emotion plus a very embryonic and weak reasoning faculty.

Years later in another talk to staff (JWT Forum, "Apology for Today in Advertising," by William Day, Dec. 7, 1937, JWT Archives, Duke University Library) Day complains about the increasing survival rate of "'inferiors’.... reproducing their kind’" who become their advertising audience (p.2). Day makes the point that from 1919 to 1937 the Daily News captured a daily circulation of 1,718,217 compared to the Times 515,343 with "lurid pictures, comics, gossip and very sketchy presentations of news" (p.5). Magazines carrying news of the world and serious cultural commentary declined in number. Day concluded editors of magazines and newspapers did not provide proper political and cultural news worthy of enlightening the general public. Instead there was a dumbing down with popular magazines, tabloid newspapers, radio soap operas, and movies designed to entertain rather than educate. He said advertising had to follow the formula designed by these entertainment industries.


The "Snob Appeal" has been attached to many products since the 1920s. Resor ("Personalities and the Public: Some Aspects of Testimonial Advertising" by Stanley Resor, pp. 2-5, Weekly Meeting, March 28, 1929, Vertical Files, JWT Archives, Duke University Library) interprets public fascination with emulation:

There are three other basic reasons why people like to read about other people. One is curiosityBlove of gossipBdesire to know 'how the other half lives.’ ...The spirit of emulation is another reason... We want to copy those whom we deem superior in taste or knowledge or experience. The desire to emulate is stronger in women than in men... It enables her to become princess or movie queen by using the cold cream or toilet soap they recommend.

Finally, people are eternally searching for authority... the public hunger for personalities is so insistent that no successful editor dare to ignore it. ...every publication of large circulation relies on personalities to secure and hold readers, it is obvious that the public will relish personalities... employed in advertising.

JWT began using testimonial ads in 1923, but by 1930 the format was subject to such abuses that the Federal Trade Commission began regulation. Responding to this , JWT stated that "In preparing personality advertising for our clients, it is our practice to satisfy ourselves that any person who executes a testimonial is a bona fide user of the product endorsed, and that no false statement of experience is embodied in the testimonial" ("Personality Advertising and the FTC," Memo, p.2, Vertical Files, Testimonials, JWT Archives, Duke University Library). Nuances of such protective terminology appear after 1930 regarding this genre of dvertisement.

Silk underwear, coffee, perfumes, garments and automobiles, all were situated in settings designed to entice the "public masses" to want to be like the people in the ads (who were like the people who wrote the ads). For instance, a JWT publication states, some advertised goods could be used by "Ladies who go about from week-end party to week-end party, who breakfast in bed in fascinating lace negligees and who are shown in the art work as waited upon by maids of faultless elegance (who) must surely command the best" (News Bulletin No. 96, March 1923, p.12, JWT Archives, Duke University Library). Writers knew the emulative snob appeal was restricted to products suited to a lifestyle approach, not for molasses and flour (pp.13-14),

Used with discrimination, however, the snob appeal is one of the very best bets. It stands up under the final test of any appeal in that it gets a response from a fundamental and universal human instinctBthe instinct that has been called 'the will to be above.’


Copy in the 1910s and 1920s sold an "idea rather than a product" as the Pond’s example demonstrates (Information Center Records, Case Studies partial list of JWT Clients 1920s, pp1-21, JWT Archives, Duke University Library). The earliest ad for Pond’s Extract from 1882 expressed "The Wonder of Healing! Subdues Inflammation, Controls Hemorrhages. Cures Catarrh, Rheumatism, Neuralgia, Diphtheria, Sore Throat, Hoarseness, Toothache, Earache, Piles, Sores, Wounds, Bruises, Burns, Inflamed or Sore Eyes, Female Complaints, Scalds, Sprains, &c., &c...." typical of patent medicines of the day. In 1911 an additional product "Vanishing Cream" was directed to women to condition the skin. By 1917 Pond’s Extract Company, with help from Resor, promoted both Cold Cream and Vanishing Cream with an idea "...that the skin needs two creams..." Ads instructed how and when to the use both oily Cold Cream to cleanse and greaseless Vanishing Cream to replenish and hydrate, along with a coupon for free samples. The 1917 ad in Photoplay Magazine has an illustration showing two women admiring their skin while holding jars in their hands, a recommendation by a medical doctor and endorsements by two famous film stars. Each star proclaims:

Billie Burke of "Gloria’s Romance" fame, whose skin is envied by everyone, says: "No one appreciates Pond’s Vanishing Cream more than I." (and) Marion Davies, the beautiful favorite starred in the motion picture "Runaway Romany" says "Now that I use Pond’s Vanishing Cream, I don’t see how I ever got along without it."

A scientific medical authority recommending how to use Pond’s creams and two film stars who use the products convince that these creams will successfully transform the consumer beyond beauty to romance, fame and new happiness. By 1929 an ad (Pictorial Review August, p.63) has the headline "Distinguished in the Society of Five Nations, They Trust Their Beauty to the Same Sure Care," framed by portraits of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Lady Astor, Countess Howe and the Duchess de Gramont among other elites. A McCall’s ad of November 1930 (p.35) has a full photo with headline, "Mrs. Reginald Vanderbilt ..Paris acclaims her beauty and her chic." While the 1917 ad used actresses and medical authority to sell, the 1929 and 1930 ads use social status to sell.

Another brand in the making during this period is Lux Soap powder. Its name derived from "luxurious" and records state the agency wanted it to be "...synonymous with a kind of product. Lux is not merely a flake soap, but a thing in itself, like Vaseline or Kodak." Lux and Simmons alo use emulation and build on snobbery as ad appeal.


JWT received the account for Lux laundry flakes in 1916. It was the first flaked soap to be used in the US where powders were already established (Lever Bros. Account History, February 11, 1926, JWT Archives, Duke University Library). Initially the copy was educational. Later it was built on the idea linking it to magic, mystery and "synonymous with fashion" because, "Fashion and style, always belonging to the upper class, were becoming the prerogatives of the middle class." By 1919 Lux was directed to fine fabrics and shown in use by "the French maid" (Creative Staff Meeting, May 25, 1932, p.4-6, JWT Archives, Duke University Library). Still being sold in the 1930s when economic depression influenced more fearful ads, a March 1933 Woman’s Home Companion ad portrays a distressed woman alone with three men obviously discussing her from afar. The headline says "She has 'IT’ but not what you think." The copy explains that "Fastidious women don’t risk offending in this way. They Lux underthings after every wearing... it’s so quick and easy!" So, women should "avoid offending" with odor and keep social grace with Lux. In the early 1920s Lux for laundry was redefined for dishwashing. The dishpan was a new market without having to change the product or packaging (Newsletter No.70, March 12, 1925, p.3, Series Appendix D, JWT Archives, Duke University Library). Copy stressed a biological necessity for using Lux to maintain the moisture producing oil sacs beneath the skin drained by other "kitchen soaps." In 1925, Lever Bros. introduced Lux Toilet form hand soap and used emulation showing photos of Hollywood actresses with the following headlines:

'For the loveliness that thrills, a girl must have exquisite smooth skin-’ say 39 Hollywood Directors, Nine out of ten screen stars use Lux Toilet Soap for smooth skin ... Do try itBtoday" (Pictorial Review, August 1929, p.68),

You can keep your skin lovely just as 511 Hollywood Actresses do ...

98% of the lovely complexions you see on the screen are cared for with Lux Toilet Soap ... Order several cakesBtoday (McCall’s Magazine, February 1930, p.87).

Three famous Stars of the Screen Loretta Young, Polly Ann Young, Sally Blane

Complexions that FascinateBeven in a snapshot enlargement ...

Of the 694 important actresses in Hollywood, including all stars, 686 use this fragrant white soap regularly! ... Why don’t you try the beauty soap of the starsBguard your complexion as the world’s most beautiful women do! (Women’s Home Companion, March 1933, p.97).

This ad strategy ran from 1928 through the 1960s and was based on many movie stars’ testimonials (perhaps used by stars only because Lever Bros. donated cartons of soap to every studio) stressing youth and beauty attributed to Lux.

The following Simmons mattress account demonstrates the perfected use of emulation and snobbery in its copy and illustrative appeal.


The Ad copy for Simmons mattresses and box springs from 1926 on, according to copy writer, Miss Casseres, was given a "'gossip campaign’" appeal, using society women who slept on a Simmons to do testimonials in ads that would satisfy a "hunger for romance and possessions of those people who have not had them" (Group meeting, Simmons Copy by Miss Casseres, October 21, 1930, pp.3-4, JWT Archives, Duke University Library). Casseres further notes:

We have given them a chance to peek into their bedrooms and see whether their ideas of furnishing are anything like those the rest of us have. Furthermore, we have shown them luxurious hoes which are beyond their experience... People read about them in the magazines and the newspapers. They see them in the movies. And they enjoy them in the ads. It contributes to their happiness to know about these things.

Each ad in the Simmons’ campaign (Lucille T. Platt papers, JWT Archives, Duke University Library) featured a prominent socialite such as Mrs. Belmont, Mrs. Pillsbury, or Mrs. Tiffany, offering testimonials next to their own beds in the most sumptuous surroundings. Context was very important in these ads as they convey all the finery of upper class living. For instance, in an ad campaign that ran in the October 1929 issues of Holland’s, Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Gardens, House Beautiful, Harper’s Bazaar, American Home, House and Garden, Vogue, Spur and American Hebrew, Mrs. John Sargent Pillsbury from her Palm Beach home "La Chosa" claims that "'For the well-ordered home I consider these mattresses (Simmons Beautyrest and (Ace Box Spring) an absolute necessity,’". Another ad is headlined, "Beloved and gracious member of Paris and Newport society, Mrs. Perry Tiffany" who in restoring her Rhode island homestead, The Perry, chose Simmons because as copy continues, "The Beautyrest is so comfortable, I felt I must have one... Such buoyancy, such amazing ease! And its trim lines and beautiful finish make it a handsome addition to a room of any period..." All ads in the campaign show photos of a socialite posing full figure in total elegance or a head shot with caption of her social pedigree. Photos of house interiors included bedroom with bare mattress set amongst luxurious furnishings, often with fireplace and chandelier.

The Lux and Simmons ads provided the "masses," our grandparents, with a slice of the other life most would only know from movies and magazines. We could wash our face with their soap and sleep in their bed. Emulation was a sedative provided to the laboring classes who learned over the generations to live vicariously. At the end of the twentieth century status is just one among many of the choices we have learned how to creatively reconstruct our identities through advertising.


The popular media and ads of the 1920s and 30s provided consumers stimulation that by the 1950s turned to delivering lifestyle goods that simulated in style a diversity of class sentiments. By the close of the 1990s American society is composed of multidimensional classes that its citizens interchange at will depending on the benefits any status’ consumption signify. By portraying lifestyle suggestions, readers of early ads could pretend after they had the advertised product. The meaning transfer McCracken (1986) articulates is completed in the transformation effect. However, McCracken (1985, p.153) cautions we should use "lifestyle’ with the precision it must have to make a real contribution to our understanding of experiments in the culturally constitutive powers of consumption." By "lifestyle," I mean contextual features people use to engage everyday lives and the values they attend to the things used to accomplish the practical and aesthetic tasks of living. The attribution of meaning to advertised products thus becomes a consequence of the consumption experience (Holt and Mulvey, 1997). Lavin (1995) noted how Irna Phillips’ soap opera scripts used story characters who became listeners’ "surrogate friends" while endorsing advertisers’ products (p.75) and offered "...a glimpse of the middle class lifestyle and the hope they had access to it" (p.87). Postmodern consumers use popular culture in much the same way forming ersatz relationships with media personalities for meaningful emotional rewards (Fiske 1989) and recent research shows we similarly bond with favorite brands (Fournier 1998, Olsen 1993, 1995).

Following a suggestion by Swaminathan, et al (1996), future research will ivestigate how an ad means in the historical context of its creation (Holt and Mulvey 1995). Since the unresolved issue whether advertising reflects or leads consumers is moot, we should "...understand how advertising styles and methods evolve and change overtime" (Swaminathan, et al 1996, p.54). Using archival and historical data, we should probe how styles, methods and ultimately how meaning in ads are linked to cultural contexts of creators and observers. Beyond snob appeal, JWT archives document the strategies behind other copy approaches contoured by the political economy of the early twentieth century. Researching ad meaning within historical contexts also necessitates an understanding of the distinctions in cultural capital (Holt 1998) between the "masses" and "elites" to ground analysis deeper in status, class and the uses of popular culture.

Following another path, we can also compare early copywriters with those of the 1990s to see how they differ. Kover (1995) found contemporary copywriters create copy using an "internal dialogue" with an "implied viewer" or they write to themselves or to another person who they imagine similar to themselves (p. 599-601). Kover’s copywriters perceived the (TV) advertising audience as "...drawn, humiliated by the defeats of the day, almost paralyzed with fatigue... living in a grim world deprived of much joy or meaning..." (p.599), similar to earlier perceptions of the "masses" leading "menial" and "sordid" lives. Kover notes "...each breakthrough approach reflected the personality of the individual copywriter and his or her way of dealing with others in everyday life," i.e., friendly, intellectual, (p.600). Elitist comparison between generations is salient. One significant comment made by a 1990s copywriter stressed, "'Creative people are not generally mainstream people ... we’re much trendier. We have higher incomes’" (p.601). This echoes Boren’s statement of irony when he noted that 66% of JWT’s copywriters had domestics. How much has really changed?


Socially embedded elitist values held by advertising managers of the 1920s and 30s inspired the snob appeal of Pond’s, Lux and Simmons ad campaigns. Perceiving ad meaning in the historical moment, the majority of upper middle class JWT copywriters, as reported, had maids and lived a style emulating the upper class. Thus, it appears that the writers transferred their own American dream to ads they wrote for the masses. Scott (1994) says we can interpret symbols in ads attributable to advertisers’ cultural learning, (p.271), but cautions pictures are used to "create fictions, present metaphors, or even mount a critiqueBand are not intended (or read) as faithful copies of reality in the first place" (p.260). The writers distinguished themselves from the masses by drawing lifestyle and intellectual boundaries. They knew the ads they created were possibilities for themselves, but were only fictions of fantasy for the poor.

It is hard to judge how the earlier generations responded to these and similar ads, however products were adopted in the early twentieth century that became permanent fixtures of extended families (Olsen 1995, 1999). According to one informant and her salesman, a Simmons’ Beautyrest is still considered the best mattress. Snob appeal lives on today in the symbolic meanings we attach to goods loaded with status image that do something to our self perception when we use them. Examples used in this paper show how upwardly mobile executives embedded their worldview in ads they wrote. Progress was defined by modernity and being modern meant having the best things that money could buy. Buying a Simmons got us closer to that fantasy and it still does today.


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Barbara Olsen, SUNY Old Westbury


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27 | 2000

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