13 January 2012

Billboards Formulate Public Opinion

Buyways by Catherine Gudis, 2004, Excerpts

The American poster craze of the 1890s coincided with the rise of vocal opposition to billboard advertising as an immoral and corrupting influence. The increasing use of images of women in a variety of advertisements was central to the debate.

Other branches of the advertising industry were similarly engaged in self-regulatory and self-promotional efforts at the turn of the century, as they organized clubs and associations, rationalized their business, and sought to mitigate public criticism that advertising was untruthful and unproductive. Equally important was the articulation of the benefit of advertising to industry, to the economy, and to society itself, Advertising served as an educational and civilizing force, “teaching the masses not what to think but how to think, and thus to find out how to behave like human beings in the machine age.” Other proponents of advertising also claimed the “the right kind of advertising, the advertising of the right kind of goods, is one of the great factors of civilization.”

Marketers frequently describe the mass of consumers as either childlike or primitive in their intellectual and emotional development. Consumers had only instinctive and visceral reactions to stimuli. The masses, it was deemed, live in the present. They are open to impressions. The idea was that the “impression” made by the poster artist was immediate, superficial, lacking in depth, and that the mind was like a sensitive piece of film onto which images were imprinted with barely any time exposure.

The billboard industry had turned its sights on the consumer, and begun to recognize the importance of public opinion. It sought to prove that the industry had come a long way from the ad hoc, anarchic, and sometimes violent practices of its nineteenth-century forebears. In 1912, the association formally established an education committee whose task was to create a central network for public service campaigns using open advertising space. General Ulysses S. Grant, the Boy Scouts of America, and the merits of churchgoing were among the symbols of moral rectitude that filled the boards of 1914.

One 1928 Foster and Kleiser Company advertisement for the billboard industry illustrated this point. Using an authoritative quote from President Calvin Coolidge, it depicts the engines of industry churning out massed of identical packages, stick figures lined up and standing at rapt attention, mass consumers who are the commodities ready for distribution and sale. “The man who build a factory builds a temple,” pronounced Calvin Coolidge, while advertising man Bruce Barton’s parable of Jesus as a businessman topped the best-seller list of the decade.

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