Creating Mass Culture

Creating Mass Culture


Although radio advertising in the 30s did not change much from the previous decade, the sentiments behind the entertainment "sponsorship" relationship did. A move from "highbrow" programming to "lowbrow" could be identified as something of an over-simplification, for as radio's audience got larger and larger, the temptation for the "visitor in the living room" to impose himself more and more to sell products became irresistible for advertisers. In order to understand the change and radio's contribution to mass culture, the advertising the 20s must be briefly examined.

Much of the media, especially the new "plebeian" movie houses which were accused of being extraordinarily simplistic and a real threat to human intelligence by a great many cultural watchdogs, was under heavy scrutiny in the 20s. This was an era, argues Roland Marchand in Advertising the American Dream, when the American people were extremely open to suggestion: "By the 1920s advertisers had come to recognize a public demand for broad guidance- not just about product attributes, but about taste, social correctness, and psychological satisfactions...above all, people simply lacked reliable advice on how to live life at its best" (347). The Great Depression at the end of the decade only increased the widespread confusion in a complex world, and as a result any institution that attempted to sway public opinion fell under intense scrutiny. One would think that radio would have been the most criticized form of persuasion in the nation because of its unique ability to both reach an audience in the privacy of homes and to demand undivided attention from its listener. Radio advertisers, however, managed to dodge attack by creating a high-minded and virtuous system of programming.

The entertainment/commercial sponsorship system was created because advertisers were unwilling to interrupt their audience's privacy too much. Instead, sponsoring shows was considered a public service to the community, providing previously unconsidered viewpoints and inaccessible forms of culture to the entire nation, mostly in the form of classical music: one study indicated that in 1925, fifty percent of music listeners had a preference for classical music, where only ten percent had two years before. Marchand considers this sort of study dubious, writing that "on the flimsiest of evidence, advertising journals claimed radio's success in the elevation of popular taste" (90), but what is important in this argument is sentiment, not actual results. Radio philosophy included dignity and refinement from its programming, and it is easy to see why sponsorship of quality entertainments was the standard and not pesky "direct" advertisements.

The 20s, then, inaugurated radio and its advertiers' influence on mass culture, though not in a way one would expect: instead of creating a nation-sized consumer group, radio engaged in a semi-philanthropic practice. "Countless thousands," proclaimed David Sarnoff, the optimistic general of RCA, "whose musical experience had never transcended the phonograph and the local town band have learned to enjoy the music of a symphonic orchestra; vast numbers whose tastes had been limited to popular music have been initiated into opera" (Marchand, 90). Through a system of culturally uplifting music and educational shows, radio programmers hoped that the would help to create a new American people; though advertisers of course had some other motives, they felt that the best way to lend credibility to their products was to sponsor highbrow programs. Even among those who did not feel that advertisers should expected to keep the public's cultural standards high were quick to point out the educational capacity of radio: dramatization of actual occurrences, such as the "Light of the World" Bible show, were considered excellent sources of both learning and diversion.

Consulting different sources, however, uncovers the idea that advertising, by its very nature, cannot maintain a purely philanthropic core. "Advertising," writes Daniel J. Boorstin, "could not be understood as simply another form of salesmanship. It aimed at something new-- the creation of consumption communities...the advertisement persuaded groups of people that the item was well suited to the needs of all persons in the group. The advertisement succeeded when it discovered, defined, and persuaded a new community of consumers" (145). Boorstin's theory held out in the 30s: advertisers could no longer resist pursuing consumers more aggressively. The dramatic rise of radio listeners no doubt caused this shift, and radio programming became much more diverse, accommodating both highbrow and lowbrow tastes: Marchand describes this shift in a section titled "Entertainment Triumphs: the Descent into the Funny Papers."

Once again, the Lucky Strike Cigarette company is an excellent example of advertisers' attempts to create their own national consumption communities. Where once the company had been little more than a name that brought major symphony orchestras to the people, there suddenly appeared countless celebrity endorsements, sensuous dramatic scenes, attacks on competing products, and scare tactics: one advertisement featured Captain George Fried, who had made a heroic at-sea rescue, describing the enjoyment he got out of his Lucky after pulling men out of a wrecked freighter, and another featured warnings of the bloated paunches, triple chins, and "fat, clumsy ankles" that would come if people indulged in candy as a snack. "When tempted to over-indulge," the advertisers recommended, "reach for a Lucky instead." Now the personal nature of radio was fully employed: advertisers took advantage of the hold they had on their individual listeners and used every means of persuasion to make their product widespread. The new radio campaign worked magnificently, and as an experiment the company temporarily suspended all forms of advertising except for broadcasting. After two months, sales of Lucky Strike cigarettes increased by 47%. Mere sponsorship had become a thing of the past.

The result of this new campaign is obvious: the emphasis of radio advertising became product recognition and purchasing power. The idea of the brand-name was revolutionized: a popular "parlor game" of the day was correctly identifying radio slogans with the company that used them. In short, the modern consumer age was born: national recognition of products had never been possible before, with the small exception of the largest mail-order catalogs. A few years down the road, the radio would be supplanted by the television as technology and the psychology of advertising advanced, but today's all-American appetite for McDonald's and Levi's has its roots in the first unifying consumer experience: the radio.


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