At the end of the 19th century, advertising in America had limited social currency, and both businessmen and social thinkers were doubtful of the possibility of swaying public opinion on a grand scale. After all, up until that time, ads had most frequently been the tool of quacks and scam artists, used to sell patent medicines and snake-oil. To advertise was to give up one's reputation in polite society. Few respectable businessmen employed it. This skepticism and suspicion still had adherents as late as 1926, when Henry Ford cut his advertising budget to nearly nothing and declared "Cut it out; it's an economic waste and I never did believe in it" (Marchand, 7).

However, examples of the success of advertising continued to mount evidence in its favor during the first three decades of this century. The federal government successfully campaigned for war bonds, for conservation, and to enlist recruits during World War I. During the years between 1921 and 1927, national advertiser Maxwell House Coffee increased its magazine advertising budget from $19,955 to $509,000. By the time Ford made his comment in the late twenties, he was one of the last to doubt the power of a well-constructed campaign.

And yet, the image of the snake-oil salesman continued to persist in the public consciousness. While the economic power of ads was proven well before the 1930s, the social responsibility of the use of advertisements was still the subject of much criticism. Institutions built around advertising, such as the journal Printer's Ink, continued to strive to find ways to clean up its image and to convince the public that admen were respectable professionals on par with doctors and lawyers.

The fresh and distinctive look of European modernism would provide such institutions just the opportunity they needed to change the image and role of advertising. Futurism was spawned in 1909 when Filippo Marinetti published his manifesto in the Paris newspaper La Figaro. Marinetti celebrated the powerful, the dynamic, and the progressive aspects of the new Europe. He embraced industrialism and all its cold and indomitable power. Along with Futurism, the German Plakatsil, Russian Constructivism, Cubism, and even Impressionism combined to give the pictorial modern its distinctive feel. American art directors were quick to seize on the new European sensibility as a means of conveying a "class image" to their audience. Initially, this image was used to sell cars and jewelry to a wealthy audience. However, the class image eventually came to dominate the advertisers' own view of the American populace. Over time, the average American family presented in many advertisements became something that real Americans would have been hard pressed to find in their neighborhoods.

Thus, American business and European modernism struck a kind of deal. European designers such as Mehemed Fehmy Agha and Alexey Brodovitch flocked to America, drawn sometimes by money and sometimes by political asylum, and American designers such as E. McKnight Kauffer took much of their inspiration from Europe. Thus, the American advertising landscape became an avenue for great innovation and change, a place where the latest technology and the newest ideas in design commingled.