Q & A with Advertising at War author Inger Stole

Advertising at WarInger L. Stole is an associate professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  She answered our questions about her book Advertising at War: Business, Consumers, and Government in the 1940s.

Q: What is the Wheeler-Lea Amendment that was passed in 1938?

Stole: The Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 had given the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) jurisdiction over advertising, but only in cases where one business used advertising to gain an unfair advantage over another.  This meant that the FTC lacked the authority to intervene on consumers’ behalf when they were wronged, even harmed, by false and misleading advertising.  Thus there was considerable momentum for stricter advertising regulation by the time of Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933.  In June of that year, a bill to amend the 1906 Food and Drugs Act was introduced in Congress.  The measure called for new labeling laws and mandatory grading of goods to help guide consumers in the marketplace.  It also sought to empower the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prohibit false advertising of food, drugs, or cosmetics.

Major manufacturers generally had no objection to a ban on false advertising, but their reaction to the proposed ban on the use of “ambiguity and inference” caused strong and adverse reactions.  It was exactly the use of clever advertising to create enough ambiguity for consumers to infer the desirability of one product over another, even if none existed, that drove most of the consumer industry, and thus much of capitalism in general.

This set the stage for a five-year legislative battle, with congressional hearings on several revised versions of the bill.  Helping the advertising industry’s cause was a set of well-developed public relations and lobbying strategies combines with considerable influence
over the commercial mass media. Few among the general public were fully informed about the issues at stake.  With each new version of the bill, industry concerns took the front seat, and the issue of consumer protection, which been the original impetus for the measure, gradually faded from the agenda.  Despite demands from consumer groups, New Dealers, and government regulatory agencies, advertisers survived the battle with surprising ease.  The Wheeler-Lea Amendment to the Federal Trade Commission Act was passed in 1938, but it only minimally affected existing advertising practices.  Although false advertising was banned, the bill did not outlaw the use of “ambiguity and inference” and the call for commodity grading never materialized into law.  Today, 75 years later, The Wheeler-Lea Amendment is still the reigning law on advertising in the US.

Q: Did it have the intended effect on the advertising industry?

Stole: Although the FTC managed to crack down on the advertising practices of some big national advertisers and slap them with rather mild fines, the mass media, with their
close financial ties to these manufacturers, did not publicize the cease-and-desist orders. Because of this, the lengthy appeals procedure might be well underway before the public ever learned, for example, that the FTC had found several advertising claims by Listerine antiseptic to be unsubstantiated or that it had ordered a stop to Helena Rubenstein’s claims that its “Eye Lash Grower Cream” would cause the lashes to grow and that one of its face powders would prevent skin blemishes.  The immediate and somewhat ironic result of the law on advertising copy was a tendency to glamorize products and employ indirect assertion.  Because it was relatively easy to check the truthfulness of verbal claims, advertisements relied more heavily on illustrations to get around the law.  A pictorial illustration could pass whereas a verbal presentation might not.  This practice revealed the shortcomings of the new law as well as its general failure to encourage advertisers to provide consumers with more factual information.

Q: How did the advertising industry come to support the U.S. war effort during the 1940s?

Stole: After having secured The Wheeler Lea Amendment as legislative victory, the advertising industry faced a set of new and severe challenges.  During the Great Depression, the advertising industry and its business allies, with strong support from the advertising-based news media, had stressed the importance of advertising as a tool for creating consumer demand and eventually getting the economy back on track.  By early 1940, with an impending war on the horizon, the argument was unraveling.  Raw materials for domestic consumer goods had quickly become in short supply, causing the government to impose rationing and price control.  Thus, for advertisers to promote products that were scarce or unavailable might have an inflationary effect and possibly cause black markets. Although desperate to keep their brand names before the public, the advertising industry  worried that product advertising might be viewed as problematic, if not downright unpatriotic, by the American public.

The government’s need for increasing revenues added to the industry’s concern.  Ever since the First World War, businesses had been allowed to claim their advertising as a tax deductible expense.  By all accounts this had the effect of dramatically increasing the amount of advertising that businesses did.  Now, however, considering the limited need  for advertising, advertisers faced the possibility of having this tax-deductible privilege revoked.  Moreover, in a period in which the government was begging, borrowing and taxing at unprecedented levels to support the war effort, the notion that businesses could deduct advertising expenses from their taxable income when advertising served no purpose was problematic.  In November 1941, a few weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, key members of the advertising industry met to discuss their dire situation. The meeting produced the outline of an industry-wide public relations program to protect  advertising.  The crucial idea was for the industry’s leading trade associations to establish a new group to advance the industry’s PR agenda.  Then, within weeks, America was embroiled in an all-out war.  Soon thereafter, and to the advertising industry’s surprise, the government’s newly created Office for War Information (OWI) approached the industry, asking for help in mobilizing popular support for its home front campaigns.

By early 1942, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) officially formed the Advertising Council Inc., which was renamed the War Advertising Council (WAC) between 1943 and 1945 and  positioned as a private adjunct to the government’s war information efforts, in part to protect the advertising industry from regulations.  Because the OWI had too small a  budget for the task at hand, it wanted the Advertising Council to serve as a de facto part of the OWI.

Q: Were the advertising efforts successful?

Stole: When war ended in 1945, the advertising industry believed it had done its patriotic duty and was not afraid to say so.  During the 1,307 days of war, it had encouraged the  American public to purchase more than 800 million war bonds and to plant 50 million victory gardens, as well as raising several million dollars for the Red Cross and the National War Fund Drives.  It had also fought inflation, recruited military personnel, spread information about a wide variety of salvage campaigns, and enlisted workers for industrial war-plants.  All in all, the (War) Adver­tising Council had been involved in more than 150 different home-front campaigns and, by its own estimate, had contributed more than $1 billion in time, space, and talent toward the war effort.

While the advertising industry proudly reminded the public of these contributions to the war effort, it was less likely to publicly discuss the PR rewards it had reaped from its war related activities.

Q: What were the long term postwar effects of the advertiser/politician relationship?

Stole: Largely as a result of the Advertising Council’s relentless work, the advertising industry enjoyed improved relations with the public as the war faded from view.  Moreover, and just as importantly; the intimate working relationship between industry, and government leaders continued into the postwar era, growing ever more congenial.  The Council continued its cooperation with the US government into the postwar era, working on campaigns to defend “American values” and capitalism at home and abroad, blurring the lines between industry goals and government concerns.

Q: What was the most interesting thing that you learned while researching the book?

Stole: Writing this book made me (increasingly) aware of the advertising industry’s political and economic impact.  To the extent that advertising is discussed in our contemporary society, it is a conversation that tends to focus on advertising’s symbolic nature; how certain advertising images help shape people’s views of themselves, other and society in general.  While interesting and important questions, they fail to address the issue of why we have the kind of advertising we do or why advertising, which after all is a regulated industry, has assumed such a central role in our political economy.  My work on Advertising At War has confirmed the importance of historical research to fill some of the gaps.

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