Selling America

Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows: Part 25

Selling America

This is Part 25 of a blog series titled “Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows.”
Although each entry in the series has some information and commentary that
can be of interest “standing alone,” each builds on information, concepts, and commentary
introduced in earlier entries in the series, and thus it is most effective to
read the material sequentially from the beginning.
Click here to go to the 
first entry in the series, Part 1

 

 

wiz

In the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie, the character known as “Oz the Great and Powerful” wasn’t the supernatural being he appeared to be. He was just an illusion made with the proverbial smoke and mirrors.

wizardcurtain

When he was separated from all his methods of illusion, the character played by Frank Morgan wasn’t imposing and fearful at all.

wizplain

Let me introduce you to someone else from back in that time period who also didn’t look powerful. He was short, plain.  In fact, some might say he appeared rather wimpy and ineffectual in person.

eddie

His name was Edward (“Eddie”) Bernays. But don’t let appearances fool you. Unlike Oz’s phony wizard, over a period of decades Eddie manipulated masses of people more powerfully than most men before or since.

Obviously, we know that looks can be deceiving.

eddieadolph

After studying Eddie’s life and accomplishments for the first time back in 2012, I came to realize that Eddie Bernays was one of those “most influential people you’ve probably never heard of.” (In fact, he was named one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century by Life magazine.) Although I don’t remember ever hearing or reading his name before 2012, ever since the first time I noticed it I seem to see it everywhere in my history studies now. He’s a little like the fictional “Forrest Gump” character, showing up unexpectedly in all sorts of settings.

gump

Back in his heyday Bernays was somewhere around the fringes when all sorts of big things were happening…pulling strings but choosing to stay out of the public eye personally.

You can see him in a pic at age 26 in France at the end of a line of people at the Paris Peace Conference that ended WW1. (He had been employed as part of the ground-breaking “Committee on Public Relations,” an outreach that had been created by the US government to influence public opinion to support US participation in the war. In other words, its job was “selling Americans on the war.” The creation of that outreach is considered by many to be the historical “birth” of the field of public relations—and modern advertising—in the US.)

Or here he is on the right, at age 50 at an event with Eleanor Roosevelt.

eddieeleanor

And it was indeed a long heyday—born in 1891, he died in 1995 at age 103!  Here he is in 1990 at about 99. Even then he was still giving interviews and talking about his career.

eddieold

So what did Eddie DO? He was, as one of his biographers called him, “The Father of Spin.

eddiespin

He is considered by many to have had the most historical influence of any one person in the creation of the modern role of the “Public Relations man.”

Eddie did “P.R.” Some claim he personally even coined the popular use of the term “public relations.” In fact, it seems he coined it because he had been involved in creating “propaganda” for the government. But he knew that term came with a lot of unpleasant baggage. If he was going to use the same methods to influence attitudes and choices of the general public in non-governmental spheres…out in the market place of goods and services…he couldn’t refer to his efforts as propaganda. He needed a less threatening, more benign term.

His field wasn’t just “advertising,” he would be very quick to point out if you called him an “Ad man.” The typical ad man, from Eddie’s point of view, was a fellow who badgered people into buying a product, usually with methods that emphasized, either truthfully or deceptively, the details of the alleged fine qualities of the product that made it superior to similar products, and what a great value it was for the price. This is what “advertising” typically meant in the early years of the last century when Eddie began his career. Like this information from a Sears Roebuck catalog of 1908 on rocking chairs.

chairs

This kind of “ad” was purely informational. Catalogs of the time were typically full of this type of advertising. It emphasized paragraph after mind-numbing paragraph of teeny print describing every excruciating detail of the bargain you were being offered, along with close-up photos or artist renderings of the item showing its every feature. Why?

Because the typical advertising man of the time was convinced that what people really wanted in order to make buying decisions was practical information, information they could use to make rational purchasing choices.

But you see—Eddie Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud! He had studied his uncle’s writings, and even arranged to have Freud’s “Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis” notes from 1915-1917 translated into English and published as a book in America, the first popular exposure American readers had to Freud’s theories.

Yes, Eddie knew all about the unconscious. He knew better than to think that the mass of humankind are coolly “rational beings.” In addition to the theories of his Austrian “Uncle Siggie,” Eddie was strongly influenced by the writings of the French author Gustave LeBron (who popularized the theory of “crowd psychology” with his 1895 book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind) and the British pioneering neurosurgeon Wilfred Trotter (who wrote a famous book in 1916 titled Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War.)

As a result of these influences, Eddie had been one of the first of his generation to realize—and act upon—the understanding that “persuading” people…to buy a product, to support a cause, to vote for a candidate…was much more effectively done by applying principles from psychology and psychiatry than by trying to “sell” it to them with a frontal assault on their “rational mind.”

Bernays had been acting on this understanding in his business career for barely a decade by 1923 when he wrote the very first book on the topic of Public Relations, Crystallizing Public Opinion. Listen to his opinion from that book about the ability for rational thinking of the common man:

The average citizen is the world’s most efficient censor. His own mind is the greatest barrier between him and the facts. His own ‘logic proof compartments,’ his own absolutism are the obstacles which prevent him from seeing in terms of experience and thought rather than in terms of group reaction.

Five years later, in 1928, he wrote another book on the topic, titled Propaganda.

eddiepropaganda

Listen to the “underpinnings” of his PR efforts on behalf of American businesses (as well as his role in “selling” more than one president to the public, the “selling” of more than one war to the public, the “selling” of much more…):

If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mindis it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.

 He went on to pontificate:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic [!!] society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

…We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.

He meant this to be encouraging! Otherwise, he insisted, there would be chaos and anarchy.

Does this sound all a bit creepily familiar? Perhaps that is because it was a well-known fact that Hitler’s Reich Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, was an admirer of Eddie’s writings. Yes, Crystallizing Public Opinion and Propaganda were in Goebbel’s personal library.

I remember a book I read called PR: A Social History of Spin. The author discussed how the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Dr. Josef Goebbels, was an ardent student of Mr. Bernays, despite the fact that Mr. Bernays was JewishGoebbels desperately wanted to meet Mr. Bernays and apparently sent numerous books to him to be autographed. We don’t know if Mr. Bernays autographed them, but Goebbels claimed that he did.

Goebbels, who had a PhD in philosophy (which is crucial in terms of understanding how he was able to understand Bernays and apply his writings in the way that he did), apparently had an even larger library on propaganda than Mr. Bernays and had not only read all of his books, but had largely memorized a good deal of them as well. Goebbels was able to utilize Bernays’ ideas on propaganda in a manner that was the most malicious and homicidal ever seen in the 20th century: to support the Final Solution. [Source]

 Eddie regretted this unwelcome connection when its significance became clear in later years, but didn’t take it as “criticism” of his theories—just an example of how they could be used by unscrupulous people. In the right hands … they were the “tools of democracy”!

In Eddie’s own hands they were tools over the years to promote a wide variety of products, ideas, people, causes, and even wars. His corporate clients had included, among many others, Procter & Gamble, the American Tobacco Company, the United Fruit Company (remember Chiquita Banana?), General Electric, Dodge Motors, and Knox Gelatin.

Causes he had helped promote included the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation (he was the one who encouraged them in about 1949 to shorten the name of the disease in their promotional materials to simply MS), the NAACP, and the fluoridation of water.

He helped with the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and Calvin Coolidge in 1924. He helped promote US entry into World War 1, the overthrow of the democratically-elected president of Guatemala in 1954, the interests of South Vietnam in the early 1960s. And he was the publicity director for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

1939fairposter

Even without Public Relations and Modern Advertising, the Industrial Revolution in America that began slowly before the Civil War and picked up speed throughout the ensuing decades up to the beginning of the 20th century had transformed the country to the point it was almost unrecognizable from its agrarian roots of the period of the Founding Fathers. Endless, ever-increasing production and consumption of goods had become “the way of life” of the land. Oh, there had been cyclical periods of economic upheaval in the last half of the 1800s. For instance, conditions during the Panic of 1893-1897—during the alleged “Gay Nineties”—were in many ways as bad or worse for some parts of the population than the Depression of the 1930s.

As a result of the panic, stock prices declined. 500 banks closed, 15,000 businesses failed, and numerous farms ceased operation. The unemployment rate hit 25% in Pennsylvania, 35% in New York, and 43% in Michigan. Soup kitchens were opened to help feed the destitute. Facing starvation, people chopped wood, broke rocks, and sewed by hand with needle and thread in exchange for food. In some cases, women resorted to prostitution to feed their families.  (Source)

But the country recovered, and by the time the Roaring Twenties began, optimism that ALL such economic problems were “behind us” was rampant among both business people and the public. America’s potential future seemed unendingly bright.

Businesses in particular were more and more confident that they would be able to use the new methods of Modern Advertising and Public Relations to build bigger and bigger markets. They would use psychology and subtlety to create “new wants and desires” in people for things they never knew they needed. One example:

 “You ask me what we need to win this war.
I answer tobacco, as much as bullets.”

Guess who said that, and when.

It’s a World War 1 quote, from General John J Pershing, leader of the US Expeditionary Force. And he wasn’t exaggerating.

Obviously, the boys in the trenches needed bullets. And food—here is a description of the rations they received, very similar to this later WWII ration:

rations

The reserve ration was first issued during the latter part of World War I to feed troops who were away from a garrison or field kitchen. It originally consisted of 12 ounces of fresh bacon or one pound of canned meat known as the Meat Ration – usually, corned beef. Additionally, two 8-ounce cans of hard bread or hardtack biscuits, a packet of 1.16 ounces of pre-ground coffee, a packet of 2.4 ounces of granulated sugar, and a packet of 0.16 ounces of salt were issued.

But Uncle Sam decided early on that bacon, bread, and coffee wasn’t enough to fortify the troops for battle.

There was also a separate “tobacco ration” of 0.4 ounces of tobacco and 10 cigarette rolling papers, later replaced by brand-name machine-rolled cigarettes.

And thus by the end of the war 14 million cigarettes a day were being distributed to the “doughboys.”

Before the Great War, men in America had been partial to pipes, cigars, and chewing tobacco. Smoking cigarettes was considered in many circles to be a sign of effeminacy. It was a habit affected by “dandies” maybe, but not “real men.” Still, tobacco—and its nicotine kick—was considered valuable in helping to calm nerves, and psychologically lighten hardships. With our men facing trench warfare, gas attacks, tanks, suffering, serious injury, and possible death, Uncle Sam considered the least he could do was provide them with the comfort of tobacco.

As it turned out, the easiest and most convenient form in which to distribute it and use it in the trenches was the cigarette. Thus the cigarette quickly lost its reputation as being for sissies.

doughboys

I didn’t understand until I looked it up a while back that the smoke from pipe tobacco and cigars had not traditionally been inhaled into the lungs. The type of tobacco used in cigars and pipes was (and evidently still is) very harsh on delicate tissue, and would immediately lead to coughing and gagging. The idea I guess is to kind of “roll around” the smoke in your mouth and then poof it out. (I found both “cigar smokers’ forums” and “pipe smokers’ forums” on the Internet where guys were discussing the process, and warning newbies not to inhale, but instead just “savor” the “flavors” of the tobacco in the mouth.) Thus nicotine would be absorbed primarily from the lining of the mouth.

But in 1913, just shortly before WW1, the RJ Reynolds tobacco company introduced the Camel cigarette.

The new Camels were made from a blend of different tobaccos, cured in a way which made them mild enough to allow the smoke to be deeply inhaled. This 1915 ad explained how different this “new” kind of cigarette was.

camels

Inhalation results in nicotine “speeding” to the brain. It wasn’t long before regular daily use became the norm for many cigarette smokers, as more and more became addicted.

And as you can imagine, with smoking being just about the only “recreation” for the soldiers in the trenches during the War, millions of them came home from that war addicted to cigarette smoking. In fact, many of them came home with a preference for one or another of the brands of cigarettes. You see, the tobacco companies were more than happy to do their “patriotic duty” and provide cigarettes to the troops at or below cost … as long as they were distributed in their branded packages.

The government provided 50 cigarettes per week in the actual ration kits. And canteens across Europe also allowed soldiers to buy as many more cigarettes as they “needed” at or below their wholesale price. Evidently, the government agreed with the tobacco companies to distribute the various brands in the same “proportion” as their place in the market back in the United States.

chesterfield

By the way, it wasn’t just the American soldier who “needed” tobacco. The other Allies made sure their boys’ nicotine needs were taken care of too. And those boys made sure the folks back home knew that they’d be even happier to receive a care package with extra smokes than to get a box of Mom’s homemade cookies—as you can see from this New Zealand postcard of the time.

nzsmoker

“Woodbines” were a popular UK brand of cigarettes at the time.

woodbine

Yes, as General Pershing said, smokes were recognized as being as vital as bullets to the war effort.

needsmokesposter

ourboysposter

And the American tobacco companies were happy to oblige.

… while the boys went to war to serve our country, the tobacco industry supplied the soldiers with free tobacco so as to do their part to “help” the war efforts.  Soldiers came home addicted to nicotine from all the free cigarettes generously supplied by the tobacco companies, and the industry had customers for life.

 Which brings us back to the efforts of Eddie Bernays.

 …. Cigarettes were manly things now, the stuff of warriors. And as their use among men soared, so did the profits of the companies making them.

All of which convinced cigarette makers that the time was ripe to open a second front, this time targeting females.

In 1928, just as they were beginning that push, Edward L. Bernays began working for George Washington Hill, head of the American Tobacco Company, which made America’s fastest-growing brand of cigarettes, Lucky Strikes.

“Hill,” Bernays recalled later, “became obsessed by the prospect of winning over the large potential female market for Luckies. ‘If I can crack that market, I’ll get more than my share of it,’ he said to me one day. ‘It will be like opening a new gold mine right in our front yard.’”

The war and changing social mores already were helping Hill tap that lode. Many women who’d replaced men in factories or served abroad had taken up the habit, defying the taboo against female smoking, and college coeds were trying to tear down barriers against women smoking in public places. The share of cigarettes consumed by women more than doubled from 1923 to 1929, but it still was just 12 percent, far lower than Hill had hoped. [The Father of Spin, Larry Tye: unless otherwise noted, all further quotes in this entry are from this book.]

But of course, most middle class women of the time did not live lives of adventure and high risk. Offering them a smoke to calm their frazzled nerves wouldn’t be smart psychology. Hill decided that the biggest lure he could use for women would be to promise them that smoking Luckies would help them be attractive. In the “flapper” era of the 1920s, the “slim” figure for women was becoming the standard of beauty. And women were becoming conscious of the role over-eating played in stretching their waistlines. So Hill decided to sell the idea that smoking a cigarette was the most effective way to curb appetite.

 He’d already settled on a slogan—” Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet”—

 cigadlucky

…and to bring it to life he turned to the thirty-six-year-old Bernays, whom he’d been paying $ 25,000 a year just to be available.

It was a wise choice. Bernays didn’t invent fashions like the pursuit of a svelte figure, but he was becoming the acknowledged master of accentuating such trends and capitalizing on them for his clients, a process he termed “crystallizing public opinion.” And during his eight-year association with the tobacco tycoon he would make clear his willingness to employ whatever antics or deceptions it took to do that crystallizing, including trying to discredit new research linking smoking to deadly diseases.

 In earlier ad campaigns for other clients, Bernays had discovered the power of enlisting “experts” to endorse ideas that would be beneficial in promoting a product. So his first tactic to help promote Lucky Strikes was to start a buzz among experts who could “endorse” the idea that “slim is in.” His photographer friend Nickolaus Muray was persuaded to write to other photographers and artists and “solicit their opinions” on the new, more slender woman as the modern feminine ideal:

  “I have come to the conclusion,” Muray wrote, “that the slender woman who, combining suppleness and grace with slenderness, who instead of overeating sweets and desserts, lights a cigarette, as the advertisements say, has created a new standard of female loveliness.… I am interested in knowing if my own judgment concurs with that of others, and should be most happy to have your opinion on this subject.”  Who could argue that thin wasn’t better than fat? Few did, and the results were forwarded to newspapers, with similar “surveys” readied for actors, athletes, “beautiful girls,” society women, and male dancers.

Eddie hit the topic from many angles. He concocted news releases to send to fashion editors of magazines and newspapers that featured slender Parisian models in all the latest high fashion dresses. He circulated to news editors a testimonial from…

  … the former chief of the British Association of Medical Officers of Health warning that sweets caused tooth decay and advising that “the correct way to finish a meal is with fruit, coffee and a cigarette. The fruit,” Dr. George F. Buchan continued, “hardens the gums and cleans the teeth; the coffee stimulates the flow of saliva in the mouth and acts as a mouth wash; while finally the cigarette disinfects the mouth and soothes the nerves.”

 Eddie also embarked on less direct approaches, aimed at “changing the culture” even more than changing the habits of one potential Lucky Strike buyer at a time:

 Hotels were urged to add cigarettes to their dessert lists, while the Bernays office widely distributed a series of menus, prepared by an editor of House and Garden, designed to “save you from the dangers of overeating.” For lunch and dinner they suggested a sensible mix of vegetables, meats, and carbohydrates, followed by the advice to “reach for a cigarette instead of dessert.

And he proposed that homemakers hire kitchen cabinetmakers to provide special spaces to hold cigarettes the same as they did for flour and sugar, urged container makers to provide labeled tins for smokes just as they did for tea and coffee, and encouraged home economics writers to “stress the importance of cigarettes in home-making.… Just as the young and inexperienced housewife is cautioned not to let her supplies of sugar or salt or tea or coffee run low, so she should be advised that the same holds true of cigarettes.”

The “reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet” ads had been around for about a month when a new wave of ads came out…

  this time stressing moderation. The “moderation” he had in mind, of course, meant consuming fewer sweets and more cigarettes.

The slogan for this wave of the sales campaign was “When tempted to over-indulge, Reach for a Lucky instead.”

reach2

copyreach3

As you can see, the kicker in these ads was the “Future Shadow.”

And as usual, Eddie outdid himself brainstorming on ways to expand the plan.

 Bernays responded with an intricate proposal for a Moderation League, one that, ironically, he wanted to model on the “the Anti-Tuberculosis Association, Anti-Cancer Associations, Cardiac Associations etc.”

Hill balked at the long-range program, but loved Bernays’s proposal to sign up the glamorous Ziegfeld Girls. Six of the dancers formed the Ziegfeld Contour, Curve and Charm Club, signing a pledge to “renounce the false pleasure of the table— fattening foods, drinks, and cloying sweets. But I make no sacrifices: I shall smoke cigarettes.”

  And it wasn’t all just “glamour girls” who were enlisted in the sales blitz. One of the most popular female celebrities of the time was aviatrix Amelia Earhart. Charles Lindbergh had recently completed his famous solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 when Earhart was invited to take part in a June 1928 flight that also became a “first”…the first woman to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. No, she wasn’t the pilot, just along for the ride on the plane Friendship. (The flight was almost totally on “instruments,” and she hadn’t yet been trained for that type of flying.) But it was known that she was an accomplished pilot, and she went on to fame in her own right.

Conveniently for Lucky Eddie and Lucky Strikes, Amelia had a slim, trim figure.  Here she is in flight gear in 1928, and more demure in formal attire in 1932.

amelia1928

amelia1932

So they could easily capitalize on her Friendship trip, that came right in the middle of their Lucky campaign.

amelialucky - Copy

Yes, Amelia gave testimony that Lucky Strikes were the cigarette of choice on the famous flight, and that she, the pilot, and co-pilot basically chain-smoked them for most of the 20 hour trip. As she was quoted saying in another Lucky ad of the time, “I think nothing helped so much to lessen the strain for all of us.”

 So…how successful were all these hidden and not-so-hidden methods of persuasion in actually selling the product?

 Hill exulted in a December 1928 letter to Bernays, American Tobacco’s revenues rose by $ 32 million that year, and Luckies “show a greater increase than all other Cigarettes combined.”

 

Yes, by 1929, corporate America and their Public Relations experts like Eddie Bernays had become greatly adept at selling just about anything to America. Part of this success was the fact that totally new and modern outlets became available for influencing the public. Experimental radio broadcasts to the public had barely begun by 1921…

radio1922

Yet by 1929 there were something like 13 MILLION radio sets in homes across the land, likely reaching over 50 MILLION people with regular programming from sports to opera to drama and comedy shows. And advertisers were taking full advantage of a captive audience listening to such programs as that wildly popular new 1929 show, Amos ‘n’ Andy. By 1939, the number of homes with radio was up to 28 million, with a total audience of likely over 100 million…with the total US population only 130 million. Almost everybody was plugged in to the new mass media, rich and poor alike. In fact, both rich and poor could both have “front row seats” to the performances!

radiofamilyrich

radiofamilypoor

The same was true of the new wave of popular national magazines that sprung up in the 20s, including Reader’s Digest, Time, True Confessions, and Better Homes and Gardens. They were being used more and more effectively also to sell just about anything to America.

bhg1928

1928

And sell they did, throughout the Roaring 20s.

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Better Homes and Gardens plumbing ad, 1930

 

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Better Homes and Gardens, Bell Telephone ad, 1930

 

But then…with what must have seemed like no warning to many, if not most, eternally optimistic corporate titans…it all came crashing down.

1929crashpaper

1929crashauto

And then the blame game started.

But see, the Stock Market crash, and ensuing Depression, obviously didn’t happen because of choices made by common laborers and the poor. Factories didn’t drastically cut back production and employment, or close, because those common laborers were too lazy to work. They closed for reasons enmeshed within decisions made “up at the top” of a complex, systemically-flawed economic reality in the country.

Those titans, including the CEOs of America’s biggest corporations, were faced with a public relations problem of vast proportions by the mid-1930s. They had been operating for a long, long time on the theory of the pre-eminence of the principle of unfettered capitalism. Its prime directive was: “If government would just leave big business alone we would soon arrive at utopia.”

That theory worked beautifully for the Roaring Twenties. In the Great Depression of the 1930s…not so much.

greatdep6chicago

But it was the only theory that most industrialists and bankers had to work with. When FDR made it into the White House, and made it clear that he had different Prime Directives, they panicked. The threat of government intervention in such issues as labor relations, banking rules, wage and price controls, industrial working conditions—made them cringe.

fdrfra

fdrpricecontrols

It would appear from many of the writings of the time that a large proportion of these titans were convinced that none of what had happened was their fault. The unemployment, hunger, and starvation wasn’t their fault. The repossession of homes, the default in consumer credit loans… all of it was someone else’s fault.

It would appear that for many, it was easier to blame the victims of a deeply flawed economic and social system for much of their own plight (as president Herbert Hoover had with his promotion of his “rugged individualism” theory), and to look to evil outside influences…a manufactured ogre like communism, leftists, bleeding heart liberals…as the true source of the plight of the system, and its failure to rebound.

But convincing the struggling, hungry masses that this was so was not an easy job. It was, to put it mildly, a public relations disaster. They needed a new public relations approach. Over the decade of the 1930s, the leaders of many of America’s most well-known corporations got together regularly to brainstorm how to dig themselves out of the ditch they had become mired in. They were utterly convinced themselves that the economy could rebound to even greater heights of prosperity…but only if the government would just keep out of “their business” and let “the market” right itself. There was no need for such methods as tax-supported “public works” programs, welfare handouts, wage and price controls.

The problem was, circumstances kept deteriorating so quickly in the country that the new administration under FDR had the support of much of the populace to intervene in that market. FDR was beginning to look like the hero in the white hat, and Big Business was beginning to look more like the Big Bad Wolf. Something had to be done at the public relations level to change this “perception” held by the populace.

Big Business eventually came to what they felt to be a brilliant solution. They decided they had been so busy “selling goods to America,” they had not realized that they had totally ignored selling themselves to America. Consumers had become so accustomed to focusing on what they wanted to acquire that they had not “seen behind” the collection of goods spread out before them…to the saintly Santa Claus-like figures that were providing the bounty! There was no gratitude for the nigh-unto-miraculous cornucopia of goodies that American Unfettered Capitalism had blessed the nation with.

As one leader commented at a gathering of CEO’s in the 1930s…there was no reason they couldn’t sell American-style Capitalism the same exact way they sold cornflakes! And thus began a series of long-term projects of Selling America…selling its people on the (unfettered) Free Enterprise system. Projects that in many ways mimicked the methods perfected by Eddie Bernays.

Their first attempt was a campaign promoting “the American Way.”  Launched by the National Association of Manufacturers in the depths of the Depression, it got off to a pretty rocky start.  Because its two main premises seemed pretty hollow.

The first premise was that “The American Way” wasn’t “democracy, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom to choose any career” or any other general factor of what most patriotic citizens believed the American way of life was. While giving lip service to those things, to the corporate leaders, the term “The American Way” was really, very specifically, intended to be short-hand for…The American Way of Economics…Unfettered Capitalism. Unfettered BOTH from government interference, and…from the efforts of the despised labor unions.

The second premise that would have seemed hollow to many spectators at the time was that this American Way was currently providing a magnificent, wonderful, prosperous utopia in America…in spite of what people could clearly see around them. And as you can see by the photos juxtaposed below, most of them taken in 1937. Some are of the billboards put up by the National Association of Manufacturers touting the prosperity of America…and linking that prosperity tightly to unlimited “free enterprise.”  And others, often taken near the same spot on the same day, showing “real life,” making that message pretty hard to swallow. Most of these photos were taken by photographers, such as Dorothea Lange, hired by the US government’s Farm Security Administration to document Depression Era conditions across the country. (Most people are familiar with Lange’s work because of this classic “Migrant Mother” photo from 1936…)

greatdep1

 

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Birmingham, Alabama, 1937

 

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ALSO Birmingham, Alabama   1937

 

amway1937birm1

Birmingham Once Again   1937

 

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California Highway , 1937

 

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SAME California Highway  1937 “on the flip side”

 

amway1937calhwy99mofam

SAME California Highway  1937 … “just down the road”…

(They were on their way from Missouri…to who knows where…)

 

amwayshorthours

amway1940

A Beneficiary of Unfettered “Private Enterprise” meditating… 1940

 

amway19402

The classic photos of billboards above, and many others like them, have become the most enduring representation of Big Business’s Depression Era public relations efforts. You can find collections of them all over the Internet. But there was much more to those efforts, which will be discussed in the next entry in this series.

Strangely enough, one can trace a pretty clear path from those efforts forward to the politics in America in 2017, and particularly among Donald Trump’s base of Evangelical supporters—and the Strange (religious) Bedfellows he has surrounded himself with.

Stay tuned for…

The Baptism of Capitalism

 

 

 

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