Sunday, September 12, 2010

Changing Advertising Paradigms and My Grandmother

My grandmother was born in the year 1900 in northeast Pennsylvania. At the time of her birth 43% of population in the US worked in agriculture. Automobiles were just beginning to dot the landscape and the airplane had yet to be invented. Also there wasn’t any commercial radio broadcasting. The median household income was $438 a year, not a lot by today’s standards.

You might imagine that my grandmother was born into a horse drawn world of farmers reading aloud around the fireplace at night after a hard day of laborious toil in the fields. The reality was a bit different. Joseph Campbell was packaging and selling Campbell’s Soup in tin cans in 1890. In 1899 you could buy a box of GEM paper clips via mail order and by 1901 King Gillette, a failed bottle cap salesman, was becoming quite rich from giving away the Gillette Safety Razor in order to sell the blades. My grandmother’s world had a lot of consumer technology available.

And with all this technology came advertising, a lot of advertising.

Figure 1: Advertising for mail order buying sold a lot of consumer technology in the late 19th Century.

Pictures and Words

Up until the late 1930s the predominant advertising medium of my grandmother’s time was print, text and illustrations distributed in pages of newspapers and magazines, on billboards and point of purchase posters, and the print equivalent of the infomercial, mail order catalogs. (Please see Figure 2.)

Figure 2: Sears, Roebuck and Co. Mail Order Catalog, 1900

Yet the focus of all this advertising was as it is today— to continuously emit compelling, memorable messages about the product at hand to as many qualified buyers as possible, in as timely a manner possible, as cost effectively as possible in order to build product awareness and increase sales.

Figure 3: The Boardwalk in Atlantic City 1923 - From the start advertisers wanted to reach as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, as cost effectively as possible.

As mentioned above, there was a lot of money being spent on advertising in my grandmother’s day. And, there were a lot of big advertising agencies working on behalf of major businesses to get the message out. Powerhouse agency J. Walter Thompson, born Carlton & Smith in 1864, had billings of $1,000,000 in 1890 dollars!

Business Analytics and Sex

Not only was advertising big, it was becoming more focused. In 1912 J. Walter Thompson commissioned a market study, Population and Its Distribution. Advertisers wanted to know more about people like my grandmother, how did she fit in a demographic model and what turned her on as a buyer? An advertising paradigm shift was in the works; the use of business analytics to understand the market.

The average life span for a man or woman in the United States in 1890 was ~45 years of age. Fifteen out of every one hundred children born died in childbirth. A toothache could kill you. So when it came to selling soap, the ability to cure ills was something to be advertised.

In 1910 advertisements for Woodbury Soap, manufactured since 1870, showed an illustrated headshot of John Woodbury with text describing the dermatological disorders the product would alleviate. Then around 1911 the advertisements shift focus. Gone were the descriptions of ills to be cured in favor of J. Walter Thompson’s ingenious "skin you love to touch" campaign. Sex appeal was appealing. Sales of Woodbury’s Facial Soap went through the roof.

Figure 4: Woodbury Soap Ad - Late 19th Century

Figure 5: Woodbury Soap Ad 1915 - J. Walter Thompson's "a skin you love to touch"

The paradigm was shifting from creating rational appeal to emotional affinity. But, to my grandmother it was still just text and pictures on a billboard, or in a magazine or newspaper...until the advent of radio.

Radio: Word of Mouth Gets a Big Mouth

Despite the fact that my grandmother as born into a world in which the printed word was ubiquitous and literacy was becoming increasingly universal, my grandmother was not a big reader. The only book that she kept in her house was the Bible. Her magazine of choice was the Sears, Roebuck & Co. mail order catalog, a collection of print ads impersonating a book. My grandmother got her information about the world around her mostly from the people around her: word of mouth. So when radio, that wooden box that sits in your living room and emits sound through the magic of the airwaves, came into general use in the 1930s, my grandmother was probably astounded and intrigued. At last she could have someone to talk to her whenever she wanted. And, there were plenty of people who wanted to talk to her and were willing to pay money to have her ear--advertisers.

Radio brought in a fundamental paradigm shift, to mass communication in general and in the way advertising was devised and sold, in particular.

By nature radio requires the use of the listener’s imagination. When an announcer describes a baseball game on the radio, you recreate the game in your head. When the announcer says "fly ball to left field" your mind imagines the ball flying through the air into the left fielder’s mitt. And, if you happen to know beforehand who the left fielder is, you can image that person catching the ball. With radio, you have to recreate the ballgame in your head.

So what does this have to do with my grandmother and advertising paradigms?

Radio is time dependent. Whereas with print readers can spend as much time on an advertisement as he or she desires, going back and reread portions of the copy, with radio there is only one way to go, forward. And, that "forward" is time bound. The implications for advertising are significant. Not only does your advertisement have to be easy to imagine and easy to remember, you need to KEEP the attention of the listener for the entire times spot. Thus, dramatic impact and repetition become important forces; hence the emergence of jingles and slogans.

When it came to selling advertising, advertisers were no longer buying space on a page; they were buying the time of an audience, sometimes a minute or two in the form of commercial spots or less directly as a sponsor of an entire program.

Big Business is Watching You

By 1938 my grandmother was a middle-aged woman and advertising had turned a significant corner. 1938 was the year in which more money was spent on radio ads than on print. And another paradigm shift was in the works: the gathering of intelligence about consumer listening behavior via electronic monitoring. By the early 1940s the Nielsen Audiometer was telling advertisers when and where the radio dials of listeners were moving. Now broadcasters and advertisers could determine the popularity of shows and advertisements as a percentage of market share using the Nielsen Radio Index. Needless to say, some time became more valuable than other time and prices were set accordingly.

But all my grandmother cared about was the voice in the box. She had no idea that she was being monitored, inspected and dissected. She could care less about the cost and efficiency of advertising.

Television: The Magical Box with Wire Ears

By the 1960’s my grandmother had moved from Pennsylvania to urban New Jersey, near NYC. By 1965 she had a black and white TV, albeit one from the early fifties. That TV was a very big wooden box that was about 4 feet tall with a seventeen-inch diagonal screen on top and speaker enclosed on the bottom. (Please see Figure 6.) The set used a rabbit eared antennae on top of the box to get the sound and image out of the air and vacuum tubes to convert those waves into an audio-visual experience in her living room.

Figure 6: The Early TV Set, the precursor to the Entertainment Center

Due to her proximity to NYC, she had a lot of television available to her. She could view three national network channels as well as three local ones. And of course there was the nascent public television channel. Most of the channels broadcast from 5:30 AM in the morning until 1 AM that night. One channel ran movies throughout the night. All the others showed a test pattern accompanied by a high pitch squeal. (Please see Figure 7)

Figure 7: The 2 AM - 5:30 AM Television Viewing Experience circa 1960.

Were my grandmother to have stayed in Pennsylvania in the 1960s she would have had three channels available to her and no twenty-four hour viewing anywhere. Nielsen still reported viewer habits statistically via a set top box. Television advertised to you in the home and in the bar. Radio advertised to you at work and in the car. To my grandmother it didn’t matter. She did not watch a lot of TV in the 60’s.

Cable: Advertising for Pizzerias

My grandmother moved back to Pennsylvania around the end of the sixties. By NYC standards, she was living in a backwater. In the late seventies cable broadcasting changed everything. The backwater was evaporating. From the East Coast to the West Coast, from North to South, we were becoming one big unified viewing experience. But behind the scenes advertisers were pinpointing advertisements specific to the demographic of our zip code. Forget Nielsen. Now every cable broadcaster knew what every subscriber was watching. I might be tuned in to same MTV in Boston as my cousins were watching outside of Scranton PA. But, our ad experience was different, well beyond the general regional advertising catchment available to advertisers during the days of antennae driven broadcasting. Under the new paradigm a pizzeria in East Lansing, Michigan could advertise via cable broadcast to households in East Lansing and not have to waste precious ad dollars on worthless eyeballs in Flint, fifty miles away.

Seeing it All

My grandmother died in 1993. Her lifetime started with the airplane taking off. As a young mother the radio told her about Lindbergh flying across the Atlantic and in her old age the television showed her men walking on the moon. She had literally heard and seen it all.

At the time of her death a big color television with a very large screen kept my grandmother company during her waking hours. Her favorite shows were afternoon soap operas. As her children and grandchildren moved on, TV characters became the people in her world.
My grandmother never experienced the Internet and the rise of precision advertising facilitated by an arsenal of business intelligence technologies. But to her it would not have mattered anyway. To my grandmother it would have all been as it always was—print, sound and pictures in motion. And no matter what, to the advertiser it is as it has always been: to continuously emit compelling, memorable messages about the product at hand to as many qualified buyers as possible, in as timely a manner possible, as cost effectively as possible in order to build product awareness and increase sales.