The Ethics of Advertising


NOT long ago I saw a book published by the Harvard University Press, written by Ralph M. Hower, Assistant Professor of Business History in the Graduate School of Business Administration at Harvard, which told the life story of the advertising agency, N. W. Ayer and Son — and, as they say in doctors’ theses, ‘with special emphasis upon the life and career of F. W. Ayer, the founder of the firm.’ The book took me back fifty years and more to the day when I was a young printer, reporter, circulator, advertising solicitor, and publisher by turns. In the eighties, when the firm of N. W. Ayer and Son came into my life, F. W. Ayer had been running the business twenty years. I am one of those who ‘knew him when.’ And this book recounting the growth and expansion of advertising in our national life set me to thinking not only about the ‘when,’ but about the how and the why of the tremendous part commercialized publicity has played in the economic life of the people of the United States. Let me begin with the story of my first contact with N. W. Ayer and Son.

I was working for an editor and publisher who was also a state senator, and who was devoting more time to statesmanship than to the newspaper business. He was picking up a more or less honest political dollar outside of our noble profession. I was running the paper while he ran the country and the environing cosmos. I had been a printer, and my eye was irked by the blurred and indistinct impression of the old types we were using on the newspaper. We needed what was then called a ‘new dress.’ I knew what everyone knew who was in the newspaper business in those days as printer, advertising salesman, or editor — that new type could be had for a newspaper by making a contract with the N. W. Ayer and Son advertising agency.

The process was this: you wrote to the Ayer firm indicating what kind of type you desired and how much, picking out the style from the catalogue of the Keystone Type Foundry, which the Ayer people largely owned. They sent you a contract in which you agreed to print at a stipulated price advertising as they would send it to you, in payment for the type. In our case the contract covered two years and amounted to three or four hundred dollars. The new dress came. Our paper sparkled, and in due course N. W. Ayer sent us the advertising, for which we also paid them a small commission. They doubtless made a good profit on the sale of the type, and they charged the advertisers whose copy they sent us a commission for handling their business. They were the agents for three parties with rather diverse interests: the newspaper, the advertiser, and the type foundry which they owned.

The kind of advertising they sent us fifty years ago in the middle and late eighties was mostly for patent medicines. In the copy the advertisers promised to cure consumption and cancer, indigestion, asthma, kidney and venereal diseases — indeed, all the ills that the flesh was heir to. On our little paper we took the advertising and never looked at the copy. It did not occur to us, nor to editors generally fifty years ago, that there was any moral turpitude in filling our paper with promises which would delude sick people and might bring them to death. We editors and publishers — and, so far as I know, all advertising agencies in that far day — had the same general attitude toward sufferers from physical ailments that the citizenry of Salem must have had when they hanged the witches, or that the good people of Blackstone’s day held toward hanging for theft. We were rugged individuals. Probably many of us used Piso’s consumption cure, Doan’s kidney pills, and Pink Pills for Pale People. We Americans generally in the 1880’s saw no reason why we should not medicate ourselves. The sun of hygienic knowledge had not risen for the upper middle class to which the editors and publishers were supposed to belong. We walked in darkness together, aiding and abetting what now would seem like major social crimes.

Eventually the little country paper on which I was working in those days ostensibly paid N. W. Ayer for that ‘new dress.’ But the real people who paid for that type were the poor sufferers who bought those nostrums.

As I have said, most of the advertising which came to country papers from outside of their trade territory was for patent medicines. Occasionally a sewing-machine manufacturer or a builder of cabinet organs would advertise in the papers of the larger towns and small cities. And it was in those days that soap makers and purveyors of tooth paste and mouth washes began to invade the columns. Two baking-powder firms had a tremendous price war. A manufacturer of rat poison made the slogan ‘don’t die in the house’ nationally famous. Smoking tobacco was rising on the advertising horizon. Chewing tobacco was an old settler in the advertising domain. Cigarettes were déclassé. Newspapers that sold space to cancer cures probably would have hesitated about advertising cigarettes. Some newspapers refused the few liquor advertisements that were sent around, and at the turn of the century one of the great agencies now surviving had real trouble getting country newspapers in prohibition territory, which then geographically was about a third of the United States, to accept beer advertising.

It may have been qualms about advertising liquor which finally extended to those patent medicines whose basis was alcohol. Possibly the national phobia against liquor which appeared in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth opened the eyes of the people in general and the publisher in particular to the iniquity of most of the advertising copy of makers and vendors of patent medicines. Editors in those days did not seem to mind taking any kind of rascally stockpromotion advertising. We said, ‘Let the buyer beware.’ In the eighties and nineties the business office of the newspaper swallowed, without gulping, advertising of fortune tellers, astrologers, healers, or traveling quack doctors, and in some cases fairly reputable city newspapers took ‘personals’ which were thinly disguised advertisements for prostitutes. This kind of local advertising aroused no public clamor. A few preachers fidgeted. A few ‘holier than thou’ agitators scowled, but in the eighties and nineties that was about the extent of the public indignation over fraudulent advertising.

All advertising, speaking broadly, in the United States was esteemed by substantial business men to be just a wee bit off-color. The flashy advertiser of dry goods, clothing, or food in a town or city was almost beyond the pale. A number of conservative firms proudly disdained advertising. When sometimes they did buy newspaper space, it was under pressure which was thinly veneered blackmail. But if the home merchants advertised heavily, even in necessity, their business status became slightly dubious. It was said that they had to advertise to keep their doors open!

When many newspaper publishers got their advertising by fear and favor, why should national advertising agencies on the seaboard who sent business to inland newspapers pay serious attention to the copy which they sent ? Why should they be squeamish? In many cases the editors owed the national agencies for type. In other cases the agencies had contracts with the editors at cutthroat prices for a certain amount of space, and if an overnice editor gagged at the copy the agency pointed to the contract or refused to send him any further advertising if he rejected part of it for any cause.

The agency in that last quarter of the nineteenth century represented the newspaper and the advertisers as well, an anomalous position. It held a gun in the ribs of both its clients. The whole business of advertising in that period in the United States was scaly, tainted with scalawaggery and founded pretty generally upon acquisitive instincts. Yet it was expanding under the American instinct for organization. Expansion came first by accident, then by experiment, and finally by experience which begat wisdom. As advertising grew thus by the trial-and-error method, ethics in embryo were developing.


So, at the end of fifty years in the newspaper business, I look back over the generations and can trace a widening purpose, a system of ethics as it has developed in the advertising end of American journalism. No one has directed this development. No federal law has guided it, no great leader has sounded the clarion note to announce the birth of newspaper advertising morals. Yet it is today a fairly husky infant, though not full grown, by any means. But when I was a youthful publisher just tiptoeing out of my teens, if some soothsayer had then foretold the miracle of growth that I have seen in advertising ethics, the code today would have seemed an impossible utopia.

Also, as any function of life expands, it grows in power with its usefulness. Nothing could illustrate this truth better than the widening economic influence of advertising in the American social picture. This turn toward judgment and wisdom came almost unconsciously, certainly with no legal prodding. As we publishers came into the new century a feeling began to prevail among all who handled advertising — advertising agents and also their clients — that stupid antisocial advertising was bad for business. The feeling was not definitely formulated, but advertisers of food and clothes, household necessities and luxuries, began to feel uncomfortable when their advertising appeared in a newspaper where the virtues of a certain syphilitic specific were extolled. At the same time, here and there in magazines, in books, and on the Chautauqua lecture platform — a major forum of righteousness forty years ago — voices were lifted against the crimes of patentmedicine advertising. Occasionally hightoned newspapers like the New York Evening Post or the Boston Transcript or possibly the Chicago Daily News or the Kansas City Star printed a grumbling editorial about dirty or fraudulent advertising. And one paper after another cut out the copy of the poison peddlers and patent-medicine venders. The vast majority of newspapers, however, could not afford to bo ‘choosy’ in such matters.

About this time — that is, in the first decade of the century — two strong voices were lifted against patent-medicine advertising: Collier’s Weekly employed Mark Sullivan to ‘muckrake’ the business, and then Theodore Roosevelt in the White House opened his campaign for the Pure Food and Drug Act, which he signed as a law in June 1906. For two years, while public sentiment was crystallizing around this act, the voices of protest against the fraudulent claims of patent-medicine dealers rose louder and louder, and at the same time the wave of public sentiment against dirty advertising was accelerated by the quiet protests of the home-town advertisers of legitimate wares.

Probably without Theodore Roosevelt, without Mark Sullivan, and without the minor muckrakers who gathered around their banners, the legitimate advertisers — clothing stores, department stores, for instance, and grocers — would have brought quiet pressure against publishers who admitted to their advertising columns the glaring claims of patent-medicine swindlers and their associates, the astrologers, fortunetellers, healers, prostitutes, get-rich-quick stock salesmen. The progress of legitimate advertising in replacing much of the swindling advertising was a sort of glacial process. We publishers all were guilty but unconscious of guilt in the eighties and nineties. We had a conviction of sin in the first decade of the nineteenth century, and many of us — probably, I should say, the majority of the American newspaper publishers worthy of respect — began to do works meet for repentance in the nineteen-hundreds.

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 aroused us. The sad fact is that every great advertising agency, and so far as I can remember most of the important American newspapers, violently opposed that act. In those days no moral turpitude was attached to an advertising agency which sent around to its newspaper clients warning letters declaring that if the Food and Drug Act was passed newspaper advertising would be tremendously reduced. These letters must have brought to the heart of an honest publisher some sense of what he was doing in abetting fraud, but he — meaning the average good-natured newspaper publisher who was looking after his bank account — was not quite intelligent enough morally to take a public stand in favor of the bill. The Pure Food and Drug Act passed in spite of newspaper protest, or, what was the same thing, with the public acquiescence of the newspaper publishers who privately were writing letters to the Congressmen in protest against the bill.


It is interesting for a newspaper man to read this story of N. W. Ayer and Son, this typical story reviewing the moral evolution of American advertising so far as it has gone in the newspaper and magazine publishing business. As I turned the pages I could see before my eyes and in my memory, gathered there in the book, the story of an important democratic process, an evolutionary process, the growth of ethics in a wide field of American life.

We have not, as American newspaper publishers, reached anything like perfection. In many of our newspapers and in a few magazines — sadly enough, in religious periodicals — the old swindlers still continue to defile their temple. In passing, it should be noted that the last group of newspapers to reform was the religious press — particularly that section of the press which appealed and still appeals to the larger denominations and to the little churches of St. Moron in the lower strata of our economic life. Alas, the lower lights are still burning with a smudgy oil. The answer of the publishers of these third-rate religious papers, great and small, would be, ‘What other sources of income have we? Dry goods don’t need us, foods avoid us, automobiles and radios give us little business. No one is eager for our columns but the charlatans.’ In order to preach salvation and the higher morals, too many religious magazines today depend for their income upon the money that comes from rascals who seek to poison and cheat their subscribers. After all, it is not the publishers’ fault. The presence of these miserable quacks in certain sections of the religious press indicates the dull, unsocial minds of certain candidates for salvation.

But, by and large, newspapers and magazines that appeal to the intelligent in every community have learned — perhaps ‘learned’ is too definite a word have come to feel the conviction that the advertising of legitimate products is heavily discounted in the minds of the best buying customers when that advertising appears in the same issue of a newspaper that permits scalawags to lay their snares. Editors and publishers have seen the light, not as a spotlight in the hands of the accusing law, not even as a red ‘Stop’ sign at the head of traffic. They have ‘sensed’ that honesty really pays — strange as it may seem! Law has had little or nothing to do with what reform has come to advertising ethics in the last fifty years. I doubt if law would have helped much. The passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act did not check the conscienceless publishers. They went into other areas of swindling. But nevertheless the glacier of public sentiment moved business. The lust for profit was guided by a prevailing belief that the best source of income is not the quick ‘hot’ dollar in advertising, but the ultimate dependable continuous flow of the honest dollar.

Advertising as a social and economic factor of American life was not unique in its moral development. Honesty did not come into the organization of any commodity industry in the settlement of this continent until the owners or controllers of each particular industry had tried crass dishonesty and found that it did not pay. This is true of transportation, communication, oil, steel, textiles, coal, copper — the whole commodity lot. So, little by little, without the interference of law but through the operation of some kind of inexorable specific gravity which requires honesty to make any industrial organization work to the greatest efficiency, as a nation we are slowly reaching a competent moral equilibrium in our industries. Every new change, every invention, every social shift, makes a recheck and a readjustment in common honesty necessary to progress. Sometimes laws finish the job, but generally they merely express the truth established in custom that already is commonly acknowledged.


So it happened that, at the opening of the century, advertising was automatically straightening its crooked channels, preparing to serve in our American democracy. In this century, advertising has become the marketing agent that creates the necessary new economic wants which in turn keep the mill wheels whirling and men at work in what was once upon a time — at least well before October 1929 — a comparatively well ordered national industrial economy. For instance, wireless telegraphy came, then the radio. News columns in newspapers and articles in magazines carried the story of Tesla’s researches and Marconi’s invention. The people read of radio and were unmoved. Not until advertising appeared tantalizing our people with the delightful uses of radio did the manufacturers see trucks backing up to their doors to carry radios into commerce. Similarly, when the news story of air-cooling appeared in the public print, nothing happened; but when advertisements, with prices and descriptions, began to present the comforts of air-cooling, a new industry developed. Thus different commodities were marketed by creating new wants, and an expanding economy was established. Word-of-mouth advertising eventually would have done the same thing, but would not have done it so quickly.

Consciously, let us say, acquisitive methods of advertising — of economic temptations to spend — turned the trick, started the mills, built up industries; and all because, for a generation, advertising had been cleaning its own channels, making itself more efficient by sweeping out some of the fakers, many of the scoundrels and frauds, and, by so doing, establishing a national faith in itself. At the same time, it was lubricating its gears by cutting out unnecessary commissions and reducing the friction of conflicting interests between the advertiser and publisher. It was as though the American spirit, a conscious Yankee tinker, had been puttering around with this vast psychological machine which promotes advertising, making it ready for the day when democracy would need an expanding market to establish some semblance of democratic equality that should produce a prosperous land.

With the machinery of advertising lubricated came the servicing machinery of social credit. We borrowed by the billions through the issuance of stocks and bonds, through the contrivance of bank credit and brokers’ loans in that last decade of our prosperity. We invented an almost superhuman financial machine grinding out billions in credit to float the commerce that advertising promoted. But alas, we forgot that the other name for credit is debt. We bit off more than we could chew. Advertising no longer could distribute the goods of industry. It failed partly because we could not settle our debts, though of course there were other reasons. As the last decade has passed, advertising has grown in grace and so has grown in power, but it has not enough power to start the wheels again. That it is a tremendous source of economic stability in our American life, however, a vital source necessary to an expanding economy, no one seriously and intelligently can deny.

But with the very power which has developed by advertising, by distributing hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising to American newspapers, magazines, radios, and billboards, a grave potential danger to our democracy has arisen. Single agencies often take over the whole business of a national commodity’s advertising. It is an organized commodity — as, for instance, steel, food, copper, oil, textiles. Hundreds of the by-products are advertised through one agency. When democracy tries to regulate that basic industry, — as, for instance, government has taken over the regulation of transportation as to capitalization, rates, intercommodity competition, — it is easy for the agency controlling an appropriation of many millions to write confidential letters to newspaper and magazine publishers calling attention to what may be real or fancied faults in the proposed regulating law and asking in a quiet, friendly way for coöperation to check the legislative trial-and-error methods of democracy.

On the other hand, as consulting director of public relations, a newspaper advertising agency advising the heads of any of our commodity industries may direct them politically. The agency may tell its business clients where to reach powerful sources of publicity. It may not only influence editors and publishers, but may easily and cunningly be a most devastating weapon in the hands of a powerfully organized antisocial force to thwart the will of the people of the United States. We must not forget that a generation ago our advertising agencies tried to check the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. They did cripple it. Certain agencies within the last eighteen months have tried to check just and equitable laws directed at fraudulent advertising and merchandising of injurious food, poisonous drugs, and shoddy clothing. The force of this evil influence in our democratic institutions is too real to be minimized. But this is no time or place to ‘pass a law’ controlling the advertising agencies.


First of all, public opinion must continue to work. The social conscience of men who run advertising agencies must be quickened. Publishers who sell their advertising space through the agencies must face the reality of potential corruption. Finally, the patrons who buy goods which advertisers would sell must look sharply to see that they, as purchasers, are not abetting bribery in its most insidious form. Indeed, all three partners in the function of advertising must come to understand that this force, centred in a dozen national advertising agencies with power to thwart free democratic purpose, cannot be exercised without honest caution, without high patriotism. We have reason to hope that the democratic processes which a generation ago slowly reduced the quantity of antisocial advertising may steadily change and direct this economic force into the progressive energies of our social, economic, and political life. Advertising has been and is a great weapon of our democracy. We must learn how to wield it under modern conditions. Yesterday’s technic will not do.

We have set up a smooth-running, powerful machine in American advertising. It is not without the friction of some social irregularity, and lacks, of course, the perfection it might have if we were one hundred and thirty million angels. But for one hundred and thirty million human beings this institution of advertising, as I have seen it grow, as I have seen it correct its own mistakes, as I have seen it created as an agent for a necessary social service, has been one of the major aids in erecting our civilization. I would ask no blessing upon a young publisher in his twenties more bounteous than this which has been mine: to see in 1989 the same degree of ethical development, of moral sense, and of social responsibility in those who control the machinery of advertising that I have seen since 1889. Mine eyes indeed have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. But He is not here yet.

It makes me glad to look back at the day when this weapon of economic democracy was a blunt, clumsy, and even a dangerous tool. I am sure that the democratic process in any branch of human endeavor will do what advertising has done under my eyes in sixty years if only men who love democracy will have faith and patience. They may depend upon the freedom inherent in democracy to solve human problems bewildering our countrymen. In American democratic growth there abideth these three: purpose, intelligence, and patience. Often I feel that the greatest of these is patience — patience served by well-tempered wrath!