Skip to Main Content

Medicine and Madison Avenue Research Guide

Advertisements and the Study of History

by Nancy Tomes, Distinguished Professor of History, State University of New York at Stony Brook

The history of advertising provides fascinating insights into the way Americans lived and thought in the past. Historical advertisements are a particularly useful kind of primary evidence, that is, first hand evidence about the past produced by people actually living at that time. Studying old advertisements helps us track changing standards of the "good life," that is, the material and social conditions ordinary people were encouraged to equate with personal success and happiness. As such, ads provide a mirror, albeit a distorted one, of everyday life and aspirations. In them students of history can find evidence about aspects of daily life, such as fashion, food habits, home furnishings, sports, and personal hygiene that are often absent in more traditional historical sources. The advertisements in this database, which evoked health-related issues, are particularly helpful in understanding popular conceptions of health promotion and disease prevention.

The Challenges of Using Ads as Historical Sources

While historical advertisements are a rewarding and interesting form of primary evidence, their analysis is by no means easy. Looking at a historic advertisement, it is tempting to see it as a clear, coherent message whose meaning can be clearly deduced. In fact, it is a much messier -- and more interesting -- historical artifact. To use them well requires practice and a willingness to move beyond simple explanations. Becoming adept at ad analysis requires an appreciation of the special interpretive challenges they represent.

1. The creation of any single ad was a complex and negotiated process

The supplementary documents in the MMA database, especially the material drawn from the J. Walter Thompson Co. Archives, suggest how complicated the process of producing a single ad actually was. By the 1920s, the technical and creative process of developing an ad had come to involve a range of people with different expectations and talents. The agency's clients, that is, the manufacturers paying for the advertising campaign, often had very definite opinions about their product and how to promote it, opinions that did not necessarily square with the advertising professional's perceptions. The selling "platform" the agency arrived at often represented a compromise between the client and the creative staff. Developing the ad itself involved different groups of creative personnel, such as copywriters and illustrators, who brought their own vision to the product.

2. Ads had no single fixed meaning, but rather were read in many different ways by consumers.

Not only did the creators of the advertisements often have different agendas, but also the messages they meant to convey to consumers were by no means fixed or predictable. When working with historic advertisements, it is crucial to emphasize that they have no single, fixed message. As is true of any document, whether the Declaration of Independence or Uncle Tom's Cabin, ads could be read in many different ways by different people. Moreover, their meanings operated at different levels: rational appeals to the mind may be combined with more emotional appeals to the heart or senses. This complexity is especially evident with health-related ads, which often sought to invoke scientific authority at the same time they addressed very personal concerns about the body, including the fear of disease and the desire to be physically attractive.

While appealing to what might be considered a universal desire to be free of disease, health-related advertisements inevitably conveyed very different meanings depending on the viewer's gender, ethnicity, race, age, class, and sexual orientation. For example, a toothpaste ad featuring a lovely young white girl might evoke very different responses from a young white man, a middle aged white woman, and a young African American girl.

3. The influence of advertising is best understood as general and diffuse, rather than specific and decisive.

Although advertising had become widely disseminated by the 1920s, we cannot conclude that everyone saw them or heeded their messages. Market research reports, such as the one for Scottissue included in MMA, suggest that even within the same class, race, or gender group, individuals varied dramatically in their attention to ads. Some might not even notice them, some might find them annoying or silly, while only a relatively small group took their messages more seriously. Both historical and contemporary research suggests that advertising's impact is best understood as general and diffuse rather than specific and decisive. Advertisements help raise awareness of certain kinds of problems and groups of products, but do not necessarily induce consumers to adopt specific beliefs or buy specific brands. For example, we may safely conclude that advertisements for mouthwash and toothpaste helped educate Americans about the importance of oral hygiene without necessarily convincing them to buy Listerine or Pepsodent.

4. Advertising provoked determined efforts to restrain and discipline its contents that had an important impact on its evolution

As advertising became more popular, criticisms of it also became more robust. The more advertising tried to borrow from modern medicine and science, the more experts in those fields found reason to criticize those borrowings. The explosion of modern health-related advertising in the early 1900s aroused concern among physicians and consumer advocates about its potential to mislead. New regulatory bodies, such as the Food and Drug Association (founded in 1906) and the Federal Trade Commission (founded in 1914), as well as medical and consumer groups, sought to force advertisers to be more truthful in their claims. These efforts definitely influenced the way professional advertisers crafted their selling campaigns.