Does the Tail Wag the Dog?

The history of newspaper advertising in America hold lessons for the media evolution now underway. A look back at the period from 1850 to 1920 suggests that while content may be king, commercial messages serve as prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer.

The John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History, at Duke Univerisity, has a fabulous website that pulls together material from the period during which newspapers and radio stations were mushrooming like Internet sites today.

This is a resource to be mined for ideas and insights but let me briefly call attention to the site’s advertising timeline and pluck a few historical strings:

— in 1856 photographer Matthew Brady pioneers the use of eye-catching type changes in ads;
–1860 records a five-fold increase in patents (a speculation on my part but is the outburst of invention spurred by the rise of ad-generated markets?)
— 1870 “5,091 newspapers are in circulation, compared to 715 in 1830”
— 1885 second class mailing costs are reduced to one cent per pound, “allowing an almost immediate increase in the number of new subscription-based periodicals”
— 1889 James B. Duke spend 20 percent of his tobacco company’s gross sales on advertising (tobacco & advertising walk hand in hand, as do concerns — in 1919 there is a backlash against “an insidious campaign to create women smokers”)
— in 1896 the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency begins using the rock of Gibralta as the symbol for … no need to tell you because more than a century later you probably know it

A few other inferences arise from my quick scan of the advertising timeline.

First the proliferation of media spurs social and political movements including the 1909 strike by women garment workers in New York and the formation in 1910 of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which arises from a predecessor National Negro Committee.

Second the timeline suggests that a series of governmental regulatory actions occured in response to the emerging market economy, such as the creation of the National Bureau of Standards in 1901 to create consistent weights & measures for consumer products, nation’s first workers’ compensation law passed in Maryland in 1902, and the passage of the Pure Food & Drug Act in 1906 (presumably targeted at “snake oil”).

My takeaway — first there are ad sales, then scribes are hired, and occasionally they precipitate a social reaction. There is obviously much more to learn and think about on this score but we’ll all have to do that later. Let me append one related item before I call it a blog.

Positive spin: Gavin O’Reilly, president of the World Association of Newspapers, recently reminded a group of investors in London that print remains the dominant editorial and advertising medium. The Center for Media Research published excerpts from his talk, and the full presentation is available online. It is good to be reminded of the size of the newspaper market but his talk, as other projections, assumes a continuing dollar slide to Internet media.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media