How Did Advertisement Develop During the 1920s?


In this paper I intend to trace the beginnings and growth of advertisement from the early decades of the 20th Century and portray how the influence of advertising and the importance of designing the adverts grew from humble beginnings to their current place as vital departments in any organization. According to Thompson (1996, p.253) advertisers and advertising agents in the early 20th Century were deemed as unreliable and could not even be lent money by financial institutions to invest in advertising. In the beginning of the 20th century, just like today, advertisements relied on the writing style and typo to present a certain message that would appeal to the customers and clients. Advertisements in the print publications and in billboards would use various art forms and manipulate text in various ways aimed at achieving the ultimate goal of convincing the consumer to acquire the product or service being advertised (Pollay 1985, p.24). By the turn of the second decade of the 20th Century, many of the emerging and emergent advertising firms had come to appreciate the idea that for an advertisement to be successful, it had to appeal to the very personal feelings of the consumer. Therefore the goal of any advertiser would be to first of all understand the consumer and his behaviour, because this would then lead to the creation of a successful advertisement that appeals to the senses of the consumer and his or her personal needs. According to Ewen (1976, p.34), the most vital ingredient for advertisers in the 1920s was understanding the consumer.

Equally important was the design of these adverts, and many firms in the 1920s began to appreciate the vital role that designers in advertising departments played in the creation of catchy adverts, and many firms began to incorporate fully fledged art departments to the augment the services of the advertising departments of these organizations and companies.


The History and Growth of Advertisement

The power and ability of advertisements in convincing the consumer to reach beyond his means was demonstrated by the sale cars enjoyed in America in the early decades of the past century. Noris (1990, p.143) suggests that through these sales that car manufacturing companies like Ford and GM enjoyed in the 1920s, advertisers were convinced on the power of the advert in coaxing the consumers to reach even beyond their means to acquire luxury goods . The previous belief was that adverts worked only to convince buyers to acquire goods that they needed.

Thus began the growth spurt in the advertising industry that saw it become an important cog in the wheel of business throughout the world. Many advertisers in this period, as stated in the introduction, worshiped on the altar of consumer knowledge. Adverts thus moved towards merely focusing on the qualities of a product, to the qualities that the product would give the consumer, and the status that the consumer would attain through the use of the product. Therefore designers, to achieve this end, for example, would advertise cigarettes through creating pictures on these packages and on billboards that portrayed slim women taking a puff. The goal of such an advertisement was to highlight the social status of being slim as a benefit of smoking for ladies. Anderson & Ling (2005, p.127) postulate that one of the reasons for the high number of women who smoked during the 1920s was the successful portrayal of smoking as a means of maintaining a slender and appealing figure. Advertisement designers thus strived to design images, create catchy phrases with appealing typos, and promote ideas that went beyond the advertisement of mere products to the promise of higher social status, better looks and even better relationships for the consumers as long as they acquired the advertised products. This heralded a new era of advertising that would eventually lead to the consumer culture of the 1950s.

According to Josephson (1996, p.152) advertising is the most recognisable and ubiquitous form of art today. The design and art form and general aesthetic appeal of an advert is very important. This is so much true that a good advertisement concept will be made or destroyed by the way in which it is presented in the advertisement medium, be it print or electronic.

The typography and general design of advertisements has been changing from the early periods of the past century (Margolin 1993, p.64), and these changes are mostly wrought by the emerging technology. The picture technology and general printing and reproduction standards of the 1920s were not of as high a quality as those of today. But with the realisation that the advertisement design was as important as the advertisement itself (if not more important), the design industry dealing with advertisement was therefore still a robust industry. With focus being on the consumers’ feelings, the advertising industry would soon become a major service industry. According to Davis (2000, p.22), so effective was the advertising Industry in America that most Americans (60%) were buying luxury goods through credit. The focus on consumers was paying off and a consumer culture was creeping in on Americans. Product advertisements emphasized more on the socio-psychological nourishments that would be gained by the consumers after using the products.

As a form of art, advertisement pictures and messages were created to appeal to the aesthetics of consumers. Movie theatres advertised for movies through the posting of photos displaying the lead characters in romantic poses that would appeal to the romantics, especially the women, and this would boost theatre numbers. Action movies would portray the villain and the hero in poses that depicted a struggle not just between two characters in a movie, but between good and evil, this is another way of appealing to the inner feelings of good and evil that would lead to record box office numbers.

Therefore a combination of these various factors: the realisation that understanding the consumer was key to successful advertising and sales; the use of different typographical styles and designs to create aesthetically appealing adverts;  and the incorporation of advertisement departments into the general structure of organizations all served to usher advertising into the league of major industry employers in the US. Although Meyers (1959, p.253) carried out a study where he showed that the rate of national spending in advertisement rose parallel to an upward growth in national income only until a certain point (then it began to decrease vis-a-vis national income) , the important  place of advertisement in the economy was already established.

The impact of experts from other disciplines on the growth of advertisement is significant. Many advertisement agencies and companies sought the opinions of, or read publications by social psychologists on the various susceptibilities of the consumer as regards advertising. Ewen (op.cit, p.33) notes that the advertising ideas of the need for thorough consumer analysis from a psychological standpoint were the ideas of noted social psychologists of the time, such as Floyd Henry Allport. The social psychologist postulated the idea that a person views himself or herself only as the rest of society views him or her; so a person relies a lot on the views of others. Advertisers and designers successfully applied this concept to the advertisement and subsequent sale of luxury goods like cars and refrigerators and lifestyle commodities like cigarettes. Consumers were made to believe that these products, when acquired, would enhance the social status of the particular consumer. The consumer was discovered to have a need for social acceptance.



            Advertising and advertising design has clearly come a long way since the 1920s. Initially dismissed by society elitists as a sham and looked down upon (Olson 1995, p.41), it grew to be one of the major industry employers and an important economical facet of many capitalist nations. Indeed, according to Twitchell (1997, p.177) the twentieth century may as well have been the century of the triumph of advertising.

Indeed it was a triumph because the industry was hit very hard by the stock market crash of 1929 that lead to the great depression, but the industry re-invented itself and was important in leading to the consumer based culture of the 1950s of post-war America (Lears, 1994, p.235). Advertisements are the staple of all business ventures today, and it is almost unthinkable now that there could be a business entity existing without advertising itself.

There is however a downside to un-regulated advertising. As discussed in this paper, the power of advertisement over the consumer is real and not imaginary, and consumers are now veritable slaves to adverts. This calls for a proper regulation of the flow and frequency of these adverts. Recent research has shown that most of the products, like cigarettes and other harmful products like junk foods continue to cause harm on the health of the masses because the companies that manufacture these products have mastered the art of advertising and are well aware of the susceptible nature of the consumer despite the evidence showing the danger that these products cause. This calls for the need for proper regulation of advertisement by relevant authorities, especially for products that are harmful to the consumer’s health.



Anderson, J., Glantz, S., & Ling, P. (2005) ‘Emotions for Sale: Cigarette Advertising and Women’s Psychological Needs’, Tobacco Control 14(3) pp.127-135. p.127

Davis, W. (2000) Living up To the Ads: Gender Fictions of the 1920s. North Carolina: Duke University Press. p.22

Ewen, S. (1976) Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of Consumer Culture. NY: McGraw-Hill. p.33-34

Josephson, G. (1996) From Idolatry to Advertising: Visual Arts and Contemporary culture. NY: M.E Sharpe. p.152

Lears, J. (1994) Fables of Abundance: A cultural History of Advertising in America. NY: Basic Books. p.23

Margolin, V. (1993) ‘Typography, Book Design and Advertising in the 1920s: A Collection of Documents’, Design Issues. 9(4) pp.64-65. p.64

Myers K. (1959) ‘Have We a Decline in Advertising Appropriations?’ The Journal of Marketing. 23(4) pp. 370-375 p.370

Noris, J. (1990) Advertising and the Transformation of American Society. NY: Greenwood Press p.143

Olson, E. (1995) ‘How Magazine Articles Portrayed Advertising from 1900 to 1940’, Journal of Advertising. 24(3) pp.41-54. p.41

Pollay, R. (1985) ‘The Subsiding Sizzle: A Descriptive History of Print Advertising, 1900-1980’, The Journal of Marketing. 49(3) pp. 24-37 p.24

Thomson, E. (1996) ‘The Science of Publicity: An American Advertising Theory, 1900-1920’, Journal of Design History. 9(4) pp. 253-272. p.253

Twitchell, J. (1997) Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture. NY: Columbia University Press. p.177

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