Selling Out: Using Ads to Understand the Past

in #explore19183 years ago (edited)

The Power of Ads

This weekend is the superbowl! The yearly sporting event represents a lot of great things for different people: a fun rivalry, time with friends, the halftime show, great snack food... and ads. Many viewers tune in for the creative and ambitious commercials aired during the tournament, rather than the sport itself. These commercials often act as a litmus test for the country at a given point; last year, Budweiser drew controversy after airing a pro-immigration commercial during the superbowl a month into the Trump presidency.

In this spirit, I decided to see what I could learn about the United States in 1918 through its ads. I bought a copy of today's Philadelphia Inquirer to see how it compares with an issue of the same newspaper from January 29, 1918.

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What do ads say about the newspaper industry?

My first observation is how much larger and more plentiful ads are in today's issue. Vendors bought quarter, half, and even full page ads, and each folded section had a full-page ad on its last page. This contrasts with the 1918 issue, which has fewer and smaller ads.


This shows one of the largest ads in the 1918 newspaper, advertising Lit Brothers,
which was one of the main department stores in the city at that time.

Ultimately, newspaper ads serve to make money for the newspaper, and this disparity of ads indicates a changed attitude towards newspapers. In 1918, this was the primary way to learn about current events, so the newspaper business thrived. After the rising popularity of television in the 1950s, TV news became more common and newspaper sales began to decline. Since the 2000s, online news and the 24-hour news cycle have made newspapers even more obsolete. The increased size and amount of ads likely indicates one of many ways the Philadelphia Inquirer has attempted to raise funds to maintain its print edition; additionally, the newspaper has began putting its online articles behind a paywall.

Location, location, location

Many ads in each issue mention the vendor's location. However, in today's issue, the majority of ads list several cities, indicating that ads are being bought by larger companies; those companies often have multiple locations; and either the Inquirer has a larger audience geographically or its audience can travel to a greater distance conveniently. Ads without addresses entirely often referred to non-profit organizations like charities, and popular brands like car models. In 1918, ads primarily listed street addresses, especially within Center City -- without mentioning the city they're in. This implied that readers did not want to, or couldn't easily, travel far to purchase goods.


That location is now a Burlington Coat Factory.

It's useless to compare the subject matter of the ads, because a large enough percentage of today's ads reference commodities that simply didn't exist or weren't common in 1918, like cars, air conditioners, or TVs. However, it is interesting to compare the style and approach of both sets of ads.

How much are people willing to read?

Today's ads are colorful, with large fonts, snappy slogans, and enticing pictures. One home improvement service promises me, "Give us ONE DAY and we'll give you a NEW BATH!" A smaller notice asking readers to donate their car to Wheels For Wishes includes a seemingly unconnected photo of a small child hugging a puppy. Not much information is given -- readers are frequently redirected to phone numbers and websites -- likely due to shrinking attention spans and competing sources of attention.


(The text on the right is an excerpt of an ad for Perry & Co., at 16th and Chestnut.)

The ads in 1918 have significantly more text. Ads advocate for the products they're displaying, giving articulated reasons why readers should buy them. Not only does this indicate readers having more time and willingness to read ads, but it also suggests a heightened need to trust the products being bought. With the proliferation of explanations in ads, consumers must want the best quality products and be willing to search around for them; meanwhile, today, a culture of convenience means that consumers don't necessarily want to spend time researching what they should buy and why.

Is that all we can learn from ads?

Naturally, one can only learn so much browsing the newspaper and focusing on advertisements. If one were really interested, a scholar could do a deeper dive into each business or industry mentioned, research their institutional histories or level of popularity, and make inferences from there. In the meantime, however, a quick study of newspaper ads reveals quite a bit on attitudes towards consumerism, news, and the surrounding city.

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This is a great lens to investigate the city's past through! I'm also ashamed to admit that you just now reminded me about the Super Bowl... so clearly I'm not paying attention to the ads all around me...

Anyway, I am most intrigued by your observation that the ads have so much more text in the 1918 newspapers. It does seem a lot more common to me, too. Is it possible that might be related to the cost of printing images, or photoduplication processes?

I also wonder when photographs instead of illustrations first became part of newspaper print ads.

Thank you! I only know because I have some friends who are pretty serious Eagles fans. :)

That's probably another consideration as well! Especially since the majority of images, at least that I saw, were drawings, which I imagine are more work intensive (and thus more expensive) than taking a photo.

I absolutely loved this. It was an awesome idea to compare 1918 ads to those from the present and you drew so many insightful conclusions. I had taken for granted the fact that most of today's ads don't note a location. I am fully ingrained into the culture of convenience!

Thank you so much! It would take much more time and effort to come up with any concrete conclusions about 1918 consumerism but I think it's still important to trace how mindsets and attitudes change over time -- especially for younger students (my typical audience, ha) who tend to assume that everyday life is pretty much exactly the same as now throughout history.

And also same re locations until I sat down to write this post! ;)