In Consumed: Sales Leader

Edward Boyd: He knew advertising was all about fantasy — but it was a fantasy that black consumers might want to be part of.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a certain unease could be detected about the American drift toward a culture of selling, marketing and consumerism. Even Fortune magazine opined in 1947 that “the American citizen lives in a state of siege from dawn till bedtime,” seeming to echo the sentiments raised in the best-selling novel “The Hucksters” and the celebrated play “Death of a Salesman.” One sales executive at the time, a man named Edward Boyd, later recalled leaving a performance of Arthur Miller’s famous play in tears. “I related to it,” he said. Even so, Boyd stuck with his job, possibly because his own role in the machinery of American selling was a bit more complex: He was a black man building an African-American sales force within the Pepsi-Cola Company when corporate America was anything but integrated….

Continue reading at the NYT Magazine site.

Note: This column is a little unusual in being a person, but that’s because it’s part of the Magazine’s annual “The Lives They Lived” issue. Boyd died earlier this year. As the column notes, his story is a significant part of Stephanie Capparell’s recent book, The Real Pepsi Challenge.

Totally wildly unprecedented change … and its precedents

For whatever reason, I’ve been pondering the big/huge/massive changes that have occurred in my lifetime. Seems like pretty much conventional wisdom that this is the changiest era ever, and often I think it does feel that way.

On the other hand, not all change is created equal. The Web is a big change. Twitter isn’t. Etc. Sometimes it’s hard to keep clear the difference, there’s so much hype about every new new thing these days.

So, as an exercise, I considered the last 25 years. I was around, and relatively aware, in 1982. What are the things that have happened since then that were really, truly, before-and-after, big? The stuff that hardly anybody in 1982 could have seen coming? The things that would really surprise and be outside the imagination of my 1982 self?

I settled on these (in no particular order):

  • The World Wide Web. (Is it missing something to just make this a single entry, lumping everything from Google to Facebook to blogs to … everything else into one entry? How big a deal is any single Web-enabled development? And should email be part of this, or separate?)
  • The end of the Cold War/collapse of Communism.
  • AIDS
  • Hip hop (technically existed prior to 1982 but became a giant cultural force after)
  • Mobile communications. I’m not sure if this one counts or not. Probably though, right?
  • September 11 / “war on terror”

Okay. That’s some stuff, some big & changy stuff. But what about the 25 years prior to that? What could you show to a citizen of 1956 from the vantage point of 1981, that would seem like Big Changes? What about earlier periods?

I decided to make some tentative lists of big changes. I stuck with things that had some sort of public dimension, in the sense that their impact was obvious, not subtle. So for instance, I wouldn’t include something like air conditioning, which I’m sure somebody could make the case has massively changed the way we live etc., but which doesn’t have that sort of public-culture dimension that I’m interested in.

  • Vietnam
  • Watergate
  • Rock music (again, it existed in 1956, but think of the Beatles and Woodstock etc. — it’s a lot)
  • The assassinations and riots of the 1960s
  • The sexual revolution
  • Civil Rights
  • Oil shocks/gas rationing etc. of the 1970s (I’m on the fence about this one)

Okay, I kept going. How about 1930 to 1955?

  • The Depression
  • The Holocaust
  • The atomic bomb
  • Television

And finally: 1904 to 1929

  • World War I
  • Jazz
  • Radio
  • The car
  • The airplane
  • The movies

So that’s my tentative list at the moment. In some ways I’m now not sure if the most intense 25-year period of change through might have actually been the 1930 to 1955 stretch. The examples there are all pretty massive. Think of a person from 1930 looking at the world of 1955. Isn’t the difference there a lot bigger than 1982 to 2007? Maybe, maybe not.

I’m sure I’m leaving stuff out, and maybe in some cases my picks don’t make sense. This isn’t an intensely researched project, just something I’ve been pondering.


120+ years of hating advertising

One of my running themes is that there is nothing new about contemporary consumers being fed up with advertising. We hear all the time about supposed discovery that what sets today’s consumers apart is that they (we) “see through” marketing, and don’t trust it, etc.

So I made sure to bookmark the above image from blog Paleo-Future when it made the rounds while I was away last week. It’s from 1885, and titled “Advertising In The Near Future,” one of the earliest examples I’ve seen yet of popular distaste for ad overload and just how bad it could get. Particularly interesting in the satirical slathering of the Statue of Liberty with commercial slogans is the presence of “suredeath” cigarettes.

Clearly there were people who could “see through” marketing in the late 19th century, and who could count an audience that would get the joke. Just as clearly, seeing through marketing didn’t quite add up to resisting marketing. Kinda like today.

In Consumed: Wild West: The Prequel

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: How a marketing strategy turned into myth — and influenced filmmakers for more than a century

Generally I post the column without comment, but if you happen to be reading this one outside the context of the actual New York Times Magazine, you might wonder: Buffalo Bill? What’s that about?

Here’s what that’s about. Several times a year the Times Magazine has special, themed issues. One of these is the annual Hollywood issue. This year the sort of sub-theme of the Hollywood issue is “The West.” When we have these issues, I’m supposed to “write to theme” — meaning I have to come up with something that makes sense both for my column, and for the special issue.

This can be a challenge, especially for the Hollywood issues. But often what I try to do is use it as an opportunity to do something different with the column, something that pushes the boundary of what Consumed can be. Thus, for this issue, I wanted to write about the pre-Western Western: The Wild West shows presided over by Buffalo Bill, presenting a quasi-mythologized “west” to millions of people in the U.S. and Europe, well before Hollywood existed.

Here’s the column:

The western genre and the Hollywood mythmaking machine match up so nicely that it’s hard to imagine one without the other. But the hunger — and the market — for a reassuring romantic national creation story as a pop-culture staple did not wait for the movies to be invented. In the late 19th century, even while the frontier was still a place and not a memory, “Wild West” shows traversed the United States and even Europe, drawing millions of spectators who paid to witness the western idea acted out as entertainment. As Larry McMurtry once put it, “The selling of the West preceded the settling of it.” …

Continue reading at the NYT Magazine site.

And after you’ve read it, you might be interested in the following bonus material that I didn’t have room to address in the column: Read more

Next up for Thomas Hine: “The Great Funk” that was the 1970s

I’m admirer of Thomas Hine — Populuxe is a wonderful book, and so is The Total Package, and I’m a big fan of his The Rise and Fall of The American Teenager — so I was pleased to see this news, that he has a book coming out about the 70s. That’s a great subject, and a really great subject for Hine.

Here’s a bit from an interview in which he talks about the new book due out in November, The Great Funk (and in which he mentions in passing that Populuxe was out of print for a while; I find that astounding.)

The time when the assumptions of the Populuxe years were truly undone, once and for all, was the decade of the 1970s. And I realized that even though this was a period that was antithetical to the fifties in so many ways—a time of scarcity rather than abundance, fragmentation rather than national unity, personal exploration rather than social progress, corruption rather than trust, defeat rather than victory—it visually interesting and even positive in all sorts of unexpected ways….

[The Great Funk] reflects its time in that it is less about technology and more about consciousness. It deals a lot with clothes and the body, and thus is PG or even R rated, rather than G. The title is a play, of course, on the Great Depression, which is one meaning of funk. But funk is also about texture, and rhythm, and a sensuality, which is also an important part of the picture. And it contains some incredible pictures of interiors. I think that those who like Populuxe will be intrigued.

Sounds good to me. I actually think there’s much about understanding the 1970s that can help us understand the present era. Again: great subject for Hine.

Varieties of Murketing Experience

Browsing recently in the library, I came up on a book called Brand New, by a Harvard Business School professor named Nancy F. Koehn, which came into my possession several years ago for reasons I’ve forgotten. I ended up reading a chapter about Heinz — the man, and the brand. Among other things, it answered for me a question I had wondered about before, which is what that “57 Varieties” promise on Heinz ketchup (and other products) refers to. I’ll get to that in a moment.

It turns out that Henry Heinz was a master of murketing. Sure he used traditional tactics like newspaper ads and streetcar placards and the like, as his company expanded from selling bottled horseradish and pickles to a wide range of processed foods and condiments from 1875 through the turn of the 20th century. But he also distributed lots of souvenirs through exhibits county fairs across the country —
in particular, he gave away thousands and thousands of pickle pins.

“Pickle pins turned men, women and children into walking announcements of the Heinz brand and its most famous product,” Koehn writes. “In the modern language of service management, the Pittsburgh entrepreneur worked to enlist his customers as committed spokespeople or disciples for the company.” Her book is from 2001, so really the even more modern language would call these people consumer evangelists or brand ambassadors, or some such. Heinz himself was more straightforward at the time: Such tactics “let the public blow our horn.”

And the 57 Varieties? Here’s the deal. In 1896, when Heinz was 53, he was riding a train in New York and noticed a sign boasting about 12 shoe styles. His own account:

Counting up how many [products] we had, I counted well beyond 57, but ’57’ kept coming back into my mind. ‘Seven,’ ‘seven’ – there are so many illustrations of the psychological influences of that figure … that ’58 varieties’ or ’59 varieties’ did not appeal at all.

In other words: He made it up! The number 57 refers to nothing in particular, except maybe to Heinz’s hunch that “7” has some kind of “psychological influence” built into it. (See this for more on 7-ism.)

“Within weeks,” Koehn writes, “’57 Varieties’ was appearing everywhere — on billboards and product labels, as well as in major newspapers. Before long, the new slogan had been emblazoned in concrete on prominent hillsides along main rail routes.” Four years later, Heinz put up the first electric sign in Manhattan, a 1,200-bulber at the corner of 23rd and Fifth: “The sign was six stories high, with a forty-foot-long pickle bearing the Heinz name and the ’57 Varieties’ slogan.”

All together — or not

Got 20 minutes to kill? Sure you do.

Check out this 1970s Navy recruiting film, narrated by Lou Rawls, and with a superdope sound track by “Port Authority, the US Navy’s Soul Band.”

Rawls, in his astonishingly authoritative voice, explains how when you sign up, you canlearn electronics, “like these brothers.” You’ll “get threaded out” with a Navy uniform. You’ll learn to swim — “swim man, dig?” And you’ll also experience this epiphany: “When you’re hungry enough, common weeds taste like soul food.”

Getting “threaded out” is a piece of slang that really, really needs to make a comeback.

More seriously, the film is a pretty fascinating document. I became aware of it after hearing an NPR piece the other day about the near-collapse of black enlistment in the armed forces; African-American sentiment has been strongly anti-the-Iraq-war from the start, and apparently black enlistment has fallen fifty percent since it started.
It’s interesting, with this old recruiting film, to sort of listen between the lines, and decide for yourself just how openly it is saying: Look, this is a racist and sexist society, but as an African-American, woman, or both, you’ll have a much better chance of rising on your merits than you will in civilian life.

Or, as Rawlsy soulfully puts it: “The new Navy is together, all together.”

A totem of a forgotten era

Any of you kids old enough to remember the heyday of Here’s a (refresher).

I hadn’t thought about the company in some until reading this post by DL Byron on BikeHugger about somebody “scoring” an old Kozmo bag on eBay:

I’ve seen these treasured bags in Seattle and San Fran. I don’t know more about their history, other than they were used by Kozmo messengers and last forever. I also periodically miss Kozmo and their tragic dotbomb.

Check the post for nostalgic comments about Kozmo etc. Apparently these bags have sold for as much as $280! Pretty amusing.

Will Web 2.0 produce similar artifacts? No way! It’s totally different this time around!


The Gadget Boom, 1935

From the February 1935 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics, via Modern Mechanix:

The American people spend more than $100,000,000 a year, in amounts from 5c up, on gadgets manufactured in this country—not counting the huge importations from abroad. Here is a field of invention, and unlimited new business possibilities, always open to the ingenious….

Gadgets have been in use, probably, ever since man emerged from the cave; and, while the earliest no doubt were extremely simple and uncomplicated, they were, nevertheless, gadgets. For instance, when some cave man first thought of putting his arrows into a hide pouch, in order to reach them more easily, that pouch became a sort of gadget; because heretofore the arrows had been carried in the loincloth, or in the animal-skin covering that served the prehistoric man as a cloak….

Gadgets should be distinguished from necessary tools, which do not come under the classification of gadgets. For instance, to make this clear, let me make an example: At the present time, most beverage bottles have the variety of cap known as a crown seal—other bottles have corks. A tool is needed to open the bottle; either a cork screw or a lever arrangement for the crown seal, which is a necessary tool. It cannot be considered a gadget….

And do not jump to a rash conclusion that all gadgets are just novelties. Some of the most successful gadgets have been on the market for many years, and millions of them have actually been sold. Just to name a few, such items as pan-scrapers, mechanical gas lighters, steel wool pan cleaners, have actually sold by the millions and have become staples. So have anti-window rattling devices, door checks of various varieties, and scores of pencil sharpeners that can be bought from 5c up to 25c….

When the automobile first came into vogue, there were hundreds upon hundreds of car gadgets, many of which sold into the millions. We had all sorts of gadgets from radiator emblems to flower vases, arm rests, mechanical signalling devices, etc. Many of these later became standard equipment….

And toward the end, this prediction:

Let no one think that the gadget market in this country is apt to decline. With our advance in civilization, the chances are overwhelmingly in the opposite direction; since the more mechanized we become, the greater the demand for gadgets.

Annals of self-promotion

Despite evidence to the contrary, I hate to promote myself. I find the process humiliating. But increasingly, I think, it’s inescapable, which explains why I’m lately very alert to every fresh rationale to make me feel better about something I’m probably going to have to do whether I like it or not. Thus while watching this documentary about Mark Twain on PBS the other night, I was interested to learn how early in his writing life he shamelessly promoted himself, and how aggressively. And how well.
After an early series of travel articles that he wrote was picked up by several newspapers, he decided to leverage this into a publicity event and turn it into a lecture. He rented the Academy of Music, on Pine Street in San Francisco, for 50 (borrowed) dollars. He also spent $150, also borrowed as I understand it, to advertise and promote the event. This was in 1866. The $200 he spent would work out to just over $2,500 in today’s dollars. Twain would’ve been 30 or 31 years old, and I’m pretty sure he’d only started wrtinng for money a year or so before that. A young writer today borrowing and spending $2,500 to promote himself seems kind of brazen.

Anyway, here’s part of what the newspaper ad promoting his “Lecture on the Sandwich Islands” said:

Is in town but has not been engaged.


Will be on exhibition in the next block.

Were in contemplation for this occasion, but the idea has been abandoned.

May be expected; in fact, the public are privileged to expect whatever they please.

A couple of things about this. First, I think it holds up pretty well. Maybe it’s not going to cut it as a McSweeneys submission or whatever, but for something written in 1866, it’s pretty self aware.

More to the point, the ad assumes an audience that’s already used to the tomfoolery of promotion, and ready to laugh at a knowing critique of it.

This interests me a great deal, because so many analyses of the modern, “savvy” consumer who “sees through” traditional marketing imply that until relatively recently, consumers mindlessly took orders from advertising. In reality, there’s a mountain of evidence that consumers have been able to “see through” (and mock, and reject) advertising for a long, long time. And this might be the earliest example I’ve seen that however “savvy” consumers are today, the widespread ability to see ad hyperbole for exactly what it is, is anything but new.

Morever, this is a good example of how making fun of advertising can be a good form of advertising: Twain’s performance sold out, and he was on his way to an extraordinary career — thanks to his enormous talent, yes, but also thanks to some pretty clever self-promotion.

Too much advertising (in 1926)

Once upon a time back in the lo-fi 1990s, there was a great zine called Primary Documents, which was made up of old articles arranged around a theme. For instance, they’d do an issue with a title like “The March of Radio: Technology and Utopia,” and it would be made up of articles published when radio was new on the American scene, and it would be quite fascinating to compare to contemporary rhetoric about, say, the Internet.

Anyway I was thinking about this recently, and actually paging through my copies of Primary Documents, and then decided to see if any of that material had ended up online. It has! Here (on the site of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, don’t ask me why) is that very “March of Radio” issue. I was really happy to see this, which always struck me as particularly wonderful: A satire of the incursion of advertising every-which-where, published in the New York Sun in 1926, called “What Radio Reports Are Coming To.” It begins:

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the annual Yale-Harvard game being held under the auspices of the Wiggins Vegetable Soup Company, makers of fine vegetable soups. The great bowl is crowded and the scene, by the courtesy of the R. & J. H. Schwartz Salad Company, is a most impressive one.

The Yale boys have just marched onto the field, headed by the Majestic Pancake Flour Band, and are followed by the Harvard rooters, led by the Red Rose Pastry Corporation Harmonists, makers of cookies and ginger snaps.

The officials are conferring with the two team captains in midfield under the auspices of the Ypsilanti Garter Company of North America. They are ready for the kickoff. There it goes! Captain Boggs kicked off for Yale by courtesy of the Waddingham Player Piano Company, which invites you to inspect its wonderful showrooms….

Etc. The rest of that one is here.

The hood

I’m not sure what the hook is for this piece, or why it appeared on the op-ed page of the NYT, but here’s a brief rumination on the hoodie.

The hooded sweatshirt began, in the 1930s, as a practical piece of clothing. Champion created the first ones for laborers in the frozen warehouses of upstate New York….

Eventually, hooded sweatshirts were produced for football and track athletes, who would lend theirs to their girlfriends, and eventually the hoodie was everyday wear.

Also addressed in the piece: hoodie-wearing by hip-hop artists and Rocky Balboa.

Extremely old-school advertising

And in other news related to marketing to people who use matches: Rick Prelinger, who I mentioned here the other day, recently sent me a book he’s put together, The Field Guide to Sponsored Films. I’ll say a little more about that later on, but in the meantime, one of the cool things I’ve already picked up from it is the existence of this 30-second ad for Admiral Cigarettes. From 1897! Needless to say, it’s silent. You can view it here.