Edwin Battistella is Professor of English and Writing at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. His book Do You Make These Mistakes in English? The Story of Sherwin Cody’s Famous Language School tells the story of Sherwin Cody’s famous home study English course and the advertisement that made it a cultural icon. In the original post below he looks at advertising in an economic context.
The current recession is a good time to watch advertisements in newspapers, magazines, television and the internet. Will they return to the hard-edged themes of the 1930’s as families struggle with job loss, diminished retirement accounts and increasing costs? During the early 1900’s, when print advertising was the mass media, ads were often about the availability of the good life: they offered advice on “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” a phrase taken from the Pop Momand comic strip which debuted in 1913 and which featured the never-shown Joneses as perpetual objects of envy. Would your grammar, etiquette and reading habits signal you for advancement? Would your breath, nails and shave measure up?
The Great Depression led to more hard-edged advertising, as a rising standard advertisers could no longer be marketed. One insurance company that had featured ads in the 1920’s explaining how “life insurance provides a way to give old age the comforts and consideration it so richly deserves” now emphasized that “The Life Insurance Policy that would have saved their home was permitted to lapse.” Even ads for razors focused on jobs: one from the 1930’s, showed the impact of a five o’clock shadow on the ability to get a job, as a dejected husband explains that “I didn’t get the job.”
Interestingly, advertisement for home study seems to have been somewhat ahead of the curve in hard-edged advertising since it targeted those to whom higher education was not available. Still, there too ad practices shifted. Ads for correspondences training that has once focused on “the path to Easy Street” through vocational education increasing warned workers that they needed to “acquire training that would fit you for the jobs ahead” if they wanted to be promoted. And writer Sherwin Cody, an entrepreneur of good English, increased his ad buys in the New York Times Book Review, asked anxious readers as headline questions as “What are YOUR Mistakes in English?” and “Does Your English Help You or Hurt You?”
What’s in your newspaper today?