Saturday, December 18, 2010

The inception of the American ad industry

A biography of pioneering Ad Man Albert Lasker reveals the origins of our advertising age.

The Man Who Sold America: The Amazing (but True!) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Century 
The Man Who Sold America: The Amazing (but True!) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Century. Jeffrey Cruikshank and Arthur Schultz. Harvard Business Press. 435 pages.

We take advertising for granted. Even as companies rush to implement the technology the Tom Cruise character experienced in Minority Report that immersed him in personalized ads, continuous commercial messages are a consistent part of our culture. Douglas Rushkoff's brilliant book, Life, Inc. eloquently explored the corporatization of our lives, but once upon a time, advertising itself was a minor part of things, and were mostly announcements rather than persuasive and pervasive pleas.

I was fascinated by this sprawling, old-fashioned biography of Albert Lasker, an important figure in the world of advertising and politics of whom I was only faintly aware. I recalled him being mentioned by David Ogilvy in his essential books, as someone who made a ton of money but knew little about his role in essentially creating the modern advertising agency and industry.

Among his accomplishments, according to authors Cruishank and Schultz, is the prominence given to content and copywriting; the consumer-centered ad; modern political advertising; branding commodities (particularly produce); selling previously unmentionable female hygiene products and more, including the "creation'' of orange juice.

Lasker, a first-generation American born in 1880 to German-Jewish immigrants — descendents of aristocrats who dared resist proto-fascist Bismarck — grew up in Galveston, Texas. He wanted to be a journalist at first, a disreputable rofession at the time, so his father pulled a favor from a friend and set him up with a position at Lord & Thomas, an advertising agency in Chicago. From there, Lasker bloomed.

Possessing innate sales skills, he quickly secured a few accounts for his new employer, then delved into the craft of advertising: What was it and how did it work?

What Lasker discovered, developed and implemented transformed the industry from order takers into a creative force and catalyst for the ascension of the consumer market, making the United States into a worldwide economic powerhouse. Before long, the unstoppable Lasker wound up owning that agency.

Lord & Thomas and Lasker blazed an impressive track record. They were responsible for branding the California orange crop and creating Sunkist, a more marketable product since oranges now had a name that could be promoted. The agency also promoted the invention of the juice machine and subsequent popularization of orange juice as a daily morning beverage. It also worked similar magic with raisins (Sun-Maid) and took Lucky Strike, an obscure cigarette brand, and made it a top-seller.

An early proponent of radio advertising, the company sponsored the infamously hilarious minstrel comedy, Amos & Andy, and later picked a relatively obscure wisecracking comedian to star in a show sponsored by Pepsodent, a toothpaste client. Thus was Bob Hope's career launched. Lord & Thomas agency also broke ground by first advertising a product whose purpose was deemed unmentionable — Kotex "sanitary napkins.''

Lasker was involved in a number of social and political efforts, including the Leo Frank case involving anti-Semitism in Georgia and Warren G. Harding's run for the presidency in 1920, as well as the relentless (and successful) effort to sabotage crusading novelist Upton Sinclair's 1934 California gubernatorial campaign.

As a window to an earlier era, and a source of insights into the commercial and cultural origins of the advertising industry (and one of its guiding lights), this portrait of Albert Lasker is a worthy contribution.
Originally published in The Miami Herald.

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