Abstract: Salesmanship vs. Showmanship: Advertising Agencies in Radio during the 1930s-1940s

Cynthia B. Meyers


Efforts to professionalize American advertising as a rational business practice were challenged by the rise of commercial radio in the 1930s. Broadcasters, eager to deflect the cost of programming, encouraged advertisers to "sponsor" programming. Advertisers, inexperienced in producing entertainment, turned to their advertising agencies to oversee entertainment designed as advertising vehicles. Agencies quickly dominated program production; for example, J. Walter Thompson produced <em>Kraft Music Hall</em>; Benton & Bowles oversaw Maxwell House coffee's <em>Show Boat</em>; and Young & Rubicam produced the Jack Benny program. Those who believed advertising should be based on sober rational appeals, such as "salesmanship in print" and "reason-why" advertising strategies, were appalled that radio advertising instead relied on "showmanship" to sell. These critics worried that radio would become an updated "medicine show," using entertainment to gather the crowd to sell them patent medicines. "Soft sell" advertising practitioners, on the other hand, argued that the integration of entertainment and advertising could lower consumer resistance and increase sales, as in Jack Benny's opening line for his General Foods-sponsored comedy program: "Jell-O again, it's Jack Benny!"