Abstract: Marketing the American Way: The Failed Campaign To Sell the American Economic System, 1946-1950

Jason Petrulis


This paper tells the story of a surprising failure. In 1946, the U.S. government joined top advertising firms to "sell" Americans on free enterprise. But despite a multimillion-dollar advertising effort, the "American Economic System" campaign fizzled. How could the same people who had successfully sold war bonds then fail to sell the economic system? I argue that the late 1940s were a time of transition—before advertisers understood how to sell policy ideas to Americans. When officials and businesspeople tried to sell free enterprise using ads that delivered ham-handed propaganda, Americans resisted. If policy was going to be sold using advertising, then Americans would insist on being treated like the political consumers they had become. They forced advertisers to stop selling ideas like products and instead use products to sell ideas—through the images created in brand advertising. In other words, when people consumed a branded product like Coca-Cola, they would also imbibe a message about the company, country, and economic system that produced it. Indeed, only by transforming citizenship into a lifestyle to be consumed—America the brand—could businesspeople and government officials convince audiences to buy into their vision of the American Way.