Papers presented by Susan V. Spellman since 2019

2022 Mexico City

"Canned Speech: Selling Democracy in the Phonographic Age"

Susan V. Spellman, Miami University
John Forren, Miami University


Do corporate interests participate in American elections in pursuit of profits? Undoubtedly so – but the profit-driven selling of candidates and issue positions by “big business” is hardly a new thing in American politics. Indeed, as far back as 1900, “big media” firms--most notably, Thomas Edison’s National Phonograph Co., the Victor Talking Machine Co., and the Columbia Phonograph Co.--were already leveraging technological advances in mass communication to profit from American political campaigning. Foreshadowing the rise of for-profit American political broadcasting by several decades, phonograph companies generated enormous profits by selling wax cylinders featuring presidential candidates’ speeches. Intended to “multiply the candidate,” as one Edison advertisement claimed, these “canned speeches” featuring the voices of William Jennings Bryan, William Howard Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt transformed campaign tactics by allowing contenders to “speak” directly to individual voters through a machine. In 1908, the first year both Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns employed phonographic recordings, Printers’ Ink estimated that if Taft or Bryan had made two daily speeches for four months, they “would have addressed but fifty thousand persons,” less than 5% of the population. Edison, however, boasted of selling 600,000 of Bryan’s recordings alone, making clear both the democratic potential and financial profitability of broadcasting candidates’ messages through mass media. Drawing on letters, advertisements, newspaper articles, and other period sources, this paper explores the rise and development of phonographic mass political communication in early 20th c. America and how it both shaped electoral politics and foreshadowed current political communications companies. More broadly, the paper will examine the ethical dilemmas posed by these technological innovations, questioning whether American corporations should derive profits from their campaigning.