A Customer Born Every Minute: Advertising in Historical Perspective


Phineas T. Barnum (1810-1891)
Courtesy of
LOC Prints and Photographs

How much is enough to live? This question was as relevant 100 years ago as it is today. Today many of us might think in terms of saving for the latest digital music player or a new DVD we've had our eye on, but a century ago the desires were for things many of us take for granted today. Electric lights, telephones, ready-made clothing, bicycles; these were just becoming widely available through technological advances in production. Just as the development of the computer chip and wireless technologies transformed life at twentieth century's end, the rise of mass produced foods, clothing, and furniture altered the way people lived in the early 1900s. Professional advertising and marketing were just emerging in the nineteenth century to trumpet the qualities of these goods.

The person many consider the first advertising genius, the showman P.T. Barnum, made his mark selling amusements to Americans accustomed to spending out of necessity rather than for pleasure. Barnum believed a customer was born every minute, and getting people to buy was just a matter of getting attention using catchy phrases and delivering a product that made people feel good. Rather than publicizing the viewing of an elephant at one of his shows, for example, by simply asking people to pay to see an elephant, he advertised "Jumbo the Elephant," which turned the animal into a kind of friendly and unique monstrosity.

Sound like familiar strategies? Indeed, advertisers continue to use Barnum's methods to sell everything from soda-pop to sneakers. Think about one of the most successful ad slogans of all time: "Just Do It." The success of the ad campaign is suggested by the fact that most of us know exactly what the phrase is selling. How does "Just Do It" turn a pair of sneakers into a dream-achieving machine? P.T. Barnum died in 1890, but he probably would have appreciated the power of the slogan that made Nike sneakers among the most popular in the world a century later.

When new manufacturing methods led to increases in production and decreases in the cost of a whole range of consumer goods by the late 1800s, the field of advertising emerged full-force. Especially important were advances in packaging technology, which enabled manufacturers to wrap up their goods at the factory rather than ship them to stores in large quantities. The manufacturer might label the individually wrapped products at the plant, or a store owner might label the products at his or her local establishment. In either case, this grew into a hugely competitive and consequential process we would today call "branding." Goods that could be branded could be advertised as something unique and worth buying. This branding process accelerated toward the end of the nineteenth century, as previously unlabeled ketchup and soup, for example, became Heinz Tomato Ketchup and Campbell's Soup, products with their own special properties--at least according to their advertising.


Ivory Soap Advertisement
Courtesy of Procter and Gamble

By the early 1900s, the number of ad agencies working to create unique qualities for a growing range of products exploded. In their sales pitches, advertisers borrowed Barnum's methods, but toned them down in order to increase product respectability. Respectability, advertisers believed, encouraged repeat purchases. The earliest advertising had emphasized description of available products, while the emergence of brands and new kinds of goods caused advertisers to aim more at persuading consumers to purchase.

Let's look at the early advertising used to sell Ivory Soap as an example of one of these new trends. The soap, which was distinctive in that it floated in water while most other soaps sank, was developed some time in the late 1870s by the Proctor and Gamble Company. Harley Proctor, one of the company's owners, thought his soap needed a name catchier than its original, P & G White Soap.

Eventually Proctor settled on the name Ivory Soap, "the floating soap." After the soap was on the market, a test by scientists found the soap to contain "only .56% impurities" and ads began referring to Ivory as "the pure soap" and using images of angels, priests, and babies to sell it. Hence Ivory went from the more descriptive "P & G White Soap" to the 99% pure "Ivory Soap" associated with babies and angels. Which version would you be more likely to buy?

The new products, however, were not available to everyone. Members of the growing middle class could satisfy the desire created by the new ads for some of the merchandise. Certain entrepreneurs grew enormously wealthy producing the new goods, and could purchase as they pleased. As the numbers of middle class and wealthy grew, however, so too did the number of poor people -- many of these people living in poverty worked in factories creating goods they didn't have the money to buy. Some observers of the growing gap between the rich and the poor were disturbed by what they saw. How, these reform-minded people wondered, could the fruits of the developing economy be more evenly distributed across the population? To address the issue of fair distribution of wealth, many of these reformers realized that a more basic question needed to be addressed first: How much, exactly, does one need to live a good life?