Early Motion Pictures and the "De-Rationalizing" of Advertising

Copyright © Jim Loter, 1996

Moving pictures have a substantial place as an advertising medium. They are recognized by boards of education all over the world for their power to illustrate. They are distinctly superior as a supplementary advertising force, are sufficient unto themselves when used independently, and will only be supplanted in their sphere of usefulness by improvements on their own mechanical constructions.

— Watterson R. Rothacker, General Manager, Industrial Moving Picture Co., Chicago. (Cited in Moving Picture World, April 1, 1911)

At the end of the nineteenth century, the moral order of the previous Victorian era was threatened by the advent of industrialization, urbanization, and the increased secularization of religious institutions. T. J. Jackson Lears observes that these factors created "feelings of unreality" in the modern subject — "a dread of unreality, a yearning to experience intense ‘real life’ in all its forms" (Lears 6). Early advertisers, he continues, exploited the emotional needs of turn-of-the-century Americans by developing strategies to sell products with an emphasis on the products’ "therapeutic" benefits. The coincident rise of cinema at this time also was seen to contribute to the growing feeling of "unreality" described by Lears. Nol Burch explains that the naturalist ideology dominant at the time insisted that "any claims to realism had to be endowed with color, sound and speech, three dimensions, spatial extension" (23). He cites artist Maxim Gorky who exclaimed in 1896:

Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows. If you only knew how strange it was to be there. It is a world without sound, without colour. Everything there — the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air — is dipped in monotonous grey.... It is not life but its shadow, it is not motion but its soundless spectre. (qtd. in Burch 23)

For better or worse, then, advertising and cinema both strongly contributed to the creation of this new, modern, consumer society. In this paper I wish to explore the ways cinema and advertising worked in tandem to legitimate each other’s standing in the eyes of a skeptical modern public, and the ways in which cinema contributed to the gradual "de-rationalization" of advertising.

Before its coming to fruition, advertising as an institution needed to sell itself to professionals as well as the public at large. In Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, Roland Marchand explains that the thoroughly "modern" advertising men [sic] often shamelessly linked themselves and their business with patriotic causes and progressive economic philosophies in order to gain respect. The early advertiser "heralded a new society transforming itself at breathless speed" (Marchand 3). Before he could lay claim to the title "Apostle of Modernity," however, the advertiser needed to overcome strongly negative images associated with his craft. Marchand observes that the industry first had to dispel the memories of such nineteenth-century figures as P. T. Barnum (the promoter of "ballyhoo and humbug") and the "snake-oil salesmen" from the suspicious minds of the public (8). This cleansing process began as early as the 1890’s and had its greatest success after the 1912 "truth-in-advertising" movement. Fresh from an enormous surge of promotional opportunities brought on by the war, the institution of advertising was, by the 1920’s, a distinctive, recognizable, and generally respected "science" with professional standing (Marchand 8-9).

The simultaneous emergence of cinema with mass advertising in the 1890’s also contributed in complex ways to the new relationship between modern subjects and the objects they consumed. Cinema, along with the advertising industry, was faced with the challenge to sell itself to a wary, skeptical public. Like advertising, cinema fell under incredible public scrutiny and suffered continual attacks which generally leveled that the new medium was at least partially responsible for the unprecedented decline in moral values among the new class of urban dwellers. Criticisms of the new medium ranged from elitist worries of mingling with the rabble in theaters to righteous moral outrage over the lewd content of the movies themselves. In Screening Out the Past: The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry, Lary May notes that for every pundit who praised the "democratic" virtues of the new art, there were many more condemnations from the more "civilized" people who felt:

Pictures are more degrading than the dime novel because they represent real flesh and blood characters and import moral lessons directly through the senses. The dime novel cannot lead the boy further than his limited imagination will allow, but the motion picture forces upon his view things that are new, they give firsthand experience. (Wm. McKeever qtd. in May 40)

The editors of the exhibitors’ journal Moving Picture World printed numerous articles and editorials which pled the case for cinema in the atmosphere of heavy moral indignation and calls for censorship. A June 25, 1910 article states:

We should like to see a little more consistency shown by these critics of the morals of the picture. The evil, we are persuaded in our own mind, is very much exaggerated.... Now and again violence may appear which is not true to life. How can you possibly illustrate life if you omit some of its salient phases?... Can you teach morality without dealing with the unpleasant results of immorality?... Of course not. ("The Morals of the Pictures" 1091)

The early trend to promote products through motion pictures has its origin in the exhibition practices of publicity and exploitation, which, according to Janet Staiger, were designed to influence the public into consuming this "evil" product. She writes:

Adopting the notion that merely supplying a product was insufficient in the new age of capitalism, film producers, distributors, and exhibitors accepted the prevailing discourse that demand for a product could be stimulated, directed, and controlled by industrially produced representations. (Staiger 3)

Among the difficulties these hucksters faced, she notes, was that "it was not at all apparent that what the industry had to sell was a product" (Staiger 3). One of the methods the institution of cinema employed to commodify itself was to link its practices with the promotion of products.

As advertising strategies moved from addressing a pre-constituted audience to attracting new customers, cinema adopted many of the contemporary advertising techniques. Staiger’s article focuses on these promotional strategies and explains how the cinema industry developed routine procedures for selling its films. The emergence of the film-as-advertisement at this time, however, remains unexplored in her piece. In one of the few studies of this phenomenon, film historian Lynne Kirby writes, "In addition to advertising on buildings, billboards, and public transportation that appears in early American films in a more-or-less documentary mode, films-as-advertisements were made beginning in the late 1890’s" (Kirby 3). She explains that "advertisers were beginning to think in terms of persuasion as self-promotion — in terms of how to affect consumers through more visceral, less intellectual or rational means" (Kirby 5). In this, Kirby concurs with Lears who claims that the early practice of "psychologizing" consumers taught advertisers that "human minds were not only malleable but manipulable.... If an advertiser was [sic] persuasive enough, he could influence a consumer to act reflexively, without thought or hesitation" (Lears 19).

Kirby sees the increasing de-rationalization of advertising in terms of its impact on the modern (and, in her formulation, "feminized") consumer subject which "both advertising and American cinema sought in the teens and twenties increasingly to address and influence, and in a sense produce" (Kirby 5). Within the present work, however, I wish to focus outside the mind of the modern subject and investigate the concurrent impact advertising and cinema had upon each other as institutions. I shall examine these institutions through the lens of the "therapeutic ethos."

Lears claims that the "therapeutic ethos was rooted in reaction against the rationalization of culture" (16). The famous "Reason Why" campaign was created by Albert Lasker and Claude Hopkins with this de-rationalization in mind. Since the individual contents of "Reason Why" ads did not make reference to any "real" problems nor offer any support to back their outrageous claims, Lears has described the strategy of "Reason Why" in ironic terms. "It was not reasonable at all: Hopkins refused to appeal to a buyer’s reason by listing a product’s qualities; on the contrary he addressed nonrational yearnings by suggesting the ways his client’s product would transform the buyer’s life" (18). Despite Lears’ claim that "Reason Why" ads were not "reasonable," the therapeutic discourse each ad dispensed was heavily rational in form, describing a perceived "problem" and offering a solution through the consumption of a product. Marchand also notes that prior to the 1920’s advertisers employed "hard-selling copy full of reasons and arguments in place of rhymes and slogans" (10). Hence, any spectacular (i.e. "non-rational") element of these early ads was employed as part of a larger, logical framework organized to convince the reader that the given product would cure his or her "feeling of unreality."

Early cinema ads, on the other hand, made no argument, offered no explicit cure. Early advertisers utilized film’s capacity for sheer spectacle and created ads which, in contrast to the "Reason Why" campaign, relied on comic vignettes and visual "trickery" to promote commodities and sell them to the cinematic public. They attempted to create an "atmosphere" or "feeling" in the spectator. Advertisers were attracted to the patently "unreal" medium of the cinema with the underlying assumption that the medium itself removed all critical roadblocks to the spectator’s psyche. In short, the logical argument — the very "Reason Why" — deemed necessary to sell a product to a modern subject was superfluous with regard to the cinema because the latter "seemed capable of touching the ‘subconscious mind,’ operating almost like a dream" (May 39). The very form of cinema itself was viewed as persuasive; the contents of its ads dropped all recourses to overt logical argument.

Moving Picture World (MPW) frequently published accounts of the therapeutic benefits of the motion picture form. A blurb in the March 12, 1910 issue states that Dr. Percival, superintendent of the State Asylum for the Nebraska Insane, "holds that the viewing of pictures produces the most soothing effect upon the mind ... and that the rapid change in the view will be more beneficial than any regular course of treatment ..." (6:10, 376) An article in the June 25, 1910 issue describes how "Moving Pictures Cure Mental Diseases" (6:25, 1092). Celebrating still more evidence of the "universal adaptiveness" of cinema, the editors cite the example of Dr. Henry S. Atkins of the Missouri State Hospital for the Insane, who relates that his cinematic experiments garnered "results in certain special cases where insanity has been cured or greatly improved" (MPW 6:25, 1092). By December 2, 1911, the MPW editors could claim that the "motion picture apparatus has become an essential in every well regulated insane asylum..." (10:9, 710) Less outrageous claims for the new medium at this time paint it as an escape from everyday banality: the motion picture is "an Uplifter.... There is no greater opportunity open to-day for broadening and raising the standard of popular intelligence...." (MPW 5.28.1910 — 6:21, 887).

It is no surprise, then, that early advertisers recognized the perceived properties of the new medium and sought to exploit them. As early as 1908, the "Industrial Uses of Moving Pictures" was a fairly regular feature in MPW. In the June 19 issue of that year, Thomas Bedding writes "to urge the claims of the moving picture as an advertising medium" (4:25, 826). He describes the cinematic advertising practices of the Southern Pacific Railway Company which "exhibit[s] the pictures ... in all parts of the country, and as they illustrate the characteristic features of the land through which the great railroad passes, farmers and others are thereby attracted to take up the land near the railroad" (826). In March of 1910, James H. Collins, a contributor from the advertising journal Printers’ Ink , wrote "Advertising Via the Motion Picture" for MPW. "Moving picture men are now bringing out the advertising possibilities of the new medium and seem to have something of genuine merit, with wide future possibilities" (3.19.1910 — 6:11, 422). Collins goes on to list numerous applications for cinema in the realm of advertising including harvesters showing their crops to other locales, salesmen pitching heavy machinery that cannot be shipped to the consumer, and even manufacturers demonstrating golf balls to private club members. The frequency of these pitches from advertising executives which celebrated the new medium increased throughout the decade. It became patently obviously that cinema was a boon to the advertising man.

Lears and Marchand both note that from the 1890’s to the ‘teens, print ads still regularly employed "informational approaches" as a vehicle to convey their desirable qualities because "many products were simply not susceptible to a therapeutic appeal" (Lears 21). Marchand explains in regard to early ads that "in contrast to the dominant mode of ads after the mid-1920’s, they provided more objective information about the product than subjective information about the hopes and anxieties of the consumer" (11). By the 20’s, however, a the effects of a gradual shift could be seen. Lears notes:

By the 1920s the symbolic universe of national advertising markedly resembled the therapeutic world ... a world in which all overarching structures of meaning had collapsed .... (Lears 21)

In other words, by the 20s the entire landscape of advertising — the very form of the medium itself — adopted the therapeutic ethos. No longer concerned with any appeals to a rationality, the transformation of advertising increasingly "severed" meaning from referent. Marchand observes that "advertisers had come to appreciate the advantage of inducing the reader empathetically ‘to have lived through an experience" (12). This shift of the functioning of the therapeutic ethos from the rational content of individual ads to a less-rational, more spectacular and affective form of advertising in general was partly facilitated by the intersection of advertising and cinema. In addition to its reputed persuasive and dream-like properties, cinema’s form had been described in therapeutic terms since its origins and its potential for selling products played a major part in this shift from relying on the content of ads to the very form of advertising itself.

The advertising man was also a boon to cinema. As I stated earlier, the relationship of cinema to advertising was mutual and interrelated. Cinema’s increasing status as an inherently therapeutic medium was beneficial to both exhibitors and advertisers. For exhibitors, the mainstream status of cinema ensured support from the public and protection from moral attacks. For advertisers, the "direct address" quality of the motion picture promised a more suggestive, persuasive, and — as a bonus — therapeutic medium through which to convey its messages of consumption. In the April 1, 1911 Moving Picture World, Watterson R. Rothacker explains, "Moving pictures ... are no longer an experiment.... Their introduction to the public has been accomplished, their power of illustration is obvious...." (8:13, 697). The ubiquity of the kinds of discourses that surrounded the perceived benefits of cinema (therapeutic, educational, etc.) arose first in relation to advertising. The effects of such appeals had wider reaching significance and helped establish cinema as a more respectable medium in the eyes of not only the advertising industry but, more importantly, in the eyes of the public.

Like advertising in general, however, films-as-advertisements first needed to be sold to the skeptical public. In a previous section I mentioned some of the strategies by which advertisers sold the concept of advertising to the public, and also how advertising and the motion picture industry pitched themselves to each other. As the new century began, the success of using motion pictures to sell products relied heavily on the technique’s acceptance by moviegoers. Advertisers and exhibitors alike recognized the necessity of making this new strategy palatable. Collins’ piece in MPW quite succinctly states the problematic situation:

People pay to see these shows and so advertising must be more or less secondary. The moving picture men frankly state that they are unable to give a glaring advertisement. Yet at the same time they can convey a general impression which is very lasting and an admirable supplement to other advertising. (3.19.1910 — 6:11, 422)

Rothacker is ready with a solution, however. In a section of his aforementioned article aptly headed: "Advertising Intent Should Be Concealed," he suggests:

Then there is the moving picture play which entertains the consumer while his buying interest is being aroused. This plan is the most subtle advertising ever conceived. Advertising apparently without advertising is decidedly more potent than a direct commercial announcement.... Trademarks, slogans, catch phrases and names become living things in moving pictures. (4.1.1911 — 8:13, 697)

The power of product-placement techniques was certainly not lost on early ad-men.

Interestingly, it was the reputed "inventor" of motion pictures himself, Thomas Edison, who utilized the above technique in some of his first comedic films. Early Motion Pictures: The Guide to the Paper Print Collection at the Library of Congress lists two Edison productions from 1903: Street Car Chivalry and The Unappreciated Joke which both take place on streetcars. The first concerns two passengers: a young, pretty woman and a large woman. The young woman is immediately offered a seat by many of the men aboard whereas the other woman is ignored. As the streetcar proceeds, the large woman manages to step on the feet of each of the men until they relent and offer her enough room to sit. The second features two men who share an interest in a risqu magazine. As one laughs uncontrollably, the other leaves and a young woman takes his seat unbeknownst to the laughing man. When he recovers, she slaps him. These short comedies are listed as ads because the overhead placards on the streetcar bear products offered by the Edison Manufacturing Company: the phonograph, the electric light, and the "Kinetoscope" — the cinematic apparatus itself.

The earliest existing examples of films-as-advertising, however, are from 1897 (see Niver; Kirby). I wish to briefly describe two of these ads: one for Admiral Cigarettes and the other for Dewar’s Scotch Whiskey. These vignettes are each comprised of a single-shot and reveal the advertisers’ assumptions about the affective potential of cinema. Lynne Kirby notes that "filmed versions of ads always included a supplement of seduction that went beyond mere ‘reason-why,’..." (4). Thus, in contrast to print ads, these early clips relied on contemporaneous notions of cinema’s "direct address" properties and were designed more to seduce consumers into the pleasures of the product merely by watching rather than to explain their reputed intrinsic or therapeutic qualities.

The Admiral Cigarette spot (Figure 1) depicts four men seated next to a giant box of cigarettes. As the men converse, a woman in a Navy uniform bursts out of the box and dispenses cigarettes. The men light up, then unfurl a banner which reads "WE ALL SMOKE." This film clearly relies on the "trick" effects that could be achieved by the motion picture; the transformation of the cigarette box into a woman seems intended to provoke a surprised reaction from the audience just as it elicits the astonishment of the four men within the ad. Another ad from the same year — for Dewar’s Scotch Whiskey (Figure 2) — is a pure celebration of the kinetic energy movies are capable of capturing. The product, in this case, is relegated to the background; in the foreground joyously dance three men in kilts. Perhaps designed to be screened as a supplement to a larger promotional pitch for the whiskey, this ad also exploits the new potential of cinematic representation. Cinema offers to advertising the photographic realism and motion print ads lack. With the new medium, an "atmosphere" can be created; long informational descriptions and explanatory therapeutic claims are simply not necessary.

Furthermore, The Guide to the Paper Print Collection lists additional similar ads from the 1890’s and the 1900’s, each around 20-30 seconds in duration. A 1904 piece for Shredded Wheat Biscuits, for instance, is described as follows:

The single camera position shows a man and a woman sitting at a small table on which there is a paper box bearing the words, "Shredded Wheat Biscuit." The woman places a biscuit from the box on a dish and hands it to the man, who consumes it with gusto. (Guide 4)

Any factual information about the product is absent; the health-giving or "therapeutic" benefits of eating Shredded Wheat is never mentioned. Compared with a representative print ad for Shredded Wheat (1906, Figure 3) it is quite apparent that motion pictures were at this time believed to be effective in conveying a general feeling or sense of enjoyment ("gusto") rather than in describing the benefits of the product or conveying knowledge about its content or "intrinsic value."

Likewise, a clip for Gold Dust Scouring Powder (1903) is listed as simply featuring two small black children (the "Gold Dust Twins") happily scrubbing a dishpan (Niver ##). Gold Dust was a particularly prolific advertiser in the 1890’s and 1900’s and though their product did not lend itself directly to the "therapeutic ethos" described by Lears, the print ads quite strongly emphasized the economic value of Gold Dust Powder — its cheapness as well as the fact that it increases leisure time . The gradual progression of Gold Dust advertising from a variably-styled campaign which drew from diverse images and utilized different strategies into a more consistent and predictable patterning of its contents which uniformly featured the "Twins" demonstrates that the advertising industry began understanding the importance of brand-name recognition and the association of a particular product with a set of visual cues (see Figure 4). As reported, the corresponding filmed advertisement relies strongly on these factors of consistency; the discourse around economic benefits is absent whereas only the reliable and recognizable "Twins" are present. The early signs of what Lears has described as the transformation of advertising into a "symbolic universe" which resembles a "therapeutic world" (21) can be seen even in 1903.

Though the exact exhibition practices concerning these early films cannot be induced, one may assume that these ads were presented in conjunction with print ad campaigns, or even the "lectures" that often accompanied motion pictures at this time. Even still, the seductive, affective "nature" of cinema was exploited not to explain or offer any explicit "reasons" to consume a product. The gradual reduction of "talk" and growth of imagery and spectacle in the print ads is evidence of this new brand of "affective" advertising. Whereas with print ads "therapeutic" benefits were mainly attributed to ingestible or otherwise "body"-related products, cinema provided a way to imbue the mundane practice of scrubbing a pot with a certain health-giving feeling of joy and whimsy. It was beginning to be perceived that the benefits these products offered went beyond any scientifically provable panacea; the therapeutic qualities lay in the form of the medium itself.

Not everyone immediately greeted the melding of the motion pictures and advertising with fanfare. A letter to the editor of Moving Picture World dated September 12, 1910 angrily denounces the increased usage of films for selling products. The writer — a film exhibitor from New York-states:

We do not think it is treating an exhibitor with fairness and surely it is not a square deal to the patron, to deal out for their amusement and edification a picture embellished with the trade-marks of the certain manufacturer of the goods it is desired to advertise. (9.23.1910 — 7:13, 321)

This businessman deems the practice of advertising via motion pictures "a down-right ‘bunco,’" and is clearly incensed over the very fusion strategies noted above; Rothacker’s "moving picture play which entertains the consumer while his buying interest is being aroused" does not impress this exhibitor. His feelings of outrage and sense of indignation are conveyed throughout the letter. "We would never knowingly dare display an advertisement on our screen," he ends royally.

Likewise, Epes Winthrop Sargent’s regular column in MPW entitled "Advertising for Exhibitors," repeatedly rails against the "insidious growth of the advertising film" (7.12.1913 — 17:2, 197). In an article directed at the delegates of an annual exhibitors convention in New York, Sargent advises them to:

Fight the advertising film whether it comes from the manufacturer, the advertiser direct or from the exchange .... If you pay for service you are entitled to films and not advertisements.... Insist upon having films no matter how attractively the advertising matter is framed up and in spite of the fact that your patrons do not object. Few of them will come to you with their complaint, they will simply go somewhere where are more certain that they will not be swindled.... (197)

Sargent is, above all, a businessman and is troubled mainly that other manufacturers are profiting from the motion picture venue. Falling short of an outright condemnation of advertising films, he equivocally suggests to his readers, "If you take advertisements you are entitled to the money paid someone because you are using the advertising ..." (197). If there is a way for the exhibitor to make money, Sargent implies, then advertising films are not as big of an evil.

The reference in Sargent’s column to the interests of the patrons is certainly invoked more for rhetorical purposes than as an expression of fact about movie-goers’ tastes concerning advertising films. In fact, actual accounts of audience members’ attitudes about advertising films are virtually non-existent. Motion picture advertiser Ernest Dench’s 1916 industry guide book, Advertising by Motion Pictures, contains very helpful evidence about the assumptions early hucksters had about the cinematic form and spectators’ viewing positions. Also, Dench mentions and describes several advertising films and suggests strategies for filmmakers to employ in creating appealing and affective [sic] motion picture ads. Of a more dubious nature, however, are Dench’s claims about motion picture fans and their viewpoints on advertising through movies. Nonetheless, I feel investigating Dench’s manual — with an appropriate amount of skepticism — is invaluable for understanding the ways advertising and motion pictures were used in conjunction after the turn of the century and in the midst of the "therapeutic ethos."

In the introduction to his book, Earnest A. Dench describes himself as "one of the few journalists to specialize on Motion Pictures" (7). He explains how, as a journalist, he encountered the advertising field and realized the incredible possibilities of merging the practices of advertising with the new invention of the cinema. His handbook is addressed to advertisers and is intended to embody "everything worth knowing about Motion Picture Advertising" (8). According to Dench, the myriad of benefits offered by motion picture advertising, for example, includes the bonus that

your ad. comes on the screen without competing with any others for attention, and although the spectator may not respond easily to press advertising, he feels he has to view the picture because he can not ‘turn over a page,’... You can reach him at his leisure, and, therefore, approach him in the right mood. (14)

If this film spectator is approached, Dench claims, "he will ... admit the motion picture is the most entertaining publicity channel yet" (14).

Throughout the book, Dench’s advice centers on issues of filmic style and preferred exhibition practices. Following Rothacker and Collins, Dench stresses that film ads need to be entertaining and as unobtrusive as possible in order to please the fans. Dench pushes motion pictures to the advertiser based on the alleged property of images to be more compelling and powerful than print. "It is what the spectator sees," he writes, "not reads, that leaves the lasting impression" (12). His comments reveal just how pervasive and unquestioned the affective nature of motion pictures was to early advertisers.

In previous sections, I have suggested that the intersection of motion pictures and advertising helped catalyze the shift from text-driven, explanatory ad practices to image-based, affective strategies. I also noted, however, that exhibitors, if not fans, were initially resistant to this intersection. Dench’s book is geared toward the advertiser and, in parts, specifically addresses the problem of this resistance. It is to his proposed solutions to this problem that I now turn. Again, though it is difficult to account for the actual practices of early motion picture advertisers, Dench’s book, I feel, is representative, at least, of the attitudes these admen had of the cinema spectator and exhibitor.

The fans of the motion picture, in Dench’s terms, are harshly critical, discriminating folks who do not overtly complain about things they do not like, and constantly demand newer and better films. "To-day," Dench observes, "the fans have been educated up to such a pitch that nothing but the best will satisfy them" (18). These fans, however, are not necessarily opposed to using films as advertising provided that the ads are of the same quality as regular films. Dench lists numerous examples of unpopular ads which failed, in his view, because they did not pass the rigorous muster of the motion picture-goer "I have seen efforts ... that contained enough material for a half-reel subject, yet they were unduly extended to two reels, boring an audience for forty minutes..." (Dench 16). On the other hand, he notes many more successes. An interview Dench conducts with "an intelligent fan" yields some interesting information.

This fan states:

I must say [film ads] are considerable more interesting than the advertisements that meet your eye in the newspapers. How nice it is to watch an industry on the screen and be taken through a big manufacturing plant. It is an education in itself, and it never strikes you as though it was intended as a boost, although the particular thing ... leaves an indelible impression on you. (qtd. in Dench 19)

She also notes that she prefers narrative films which are "in good taste" and would like to see some of her favorite stars acting in the ads. According to Dench’s observations, then, the typical motion picture fan is not adverse to advertising via the motion pictures so long as it is done well.

Exhibitors posed the largest obstacle to the burgeoning motion picture advertiser. In the examples of dissent I cited above, exhibitors were troubled that manufacturers of products might be making money from the exhibitors’ venues or driving away exhibitors’ customers. Dench observes that:

Once upon a time ... it was a comparatively easy matter to coax a motion-picture exhibitor to take an advertising picture for one or more days’ showing, but nowadays it is hard work to do so.... The movie showman has begun to realize that it is advertising pure and simple, although an attempt may be made to disguise this significant fact. (53)

Though the motion picture fan can be seduced easily into consuming the filmed ad by appealing to her demands for high quality pictures, the shrewder exhibitor is not so easily swept up. Dench notes that only appeals to the pocketbook can persuade the theater-owners to accept advertising films.

Dench relates a scenario in which the American Druggist Society arranged to intersperse ads for its products throughout a typical motion picture program. The Society accomplished this rare feat of cooperation by handing out coupons to the New York theater patrons. Dench notes that this scheme resulted in the house’s being "filled to overflowing on every occasion" which pleased the advertiser and exhibitor both (54). Outside the urban area, Dench recommends dispatching projectors, projectionists, ad films and outdoor tents to rural communities. Such a demonstration avoids the controls of the exhibitors. Often, though, straightforward and direct means are necessary. Dench provides several examples of advertisers and manufacturers who simply paid theater owners a small fee to show their films. The shrewd methods of subtle control and manipulation, however, please Dench the most. He writes:

It is now extremely difficult to persuade an exhibitor to put on an ad. film after his ordinary program for nothing, so ingenious ruses have to be resorted to. One firm hit on the brilliant idea of getting out an animated news weekly of their own. Half of the reel each week comprised topical events covered by their own cinematographer, while the remaining portion was a booster for the firm’s goods. The reel was offered free to the movie showmen, who found the something-for-nothing bait too good to be resisted. (Dench 63)

Clearly, the protestations of the aforementioned anonymous letter-writing exhibitor and Mr. Epes W. Sargent in the Moving Picture News were well-founded; the sneaky advertising practices proposed by Rothacker and Collins seemed to have caught on.

Ambivalence: A Conclusion

Dench’s book is, in his own words, meant to be a prophecy addressed to "those who strike the iron while it is hot, which is right now ..." (63). It encapsulates the prevailing beliefs many advertisers held concerning the new, modern subject position of the Consumer; likewise, this discourse surrounding the use of motion pictures for advertising reveals the inter-relatedness of the two institutions of cinema and advertising around the turn of the century. It can be inferred, through Dench’s work especially, that there existed a curious ambivalence among advertisers toward the cinema The idea that it was somehow unscrupulous for motion picture exhibitors to demand fees for advertising reveals that contemporaneous notions held cinema in lower regard than the print media (after all, it was certainly not unusual at this time for magazines and newspapers to charge for ads). At the same time, however, cinema held a tremendous appeal to early advertisers who hoped to benefit from its reputed persuasive powers and phenomenal direct-address properties.

This ambivalence brings me back to my main points: namely that advertising via the motion pictures contributed to the gradual acceptance of the new medium of cinema in the eyes of the early-twentieth century public; and that the motion-picture-inspired idea of communicating with nothing but pictures correspondingly contributed to the change in the form of print advertising by the 1920’s. On the first hand, the struggle for the control over cinema space between the advertisers and the exhibitors was, among others, a struggle for the legitimacy of the motion picture industry. Since both cinema and advertising sought acceptance by the modern public, advertisers were reluctant or uninterested in associating itself with the new medium and, hence, needed to be persuaded by the likes of Rothacker, Collins and, especially, Dench who emphasized the attractiveness and power of motion picture advertisements. Likewise, exhibitors were at first opposed to allowing the offensive and ruinous advertising film into their theaters for fear that their tenuous hold on public acceptance would be eroded. Strong opinions against filmed ads were voiced by, among other, the influential Epes Winthrop Sargent. Since, however, these oppositions tended, in the final analysis, to be economically-founded, the organization of plans by which exhibitors could profit from ad films quelled their doubts and resistance. In short, advertisers found themselves in the midst of cinema’s early battle for public acceptance. As advertising via the motion pictures grew, the utilitarian value of cinema increased in the public eye. Hence we have Dench’s "intelligent movie fan" stating that movie advertising "is an education in itself, and it never strikes you as though it was intended as a boost" (Dench 19).

On the other hand, the ambivalent relationship between cinema and advertising — which resulted in the formal changes noted above — placed advertising at the nexus of a profound ambivalence stemming from the modern condition itself. This ambivalence is noted by Marchand who states,

people had responded with both excitement and suspicion as new forms of transportation and communication invaded local communities.... Many Americans pursued their search for a secure identity, for ‘self-realization,’ by seeking clues and advice in those sources most conveniently and ubiquitously available — the mass media. (12-13)

Advertisers quickly capitalized on this modern attitude and addressed their products as solutions to these feelings of insecurity. "Thus what made advertising ‘modern’," Marchand argues, "was, ironically, the discovery ... of techniques for empathizing with the public’s imperfect acceptance of modernity, with its resistance to the perfect rationalization and bureaucratization of life" (13). He, like Lears, notes a shift in advertising form from objective, informational approaches in the 1890’s and early 1900’s to a less argumentative, more affective form by the 1920’s. The discourse surrounding the cinema as inherently "therapeutic" as well as the arguments made by the industry to advertisers demonstrate that the new medium was reputed to possess almost magical qualities which could, at once, stir consumers’ desires and entertain them. The shift in ad form which both Marchand and Lears describe can almost be seen as a shift from a print-oriented form to a more "cinematic" one. As advertisers rushed to benefit from the growing ambivalence and insecurity of the modern public they found, in cinema, an ideal medium to blend selling and entertainment. I have argued in this paper that in the frequent merger of advertising and the motion pictures as early as 1897 can be seen the seeds of this shift in form. Cinema thus, at least partially, contributed to the "de-rationalization" of advertising.


Works Cited

Burch, Nel. Life to Those Shadows. Trans. and ed. Ben Brewster. LA: U of California Press, 1990.

Dench, Ernest A. Advertising By Motion Pictures. Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Co., 1916.

Kirby, Lynne. "Gender and Advertising in American Silent Film: From Early Cinema to the Crowd." Discourse. 13:2 (Spring/Summer 1991), 3-20.

Lears, T. J. Jackson. "From Salvation to Self-Realization: Advertising and the Therapeutic Roots of the Consumer Culture, 1880-1930." The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1980. Ed. Richard Wightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983. 3-38.

Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division. Early Motion Pictures: The Guide to the Paper Print Collection at the Library of Congress. Washington D.C.: L of C, 1985.

Marchand, Roland. Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940. Berkeley: U of C Press, 1985.

May, Lary. Screening out the Past: The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1980.

Moving Picture World. New York. 1907-1913. (Individual articles are cited in the format: Date — Volume No.: Issue No., Page No.)

Staiger, Janet. "Announcing Wares, Winning Patrons, Voicing Ideals: Thinking About the History and Theory of Film Advertising." Cinema Journal. 29:3 (Spring 1990), 3-31.