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Use the controls above to play 'Esso Extra' from 1937


Few aspects of any industrialized society provide as accurate a barometer of the times as does it’s Advertising. The Golden Age of Radio is considered by many students of Advertising as the Golden Age of Advertising for good reason.

Advertising philosophy between 1921 and 1967 relied heavily on tapping into a more common and universal demographic--that of the patriotic, ‘American Values’ public at large--through domestic Radio, Print, and Business.

Throughout virtually the entire Golden Age Radio Era advertisers tended to be able to rely upon an almost universal response to most of the more patriotic themes that emerged throughout most of this era.

Coming as it did on the heels of . . .

  • the First World War
  • the Stock Market Crash
  • the Depression Years
  • transitioning to preparations for a second World War
  • a subsequent , far-flung ‘police action’
  • the ‘GI Bill’ years
  • and the Cold War years that followed in it’s wake

. . . advertisers found a ready, willing and responsive audience for ‘American Values’ appeals.



As with everything we tend to love--and miss--about the Golden Age of Radio years, this advertising invariably appealed to the ‘good life’ we all aspired to throughout this era. Was America, as a society, more naive then? Or did we just possess a more universal sense of who, what, and where we were in the larger world around us . . . as well as why we continued to possess--as a society--an indomitable sense of what America represented to the world. A good, long, painful Depression can do that to a country--and it's people. But is that really what we need again to re-center and re-ground ourselves as a nation? Let's hope not.

Advertisers appeals throughout the era tended to respond more successfully than ever before to this universal sense of America that we all tended to possess. Even more ironic was an even greater testimony to what ‘being American’ meant to even the most disenfranchised among us,. This universal appeal to what ‘being American’ represented, instilled these same values within those citizens among us most discriminated against.



What American Values have changed in the ensuing 42 years?

Well for one, these universal values emerged spontanteously then, from within our citizenry as contrasted to the current practice of having to be ‘told’ what American Values ‘should be’, either from the pulpit, or from daily talk radio, Fox 'News', or the day's 'talking points', as the case may be.

What’s changed? Perhaps we’ve simply lost our sense of what that spontaneous ‘being American’ feeling really means.

It used to mean living ‘The Golden Rule’--both domestically and internationally--irrespective of religion, ethnicity, politics, or sexual persuasion. And yes with even the more controversial issues--sexual persuasion and ethnicity--Americans tended more to shape their impressions of others by those 'others' actions and actual life example, rather then labels. Even in the deep, ante-bellum South, contrary to their regrettable and historic reputation for discrimination, day-to-day activities and interactions were governed more by practicality, common sense, and decency, despite the widely reported pockets of race, religion and gender discrimination.



It used to mean wishing the best for your neighbors and family--near and far --as opposed to the shameful schadenfreude of sitting back and watching--or waiting for--neighbors to fail, so as to feel better about one’s own life. Hence the regrettable popularity of television programs such as 'Survivor' and 'American Idol'.

It used to mean showing civility to neighbors and acquaintances alike, as well as within one’s own family, again irrespective of religion, ethnicity, politics, or sexual persuasion.

It used to mean that simply living by the above simple rules (e.g., 'American Values') inevitably leads to both a richer guality of life for all of us, while at the same time telling advertisers, marketers, churches, politicians, and The World Community what we want--and represent--rather than being told what we want.


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"Edginess" hadn't yet become chic. The most successful campaigns and appeals achieved their results without cajoling, arm-twisting, or fear-mongering. America had survived a devastating World War, a disastrous Stock Market Crash, and a numbing Great Depression. And while we hadn't yet become the economic barometer of the world, the world at large felt our pain.

On the Home Front, we felt our pain all too well-- rich and poor alike. And while there were certainly still the 'bottom-feeders' of our free-market economy preying on others, the more widely held sense of the country was practical, patriotic optimism, drawing on 150 years of scrappy individualism, frontier pragmatism, and solid stoicism in the face of wave after wave of adversity.

What emerged coincident to the birth of commercial radio broad-casting , and the network broadcasting that followed, was a nation that'd seen the worst that could ever happen to it, and survived. The polarization and class-warfare arising from the excesses of the turn of the century and the Roaring 20s, seemed to have abated--for at least a generation and perhaps longer.

A nation hungry to be reunited found Radio to be that reuniting force. We adopted radio and Radio adopted a Nation. Radio gave hope to the widespread, far-flung pockets of pain and suffering across the nation, reconnecting those pockets and factions and disparate groups of Americans into a newly unified, hopeful, optimistic force--and market. And what a market! The fastest-growing, most successful, commercial marketplace in the history of the Nation's economy.

Regrettably few of us today can remember the wonder that local, commercial radio really was in the 1920s and 1930s. Broken families, broken infrastructure, bankrupt local economies, all slowly healing with the hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of local 'voices' going out over the still genuinely Public Airwaves.




'Mom and Pop' radio stations popped up all over the American landscape, begun by churches, colleges, businesses large and small, and enterprising young 'networks' of affiliated radio businesses. Each of them transmitting more and more content, diversion, local and national news, and sports to places that, until then, could never in their wildest dreams have anticipated hearing a national political address, a professional sports event, or even less, a famous entertainer right in their local rural community.

This was the framework that shaped American Advertising for the ensuing 40 years. As with Today's demand for a 'web presence' to compete head-to-head in any competitive endeavor, the advent of Commercial Radio virtually demanded an advertising presence--local or national or both. And early radio advertising responded in fits and starts, not yet quite sure how to use this amazing new medium for their message.

Programming syndicators, so confident of how they were reading their 'tea-leaves' were, at the same time, preparing and producing hours and hours of serial dramas, juvenile adventures, and musical interludes to feed the exponentially growing demand to fill air time. This made life far simpler for potential advertisers and sponsors as well, allowing them the option of simply buying or licensing syndicated programming as a vehicle for their advertising messages.

Understandably, the early networks stood to gain the most of this new Advertising Market, if they could simply wrangle a large enough network of affiliate local radio stations to carry their content and advertising to a nation hungry to listen to anything going out over its airwaves--good, bad, or indifferent.














Learn more with the Advertising Age History of Advertising 3-Volume SetLearn more at the University of Iowa Advertising History Links and ResourcesLearn more at the Ad Age Timeline of AdvertisingLearn more About the Emergence of Advertising in AmericaLearn more at the History of Heinz AdvertisingLearn more at the Ad Age Website