Building Loyalty to Consumption Communities

ADVERTISING COULD NOT be understood as simply another form of salesmanship. It aimed at something new—the creation of consumption communities. As advertising displaced salesmanship, different arguments became effective and different satisfactions were felt by everyone concerned. The primary argument of the salesman was personal and private: this hat is perfect for you (singular). His focus was on the individual; he succeeded when he cajoled, flattered, managed, and overwhelmed a particular buyer’s ego. The primary argument of the advertisement was public and general: this hat is perfect for you (plural). While the salesman persuaded the customer that the item was peculiarly suited to his unique needs, the advertisement persuaded groups of buyers that the item was well suited to the needs of all persons in the group. The advertisement succeeded when it discovered, defined, and persuaded a new community of consumers.

And an advertisement was, in fact, a form of insurance to the consumer that by buying this commodity, by smoking this brand of cigarette, or by driving this make of car he would not find himself alone. The larger the advertising campaign, the more widespread and the more effective, the more the campaign itself offered a kind of communitarian seal of approval. Surely a million customers can’t be wrong! An advertisement, then, announced that in the judgment of experts, some kind of consumption community probably existed. Won’t you join?

The arts and sciences of advertising, then, were the techniques of discovering consumption communities, of arousing and preserving loyalty to them. Toward this end there developed a new iconography of consumption communities, which transformed the old world of brand names and trademarks.

The inconspicuous “hallmark” of silversmiths and goldsmiths had been discreetly placed to assure the buyer of the purity of the materials, and later of the quality of the workmanship. In America, the discreet “hallmark” became the blatant nationally advertised trademark. The first federal trademark law was passed in 1870, but a decade later was declared unconstitutional because it purported to restrict commerce within the states. A new law passed in 1881 (and frequently amended) became the basis for the registration and protection of trademarks used in interstate and foreign commerce. Brand names acquired a new power and a new meaning. By 1972 the number of trademarks registered with the United States Patent Office came to nearly one million.

Brand loyalty became one of the most important concerns of the commercial world. Advertising researchers aimed to discover the strength, the reach, and the volatility of these loyalties to consumption communities. The multiplied opportunities for loyalty to so many different communities made advertisers ask whether some consumers were more “loyalty-prone” than others. But however tenuous and hard to measure these loyalties were, American businessmen spent increasing sums trying to develop them.

AFTER THE CIVIL WAR, the volume of national expenditure on advertising increased spectacularly and regularly, interrupted only by the deeper business depressions. In 1867 the total national figure was only some $50 million; by 1900 it had increased tenfold to $500 million; by 1950 it had reached $5.5 billion; by 1972 it amounted to $22.4 billion.

Brand names first flourished about the time of the Civil War with patent medicines, soaps, and cleaning powders. By the time of World War I, people were asking for national brands in chewing gum, watches, hats, breakfast food, razor blades, and pianos. Advertising was becoming a technique, a science, and a profession. In 1869 appeared Rowell’s American Newspaper Directory, the first serious attempt to list all newspapers in the United States with accurate and impartial estimates of their circulation. Ayer’s American Newspaper Annual followed in 1880.

The advertising agency then was organized to give expert and imaginative advice on how to build brand loyalty. Here, too, N.W. Ayer & Son of Philadelphia was a pioneer, with accounts that included Hires Root Beer, Montgomery Ward, Procter & Gamble Soaps, and Burpee Seeds. By 1900 the advertising of foodstuffs held first place in the firm’s volume. What was perhaps the biggest single advertising push until then was Ayer’s campaign, beginning in January 1899, for the new National Biscuit Co. This was one of the first campaigns to feature a staple food that was nationally branded, boxed in individual packages, and ready for consumption. The campaign required the perfecting of an airtight package, and above all the popularizing of a distinctive trademark and brand name. Ayer reached consumers through newspapers, magazines, streetcar ads, posters, and painted signs. Overnight, people all over the country were demanding the “Uneeda Biscuit.”

Of course, “communities” of Uneeda Biscuit buyers and of other brand-name consumers were held together by much thinner, more temporary ties than those that had bound earlier Americans. But they drew together in novel ways people who might not otherwise have been drawn together at all—people who did not share a religious or political ideology, who were not voyaging together on the prairie nor building new towns. The peculiar importance of American consumption communities made it easier to assimilate, to “Americanize,” the many millions who arrived here in the century after the Civil War. Joining consumption communities became a characteristic American mode of acculturation.

For a consumption community, like other communities, consisted of people with a feeling of shared well-being, shared risks, common interests, and common concerns. These came from consuming the same kinds of objects: from those willing to “Walk a Mile for a Camel,” those who wanted “The Skin You Love to Touch,” or who put their faith in General Motors. The advertisers of nationally branded products constantly told their constituents that by buying their products they could join a special group, and millions of Americans were eager to join.

These consumption communities, even while they became ever more significant in the daily life of the nation, were milder, less exclusive, and less serious than the communities that had held men together in an early New England Puritan village or in a westward-moving wagon train. These myraid new “communities” of men and women not in one another’s presence were diffused and dispersed over the country—communities of Lucky Strike smokers and Chevrolet drivers—or, more broadly, of cigarette smokers and car owners. Their members recognized one another, sharing certain illusions, hopes, and disappointments. These were trivial, to be sure, compared to the shared beliefs of the Visible Saints of Massachusetts Bay Colony. But while the seventeenth-century New Englanders were members of only a few intense communities, twentieth-century Americans led more attenuated lives, as members of countless more casual communities.

The modern American, then, was tied, if only by the thinnest of threads and by the most volatile, switchable loyalties, to thousands of other Americans in nearly everything he ate or drank or drove or read or used. Old-fashioned political and religious communities now became only two among many new, once unimagined fellowships. Americans were increasingly held to others not by a few iron bonds, but by countless gossamer webs knitting together the trivia of their lives.

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