Americans are great at rattling off Nike slogans and reciting the lyrics to the Big Mac theme song. But ask them to name the man often described as the "father of modern advertising" and you might as well ask them to name the U.S vice-president in 1853. That so few people have ever heard of William Rufus DeVane King is understandable–he died after just 45 days in office as second-in-command to Franklin Pierce. That so few people have ever heard of the man who convinced America to brush its teeth every day and made it fashionable for women to smoke in public is downright unpatriotic.
His name was Albert Lasker, and he's the subject of a new biography, The Man Who Sold America, co-authored by Jeffrey L. Cruikshank and Arthur W. Schultz. Lasker was born in 1880 and grew up in Galveston, Texas, where his father, a German-Jewish immigrant, was a prosperous businessman and influential figure in local politics. At 11 years old, Albert started publishing a four-page weekly newspaper, The Galveston Free Press, that included local news, political editorials, theater reviews. The young entrepreneur managed to attract enough advertisers to make approximately $60 a month for his efforts, or $1,414 in 2009 dollars.
That, it turns out, was one of the least prosperous stretches of his career. After graduating high school, Lasker wanted to follow his journalistic muse, but his father felt the newspaper business was a disreputable industry full of drunks. Hoping to steer his son away from a life of ink-stained dissolution, he set him up with an entry-level salesman's position at an advertising agency in Chicago.
Apparently the industry had yet to institutionalize three-martini lunches. But if ad men weren't yet as bibulous as their counterparts in the newspaper business, they weren't as industrious either. While advertising agencies had been around for about 60 years at that point–the first ones were founded in 1842–they mostly functioned as brokers of newspaper and magazine space. Agencies distinguished themselves not through their creative work but through which segments of the market they specialized in. If you wanted to buy space in women's magazines, you went to J. Walter Thompson. If you wanted to buy space in agricultural publications, you went to N.W. Ayer & Son. Lord & Thomas, the agency Lasker joined, specialized in religious publications.
When he arrived there in 1898, it employed one half-time copywriter and one graphic artist. But American life was poised for big changes. Manufacturers in numerous industries were substantially increasing their output and had a pressing need to expand the market for their wares. National daily newspaper circulation had grown from 254,000 in 1860 to 2.2 million in 1900. Railroads were laying down thousands of miles of new track. To simply sell space to advertisers was no longer enough, Lasker decided. If Lord & Thomas aggressively pitched its creative capabilities, it could charge higher commissions. If the agency could create more ads that were more effective than the lackluster fare that clients had been producing when left to their own devices, that would increase sales, which would in turn encourage advertisers to buy more space.
At the time, most ads simply presented a product to the public, perhaps with an illustrated mascot and an uninspired tagline. "How would you like to have a fairy in your home?" went one that depicted a cute little girl. "Use Fairy Soap." For Lasker, however, just saying a product's name wasn't enough. Advertising was news, he decided. It had to communicate something important. And then, with the help of a copywriter named John E. Kennedy, he further developed his philosophy. Advertising was, as Kennedy put it, "salesmanship in print." You had to appeal to a consumer's self-interest. You had to give potential customers a "reason why," a directive that would make them understand how a product could dramatically improve their life in some way.
"A century later, this doesn't sound like a particularly powerful insight," the authors of The Man Who Sold America observe. But in 1898, Lasker's approach to commerce was as revolutionary an idea as Amazon and eBay would be 100 years later. Combining persuasive, consumer-centric copy with a media network that could reach millions of people at once allowed manufacturers to move goods as never before. Over the course of his career, Lasker oversaw dozens of hugely successful campaigns and established Lord & Thomas as one of leading agencies in the United States. Lord & Thomas made oranges and raisins proprietary by creating the brands Sunkist and Sun-Maid. It helped Goodyear quadruple the sale of its tires in less than four years. It figured out a better way to market Kotex, offering it in a "wrapped box" that women could pick up and purchase without having to request it from a sales clerk. It turned Pepsodent and Palmolive into category leaders. It helped Lucky Strikes increase sales from 25 million to 150 million a day by positioning it as an alternative to sweets for women watching their figures. It brought Amos & Andy to NBC's radio network, hired an unknown Bob Hope to serve as its pitchman for Pepsodent, and helped pioneer the soap opera genre with its radio show The Story of Mary Marlin.
In 1904, a 24-year-old Lasker purchased a 25 percent ownership stake in Lord & Thomas. Eight years later, he owned it completely. Under his guidance, the agency didn't just craft pretty images and slogans to publicize its clients' products. Instead, it served a more strategic role. In many instances, it encouraged the companies it worked with to reformulate products in ways that made them more compelling to consumers. In others, it hatched schemes to get consumers to use its clients' products in ways the client had never pursued. To get people to buy more oranges, for example, and thus benefit its client, the California Fruit Growers Exchange, it hit upon the strategy of popularizing orange juice. First, it worked with a manufacturer to develop better juice extractors–electric ones for commercial use and simple glass ones for the home. Then, it launched its "drink an orange" campaign, with ads that advised consumers to look for the inexpensive glass extractors at their local retailer. This single campaign, the authors of The Man Who Sold America report, increased orange consumption per serving in the United States "from half an orange to between two and three."
Lasker made millions, bought a stake in the Chicago Cubs, built a huge mansion on 480 acres outside Chicago that featured its own world-class golf course, and longed to make a bigger impact on the world. In 1920, he served as "chief propagandist" for Warren G. Harding's successful presidential campaign, a gig whose responsibilities included helping the patrician politician look more manly and down to earth by having him strike out Cubs right fielder Max Flack in a carefully arranged photo op. Later in his life, after he'd sold Lord & Thomas to the three successors that would give it its new name–Foote, Cone & Belding–he became a major philanthropist, working on behalf of the American Cancer Society, the National Institutes of Health, and Planned Parenthood, amongst others.
"Throughout his life, Lasker wanted to do something of significance, and feared he hadn't," write the authors of The Man Who Sold America. Thus, his excursions into politics, philanthropy, and public service. (After helping to elect Harding, he served Harding's administration for two years as chairman of the Shipping Board, an emergency agency that was initially created in 1916 to regulate the commercial maritime industry during wartime.)
But it was his genius for selling everything from avocados to sanitary napkins that had the most profound and lasting influence on American life. Because of the mass consumption he helped inspire, products proliferated, prices dropped, and quality improved. "The general raising of the standards of modern civilization among all groups of people during the last half century would have been impossible without the spreading of knowledge of higher standards by means of advertising," exclaimed a perceptive but long-winded Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the late 1920s, when he was governor of New York. Lasker, whose own attempts at writing copy weren't particularly distinguished, couldn't have said it any better himself. But surely one of his staffers would have made such sentiments sing.
Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his Reason archive here.