The Ad Man Goes to War - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Ad Man Goes to War

Imagine if you’d turned on your TV a few months after 9/11 and seen a car ad that showed a man in a uniform, tossing the keys to his girlfriend while the announcer intoned the copy: “He’s been called up. He thought he might. He’s looking forward to the day when he comes home, knowing he did his part to make sure Islamist terrorism doesn’t threaten the world anymore. He’s imagining turning the key and hearing that motor purr. Sure, it’ll run. No doubt. Ford and America: Built for the long haul.”

This would have caused cranial detonations in faculty lounges nationwide. Proof the country had devolved into propagandistic fascism, a total militarization of civilian culture. Of course, that’s what the left concluded anyway. But advertising culture skipped merrily along throughout the aughts, ignoring the war on terror as if it was a movie playing in a theater on the other side of town. If a whiskey maker had put out an ad saying, “We’re pretty sure al Qaeda men don’t drink Chivas. That ought to tell you all you need to know,” they would have been excoriated for cultural insensitivity. If there’d been riots in Pakistan over the ad, well, we asked for it.  

Future anthropologists may well conclude the early twenty-first century put its fingers in its ears and closed its eyes and hummed loudly, driving out anything that suggested an existential struggle with an ideological foe. Why, they might ask, did the ads pretend there was no war, when the ads of the 1940s were wholly devoted to patriotic exhortations to victory against a similar threat?

Why, indeed.[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”media_large”,”fid”:”95191″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”333″,”style”:”float: right;”,”typeof”:”foaf:Image”,”width”:”250″}}]]

One of the greatest gifts of Google is the complete run of Life magazine, digitized for your perusal. Years ago they were rare precious relics that turned up in a thrift store when a kid cleaned out Mom’s house. Now every page is online. The stories and photos are interesting, sure—but it’s the bright braying ads that fascinate, particularly the ones that stuffed the issues during World War II. Everything was devoted to war. You couldn’t sell a toothbrush without portraying them as marching soldiers: Back the Attack on Plaque! It’s one thing to watch a ’40s movie and note patriotic themes while rolling your eyes like a good modern at the musicals where men in uniform sing a song for a bond rally. Really, Leni would approve. But you have to look at the ads to understand how the war consumed the popular imagination. The war was everything.

The ads fell into several categories.


The connection between a product and the decisive defeat of fascism sometimes seemed a bit tenuous.  The copy usually went like this: “Johnny’s got a tough job—the Japs are dug in good, brother—but he knows the ammo’s safe and dry. Making sure the bottom doesn’t come out of his ammo case is just one way Consolidated Luggage and Card Tables is helping him come home soon, but everyone needs to do their part. Buy Bonds!”

Think that’s an exaggeration?

And that’s why he, like many Marines, depends on Mimeograph Duplicators. For those moments when reading a fresh copy makes you clench your fist with Steely Resolve.


If a product didn’t have a specific wartime application, well, you could always work it in somehow. Meet the Conscious Production Beavers.

What’s the ad for? Whiskey, of course. Just as the Beavers are a “happy blend of virtues,” so Calvert is a happy blend of various noble whiskeys. Ads like this make you suspect people tired of constant hectoring about fats and gardens and tire drives and the rest of it—for God’s sake I hate Hitler and I want us to win and I buy War Bonds and we gave an oldwheelbarrow to the scrap drive and my nephew is in the Pacific but can I choose a whiskey without wondering whether my endorsement of these beavers gives Göring sleepless nights? I mean, I used a Mimeo machine at work the other day and didn’t think about the Marines at all. I’m sorry. But it was a Thursday. I had a toothache. I’m in Des Moines.[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”media_large”,”fid”:”95192″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”327″,”style”:”float: right;”,”typeof”:”foaf:Image”,”width”:”250″}}]]


This fellow with the jaunty buttocks is going to help win the war by choosing Wilson Brothers clothing. 

He says: “I’ve got to pay taxes, right? I want to buy War Bonds, see?” And for my own part on the job at home, I’ve got to look good. So I’m buying all my clothes carefully from this point on…and maybe that don’t hurt Hitler!” 

It’s unlikely der Führer was pacing the perimeter of his Alpine estate, shouting spittle-flecked rants about high-quality American underwear: “First we were stymied by the Swiss and their well-woven socks, then the Russians with their dependable pants fasteners, and now this! This!”

Most of the home-front ads were aimed at women, assuring them that they were doing their part by not hanging out laundry during high winds because that could fray the sheets and fabric was needed to Smash the Axis. Or they could cook meals that kept everyone full of pep, which was good for optimism, or kept you from slacking off at the plant. Wasted food was unpatriotic.

Another company proudly announced it was suspending its usual ads in favor of home front hints. Here we see Johnnyand Suzy not only getting good exercise, but helping contribute to the conveyance of devastating incendiary devices dropped from on high.

The sponsor? Mennen after-shave. Oh, but don’t look for any Mennen in the stores, because there isn’t any. It’s all going to the troops.


Smoking was a happy thing during the war, a small pleasure, a respite from work, worries, and incoming projectiles. Chesterfield gave us this fellow, who brings to mind the Simpsons episode in which Homer discovers that the entire steel industry has gone gay.

There were celebrity pitches and reminders to send your fighting boy a carton, but the most poignant ads showed the soldier home on leave, with Mom and Dad beaming with pride and unspeakable relief as he sank into a chair and lit up. One ad makes the parental cigarette-supply mission a part of a surprise visit. 

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”media_large”,”fid”:”95200″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”354″,”style”:”float: left;”,”typeof”:”foaf:Image”,”width”:”250″}}]]Don’t mail the cigarettes, bring them home. You didn’t have to say much more then. This would not only mean nothing today, but even if they could advertise cigarettes, the Post Office would protest the mention and rush out a series of stamps commemorating Revolutionary War anti-tobacco activists. 

The most curious ad to modern eyes comes from the ill-named Spuds.

Ad-man genius, right there. An entirely new concept was involved: WAR SMOKING. If frazzled nerves over Axis advances have you pounding sixty nails a day, switch to Spuds. Say, Jane, you seem much calmer today! Aren’t you concerned about Monty’s setbacks as he pushes north through Italy? Not at all, Sally—I switched to Spuds, and now I understand that the give-and-take of the battlefield is part of war’s fluid nature. 


Many companies had mascots that donned uniforms for the duration, but few had the personality, and domestic difficulties, of Elsie the Borden Cow. In her early years she was unnervingly bovine, walking on all fours, chatting away, naked to the world. But she soon stood up on her back hooves, donned an apron, and got hitched to Elmer, an ill-tempered bull with whom she would have three calves. Elmer held a day job in an office somewhere, but Elsie brought in the serious money with her Borden work, and this must have explained the tensions the ads displayed in a marvelous series of exquisitely rendered ads. [[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”media_large”,”fid”:”95199″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”278″,”style”:”float: right;”,”typeof”:”foaf:Image”,”width”:”250″}}]]

To save gas and tires, Elmer must roller-skate to work! And he falls, painfully. Elsie chides him and switches the subject to Borden, which only enrages him more. In a department store, she terrifies everyone by calling a music box DYNAMITE, which almost gives Elmer a heart attack; he thinks it’s a booby trap. No, Elsie chirps, spur-of-the-moment needless purchases cause inflation, which is dynamite to the economy. On and on it goes, until he strikes back. 

It was funny, because the idea that Elsie was a slacker—well, really. On the other hand, slackers were bad. You weren’t a slacker. Were you? Just curious. 


Toward the end of the war the ads started to show houses in the clouds glowing like celestial dwellings. There were imaginary electric kitchens, hope chests bursting with silver, picket fences, and babies. 

There’s a quiet unspoken confidence in these ads. A few years back, a Nash-Kelvinator ad showed a dogface in a landing craft, hard face accepting his fifty-fifty shot, the text laying out why he fought: to go home and live in a fair place. By ’45 the stark tableaus softened to the imminence of victory and the boon it would yield—not plunder, not triumphs, not humiliation and subjugation, but just a train-ride home, a few words from the padre, and socially sanctioned intercourse. Then kids: two, three, who knows. Everything would be better on the other side, too. Sleek, modern, maybe atom-powered. Hell, there might even be a TV set built into the wall. One thing’s for sure, soldier—it’ll all be worth it because you’re going to have a nice place with a radio and a push-button stove.

We snicker at this now because we have radios and push-button stoves, and can’t imagine why that was ever a big deal. 

We can’t imagine opening up a magazine and seeing an ad explaining that chocolate is in short supply because it’s all going to the front. [[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”media_large”,”fid”:”95202″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”321″,”style”:”float: right;”,”typeof”:”foaf:Image”,”width”:”250″}}]]

We can’t imagine an ad that tells us what we can’t have because the world is on fire. We can’t imagine ads that say just wait, hold on, endure. This horrible normal will pass, but just so you know: We are at war, and everything is at stake. Everything matters. Even toothbrushes. 

It was an era in which the entirely of American industry not only acknowledged a war, but joined it, endorsed its goals, castigated the enemy, wished for violent victory, made gun-toting meat-eating smokers a model of American manhood, praised the eventual goal of marriage and child-rearing, and declared fealty to national union and stalwart American ideals. 

They could also write off the ads as business expenses, but still. Those were the days.   

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