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3. Defining Advertising as Mediated Communication

Albert Lasker (1880-1952) grew up in Galveston, Texas, spent his working life in advertising in Chicago, and lived out his later years in New York. From 1903 to 1938, he headed the Lord & Thomas Agency in Chicago — one of the great advertising agencies of the early 20th century. Late in life, he married the much younger Mary Lasker who outlived him by many years. Together, they established The Lasker Foundation, a philanthropic organization devoted to medical research, with some of the money Lasker had earned in advertising. Lasker himself was quirky (he insisted on fresh cut flowers, changed daily in his New York residence), brilliant (he had a real knack with advertising), and successful (he made a fortune in the early 20th century). His name appears on virtually every list of great men and women in advertising. John Gunther, popular biographer of the mid-20th century, wrote about Lasker's life in Taken at the Flood (1960).4 Not to be outdone, Lasker dictated his autobiography, The Lasker Story, as He Told It (1963).5

One of the anecdotes in these biographies is about a meeting that took place between Lasker and John E. Kennedy in May 1905. Lasker was a junior partner in Lord & Thomas at that time and Kennedy was retired from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and working as a copywriter. The apocryphal account tells that Kennedy sent a message to Albert Lasker that read as follows:

I can tell you what advertising is. I know you don't know. It will mean much to me to have you know what it is and it will mean much to you. If you wish to know what advertising is send the word 'yes' down by the bell boy. Signed —John E. Kennedy.6

Albert Lasker
is remembered as one of the key figures in American Advertising. His great fortune, made in 20th century advertising, funded The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation. Lasker invited Kennedy upstairs and spent a long evening in conversation with him. He was enthralled with Kennedy's concise definition: "Advertising is salesmanship in print." The key to understanding the definition lies in what Kennedy meant by salesmanship. Imagine yourself — not in this day and age of Wal-Marts and other mega-stores where it is often difficult to get sales assistance — but in a department store in, say, 1905. The clerks at the glove counter know the insides and outsides of what they sell. You can say that your hands are unusually cold in winter, that your fingers are long or short, that you only want leather or don't want leather, that you want domestic-made goods only, and so on. Whoever helps you will pull out a tray holding just the right kind of gloves for you. She will answer your questions, try to meet your needs, and tailor what she says to what you want to know. This is personal salesmanship — it is face-to-face and designed specifically for you. It is not about the things that you consider irrelevant (for example, foreign-made goods when you have specified that you only want domestic-made ones, or leather gloves when you've said you want cloth).

Fig. 1.18 The Glove Counter of Rike's
Department Store, Dayton, Ohio, 1893 [Source]

What Kennedy offered to Lasker was an interpretation of advertising that explained that advertising is the transformation of this personalized selling message into a mass-mediated one. Advertising attempts to do what salesmanship does, but to do it through a mass medium like a newspaper or magazine. That is the meaning of salesmanship in print.

In 1905, newspapers, magazines, and billboards were the primary ways advertising messages were communicated. Radio did not exist as a commercial medium, and television was only a pipe dream. In attempting to reach a broad audience with different needs and likes, advertising could not be tailored individually as in the face-to-face communications of salesmanship. The message had to work for a mass audience. It had to do for hundreds, thousands, or nowadays, even millions of people what the store clerk did for the person across the counter. Its job was to communicate a relevant selling message to as many people as possible. But it needed to be about short and long fingers, domestic as well as foreign gloves, and so on.

In the course of communicating to a mass audience, the precision of personal salesmanship is usually lost. Messages become less specific, and many are altogether irrelevant. As salesmanship becomes advertising, communication can become clutter.

Kennedy's definition has become a great classic, especially among copywriters and other advertising professionals who see the genius of this simple but effective description. The definition has to be adjusted, of course, for the times. Many new media have evolved since 1905 — radio, TV, the Internet. Were Kennedy announcing his definition in 2005, he would probably need to say: Advertising is salesmanship through a mass medium.

Fig. 1.19 Radio Quickly Became A Medium for Advertising in America [Source]
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