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Are You Spoken For? An Ad Campaign and A Cultural Stereotype

A guest blog by volunteer and former intern Emma Winter Zeig 

Photograph taken by the author.

Before a television ad sells a product to the consumer, the company behind the product has to be sold on the ad.  Recently, the major television networks presented their upcoming programming to advertisers in a series of events called the Upfronts. The goal is to showcase the audience that the network can provide for the advertiser, the most recent display of a relationship between television networks and advertisers that is as old as the television industry itself. The Billy Rose Theatre Division at the Library for the Performing Arts has an extensive collection that documents the development of television, including many examples of pitches made by networks to specific companies, like AT&T or Coty Cosmetics, outlining how each network’s programming would be a match for the company’s ideal consumer. I had occasion to look at these pitches while researching 1950s children’s television for the library’s  exhibit on Sesame Street. Advertisers realized early on that the ideal consumer might not have to even be in the room when the ad was playing. In 1956, NBC pitched an ad campaign to Plymouth that would ostensibly only air for an audience who had no independent income: they wanted to get men to buy second cars by airing ads targeting their stay-at-home wives. 

The campaign (found in call number: MFL+nc 2402 #20), called “The ‘Better Half’ of Plymouth sales” was simple enough in theory: run ads for cars during daytime programming, so that women would be convinced to buy a second or replacement car, then run an ad during evening programming so that they would remember that they wanted the car, and convince their husbands to buy it for them.  Playing off a variety of gender stereotypes, the pitch portrays men as easily led by their wives, and women as easily led by basically anyone.  A cartoon on an early page of the booklet shows a shrewish wife upbraiding her husband for his car choice, alongside text that reads “It’s usually what she says to him about your make – that makes the sale” and an ominous question “Are you spoken for?”  For this ad campaign to have any teeth, it has to pull off the hat trick of making women seem as though they are powerful and in control, but also as though they are an easier sell than their husbands.  The case for control is clearly laid out: “Sell her…and she’ll be your supersaleman” since “she controls the household budget.”  However, this isn’t an ad campaign targeting women who are in control of their own income, since it focuses on advertising during programs that aired when most working women would be at work, so as much as the campaign focuses on female-oriented programming, this is a campaign to sell cars to men.  It is important to remember this, because the fact that the women are a mere stopping point on the road to the all-powerful male consumer is significant: if men are the goal, why not just design a campaign for men?

The pitch specifies that this plan will appeal to women because the ads will appear during NBC daytime programming geared toward women, namely, Home with Arlene Francis and NBC Matinee Theater. Plymouth may be trying to sell cars, but Plymouth didn’t come up with this pitch, NBC did, which means that it fills the network’s needs as much as it fills Plymouth’s.  Daytime programming had a much smaller and much less diverse audience than evening programming, since the entire family could tune in once they were home from school or work. This meant that daytime commercial slots were not as valuable.  NBC needed more sponsors for daytime programming because at this point a daytime ad was selling at for less than a quarter of the cost of an evening ad. If they phrased the pitch as another campaign directed at men, they would have to direct the advertisers to the evening programming, where they were already doing good business, and where Plymouth had already bought airtime.

In order for their marketing strategy to work, NBC had to portray the female audience as essential salespeople for their husbands, which means that it had to look like the husbands could not be swayed by mere television ads alone.   Hugh Downs, the “Home-to-Home salesman” of Home is described as being able to “translate the technical and mechanical advantages of your cars into advantages for her and her family,” which is odd, for one thing, because the technical advantages are listed on the second page of the booklet, and things like “widest brake pedal” and “Highway Hi-Fi” don’t need a lot of translation.  It is also interesting because while Home’s host, Arlene Francis, is described as “very successful at getting her to bring him places” this description of Downs is the only description the reader gets of what it takes to sell a woman on a product: in short, the only thing a woman needs to believe in a product is a generalized pitch directed at all women that specifically references the concept of family. 

When it comes to men, however, the booklet outlines all of the reasons why a man could only be persuaded by his wife.  His wife “knows him -- the prospect with the money —intimately,” in addition to knowing “her personal and family needs,” and “when and where it’s best to sell him.”  The market for this ad campaign existed because of the expanding American middle class dream: a lot of families already owned a car, and the race was on to sell them a second one as they moved out to the suburbs.  Part of that dream was the vision that this ad campaign played into, of a wife who desired material possessions, and a more discerning husband who provided for her.

According to this pitch, a woman might follow the lead of anyone that they see on TV, but a man needs to be asked at the right time, in the right place, in the right way, for reasons that relate personally to him, and by a person who knows him well, before he will make a purchase. Though this could just be chalked up to an unfortunate marketing moment, this is actually a strategy that is still used today, when advertisers try to sell one audience with the hope that their audience will sell the target demographic. The key difference? Today, when marketers look for an easily swayed audience with influence that overshadows their income, they usually focus on children. The child’s influence over his or her parents is called “the nag factor” or “pester power” by marketers, based on the fact that a child can wear down their parents, the more discerning consumers, based on their knowledge of when, where, and how to ask their parents for a product. Sixty years, ago, these were the characteristics the people who wrote the pitch for Plymouth pitch for NBC attributed not to the average five or ten year old, but to the average adult woman.  

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