Ad strategies of the Great Depression can inform today's crisis communications

January 21, 2024

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Ad strategies of the Great Depression can inform today's crisis communications

The COVID-19 pandemic was not the first time a crisis swept through the US, forcing businesses and media to find ways to reach people in uncertain times. A new study has analyzed newspaper advertising strategies from the Great Depression to see what one historic crisis can teach communicators about reaching people today.

Researchers analyzed newspaper ads from Dust Bowl states during 1934 to see how businesses and companies tried to reach consumers. Results showed essential services such as utilities, banks and transportation companies used informational and rational strategies, while nonessential services such as tobacco and cosmetics companies tended to use transformational and sensory approaches. While the times and technologies of the two eras were different, lessons learned can both help communicators avoid mistakes of the past and consider new ways to communicate with people during times of crisis.

What the researchers say: “It was interesting to me to think about how, during COVID, so many newspapers turned to the 1918 influenza pandemic to see what they could learn. But nobody seemed to really look at the advertising side,” the lead author said. “We saw a lot of lessons to be learned from the Great Depression when American society and media were dealing with the economic crisis and the Dust Bowl, two major catastrophes, at the same time.”

The study analyzed newspaper ads from the year 1934 published in Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. The states were chosen as they were the epicenter of the Dust Bowl crisis, while 1934 was selected as the timeframe because it was one of the most financially and economically devastating years of the Depression.

Analysis showed brands continued to advertise and used psychological approaches to appeal to people at that particular time in history. Banks, which took much of the blame for the financial struggles of the time, tended to use reassurance as a theme, urging people to trust them as they were in the struggle with the people. Some ads saw claims of banks investing one dollar of their own for every four deposited by consumers. One featured a drawing of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt shaking hands with Baby New Year and promising that next year would be better for everyone.

Advertisements for nonessential products like tobacco or cosmetics tended to appeal to people’s senses, rights to feel good despite hard times and transforming from their difficult circumstances. Cosmetics ads assured women their products could help them move to higher social classes, while cigarette ads claimed their products could make people feel better and even deliver health benefits.

Newspapers were not immune from the struggles of the era, and publications engaged in boosterism, or positioning themselves as essential to people’s lives, especially during difficult times. That echoed an earlier time in American history. As communities were established in the 19th century, a newspaper was viewed as key to having a successful city.

“They positioned themselves as the best way to find the most important information,” the researchers said. “‘Of all things you might sacrifice, not your newspaper.’ Not only because they would find the best information there, but because they’d find the best deals.”

And times of financial hardship, finding deals is especially important to consumers. Advertisers repeatedly touted not only their own good prices but the acceptability of thrift as a practice.

The researchers found that there were parallels between advertising during the Depression and the more recent pandemic.

“A lot of ads during the pandemic were focusing on ‘staycations.’ Saying things like, ‘Even if you’re stuck at home, you still deserve to feel good.’ That’s similar to how tobacco ads promoted health,” they explained. “They were trying to distract from the tragic position and focus less on the problems ‘out there’ and more on economic or social betterment.”

Understanding what types of approaches work in times of crisis can benefit advertisers and consumers, the authors wrote.

“The two sides get disconnected, especially in times of crisis,” the lead author said of advertisers and consumers. “We saw during the pandemic how many institutions simply went silent or went with a bland ‘we’re all in this together’ message and got criticized for being tone deaf. Understanding past approaches can help avoid that type of criticism and get people the information they need.”

So, what? Human beings—unlike other sentient animals—are unpersuadable by facts, reasoning, or logic. Our drivers to buy anything are emotion and/or relationship driven.

In fact, we only buy four things: shelter (which includes clothing), food (which of course includes drink), reproductive success (which, naturally, involves sex) and relationship support. The purchase is either directly obvious (buying a house for example) or indirect (for example a cruise holiday is often either a relationship purchase, or a drive for reproductive success/sexual gratification). In any transaction the underlying driver may not be consciously known to the buyer.

Any advertiser must be aware of which of these four they are actually selling and what emotional pull will make the sale compelling. A lawyer, for example, is not selling their expertise or their knowledge of the law. They are selling relationship support—either their personal support or a means for the client to get the support of a third party whose support they feel they need.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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