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Book Review: The Man Who Sold America: Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Century by Jeffrey L. Cruikshank and Arthur W. Schultz

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Defining the legacy of Albert D. Lasker, the paradoxical pioneer who paved the way for 20th century advertising and molded modern consumer response, was a challenging task, admits the authors of The Man Who Sold America: The Amazing (but True!) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Century. For one thing, Jeffrey L. Cruikshank and Arthur W. Schultz found in their evidence and research that Lasker was prone to overstate, elaborate, and fabricate his life’s events, generating “so much electricity — and static – around himself that the reality of his life tended to be hidden from its observers.” And moreover, “Lasker tried consciously to obscure his own role in almost all that he did – to remain the man behind the curtain,” while others took the spotlight.

The Oz-like enigma, who extended his role into politics, professional sports, and other institutional and cultural mainstays, also contributed to confusion in his colleagues, such as the terminated executive who at the same time he grumbled that Lasker is the only man he’d like to murder, also mumbled, “There isn’t a finer man living.” Or the former associate, leaving under duress, declaring “I’d like to kick him in the back,” then following up in unashamedly glowing terms: “I have never met a man as colorful and virile and as personable as Mr. Albert Lasker. Never.”

In any case, the wherewithal’s in the details culled from a recently discovered trove of Lasker’s papers — and perhaps the head-scratching complexities are just the qualifications the job calls for. “Orator and entrepreneur, statesman and pioneer, depressive and overachiever:” Cruikshank and Schultz contend, “These conflicting legacies would advance Albert Lasker’s career, shape his emotions, and dictate his dreams.”
Indeed, as Lasker faced the tasks at hand, his biographers here are up to the challenge – as they amply demonstrate in their seamless and subtly undertaken exploration and elucidation — of reconciling the moodiness of the “super-salesman of the generation” (according to Will Hays, political puppet-master and cultural gadabout and gadfly) with the sweetness and light of the effectual, successful, and stuck-in-your-head advertisements, commercials, and marketing campaigns developed for such household names as Kleenex, Pepsodent, and Sunkist. Quaker Oats Puffed Rice and Puffed Wheat cereals were “foods shot from guns,” Palmolive soap could give you “beauty appeal,” and, when the rubber meets the road, it’s Goodyear “all-weather” tires all the way.

Whether chronicling events or delving into Lasker’s mindset, the biographers’ cohesive skillfulness mirrors Lasker’s analytical expertise and a deftly-played incisiveness that advanced the art and psychology of “reason-why” advertising, infusing ideas and arguments into ad campaigns, outpacing 19th century step-right-up snakeskin salesmen, out-performing a simple jingle-and-a-catchphrase, and out-maneuvering any “hidden persuader” motives of subliminal, and cynically-purposed, speculation.

Before moving to the upper Midwest where he ultimately sought his career and fortune (and won a wife and raised a family), the Germany-born, Texas-raised Lasker, second child of prosperous German Jewish immigrants, showed an early knack for independence and taking initiative, even endorsing a Texas gubernatorial candidate in the Galveston Free Press — a newspaper the 12-year old Albert wrote, edited, and owned. While still in high school he wrote for the Galveston Daily News, planning a journalism career after graduation. But since Albert also showed an early proclivity for trying to keep up with the after-hours drinking of the other newspaper reporters in Galveston — as in each new setting the authors are evocative in illustrating with vivid local color — his father arranged for an ostensibly more straight-laced stint with the Lord & Thomas advertising agency in Chicago.

Here, the inventive and restless Lasker saw opportunities in advertising, but not without some changes knocking, too. Though Lord & Thomas was already a pioneer for being one of the first ad agencies to analyze and plan campaigns for its clients, rather than just take orders for ad placements, advertising companies at the time were mostly brokers of space in newspapers and magazines. So it wasn’t so unusual that in 1898, when Lasker came on board, that Lord & Thomas employed just one graphic artist and a part-time copywriter, representing a still under-performing prospect for a burgeoning America with the emergence of large-circulation newspapers, and.with more and more manufactured goods flooding the markets.

Though it took some doing, the personable Lasker, who quickly rose from office boy to salesman, was able to get the powers that be at Lord & Thomas, and the clients, to put more emphasis on marketing and copywriting (and later on research in order to test and validate different approaches) on “salesmanship in print” that gave people a convincing reason to buy a particular product or service. When profits rolled in following the implementation of his ideas in the ads for the Wilson Ear Drum Company and the 1900 Washer Co., an increasing number of clients clamored for Lasker’s services, and ever more his leaps-and-bounds intuition and rationale were steered further to the big league accounts that Lord & Thomas already had and that they were cultivating — the Sunkists and Kleenex, the car companies and Van Camp’s. Simultaneously, the ads taught us to drink Orange Juice, showed us how to brush our teeth. Lasker  helped overcome the prejudice against women smoking (Lucky Strikes), and came up with a way of merchandising that helped women conquer any reluctance in buying sanitary napkins (Kotex).

Though his employees and clients were often caught off guard by their vigorous leader’s demands and ever-changing disposition, they admired Lasker’s energy and force of personality. “To his subordinates,” the authors write, “he could be alternately inspirational, baffling, and demoralizing. He could be cheerful, playful, irascible, generous, or petty — and he could shift from mood to mood with bewildering speed.” At appropriate passages along the way, Cruikshank and Schultz intervene in the narrative to discuss bipolar disorder and mental fragility as it pertains to creative people in general and, in specific, Lasker, who had to be – or had himself be — sent to a sanatorium when the pressures of life and work got be too much for him, or he had one of his periodic emotional breakdowns.

As the authors ask at one point, “Perhaps the question is not why Albert Lasker crumpled in the spring of 1907, but rather, how he held up as long as he did.” But though Lasker hit a few rough patches in his youth, which the biographers reiterate, and though the setting lies in an age when there was usually little heed given to day-to-day mental health, this warts and all bio — it doesn’t shy away from painting Lasker as a frigid father and an admittedly “poor executive” who hated confrontations — fortunately doesn’t give too much sway to rehashing Lasher’s past with an alarmist psycho-biographical bent, or indulge in psychobabble binges. Cruikshank and Schultz know that the business at hand is business, couched in sumptuous social and cultural history, and though the book detours into other areas, the authors refreshingly convey the relief and change that Lasker felt and the reader seeks when the authors return to the outlet of advertising in America. Perhaps most notable, as Lasker succumbs to other demands on his time, is sports. In particular is his role — after he had taken over ownership of his beloved Chicago Cubs — in restructuring major-league baseball as the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal threatened the sport.

In addition, Lasker, a lifelong Republican, gave vent to a passion for politics when he helped elect a president. When he came on board the 1920 Harding presidential campaign, which took his suggestions to employ — to winning effect — such advertising techniques as newsreels, billboards, and newspaper ads, the election saw one of the largest presidential landslides in history. in addition, becoming the president’s close friend led to Lasker being appointed chairman of the Shipping Board, making Lasker one of the few Jews to achieve a position of public influence during that era. In another electoral matter, Lasker’s foray into politics also included some insidiousness and long-distance puppet-master machinations — or Machiavellian underhandedness, arguably justified — in keeping socialist Upton Sinclair from winning the governorship of California.

That might have been one of those occasions when off-and-on supporters had off-and-on inclinations “to murder [him], every now and then,” or “kick him in the back.” The Man Who Sold America, which features a full-color photo insert with photos and ads related to Lasker’s life and work, is no hagiographic portrait, and there’s no late-life sainthood bestowed as Lasker, who died in 1951 at 72, re-enters advertising in its evolving mid-20th century incarnations. But, as Lasker, with his third wife Mary, delved into more public service and philanthropy, his humanity and idealistic striving was not only sustained, it was revitalized and – to paraphrase one of Lasker’s ads – like something “shot from guns!”

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • http://jeanniedanna.wordpress.com/ jeannie danna

    Interesting, the selling of political figures actually started in 1920. I thought it was a more recent practice.

    My question is, “Will it ever end?”

    Good article, Gordon

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/gordon-hauptfleisch Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Thanks, Jeannie: There were enough under-the-counter transactions going on before 1920 too, back into the 19th century. And no, it will never end.

  • http://jeanniedanna.wordpress.com/ jeannie danna

    Gordon,

    We are being over-sold in this country. I bet that even, Mr. Lasker, would agree.

    It’s a shame that I can’t drive 1/4 mile without seeing obnoxiously-huge billboards, in my region anyway. I go to the larger cities and now see billboards that are digitally-moving-videos; what I can’t figure out about these are why they are allowed to distract drivers. Yet, txting and talking on cell phones while driving are banned. Both, cell-phones and billboards should be banned! I’m guessing that we have to wait until enough deadly accidents are directly caused by them, before anything will be done.

    I don’t know how you feel about this issue, but I believe that consumerism plagues us all.

    JD

  • Jeff Cruikshank

    I’m the author of the book at hand. Very thoughtful review, Mr. Hauptfleisch. Great job.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/gordon-hauptfleisch Gordon Hauptfleisch

    I appreciate the kind words, Mr. Cruikshank. Thank you.

  • Gordon Hauptfleisch

    jeannie: I very much prefer consumerism to a society that would ban it — even including the billboards and cell phones you mention.