History Through Hollywood: Ads
The History Through Hollywood series looks at old films as inadvertent time capsules packed with the norms and customs, both quotidian and grand, of a bygone era. Old movies are full of history hiding in plain sight, and you can learn a lot without meaning to, and usually without even noticing. After all, traditions change, cultural mores shift, and technology races on. What was once commonplace might now seem totally weird; for example, when was the last time you saw a man wearing sock garters? Have you ever noticed that no one drinks wine in old films but instead opts for cocktails? And why does everyone have an English accent and place telephone calls through operators?
This series is also my attempt to explain why old movies can sometimes seem so very different from today’s films. With a little context, a “boring,” and “tame” old film can suddenly shimmer (watch for those cross-dissolves, people!), and something that seems utterly alien can suddenly make sense (why are so many wives going to Reno?)
You can read my other History Through Hollywood posts about sex, speedy romances, doughnuts, train travel, fashion, divorce, and the ever-smoldering cigarettes here, but this entry is a little different. Rather than examine something I’ve noticed in old movies, today I’m going to be looking at the adjacent world of advertising, specifically movie star product endorsements.
I was inspired to write about this because I keep coming across amazing old ads for everything from pimple cream to shoes to lipstick as I research classic movies. Some of them are quaint reminders of what used to be in style, and some are amusingly and occasionally horribly old-fashioned, drenched in sexism, explicit body shaming, or other problematic issues that wouldn’t be accepted today. (We’ll get to all the tobacco ads in a moment)
For example, many ads from this period are all about either catching or keeping a man. The ad on the left claims that changing one’s face powder is a surefire way to get married, and the one in the middle is attempting to sell toothpaste by claiming that a girl with unclean teeth will never catch a beau. Basically, the threat of ending up a spinster, which is likely unless you’re gorgeous, fragrant, and perfectly made up (never mind being smart or interesting), hangs over most of the ads geared towards women, which can make them both disturbing and hilarious. (Typically the movie star endorsements are less horrifying because no star wanted to appear in an ad suggesting she had horrible bad breath and therefore couldn’t keep a man, as the last ad does…)
(Most of the ads in this post came from the Lantern Media History Project from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It’s a fantastic resource!)
Besides the novelty value, I find these old ads interesting because they are the precursor to what exists now, though with some important differences. Today it seems as though every brand has a celebrity spokesperson, and a star hasn’t really made it until she is schilling for bottled water, an anti-aging potion, or designer handbags. For an overwhelming example of this, walk through the Duty Free fragrance section of an airport. You’ll be assaulted on all sides by huge ads featuring Best Actor and Actress winners variously smiling or smoldering at you.
But this relationship between movie stars and corporations is far from new. The practice of celebrity endorsement actually dates back centuries, with royalty acting as the first “stars.” Josiah Wedgwood, of the famed pottery company, is often cited as one of the first to use a royal endorsement, in this case from Queen Charlotte in the 1760s. She apparently liked her set of Wedgwood cream ware so much that she granted Wedgwood permission to advertise himself as “Potter to Her Majesty,” and to call the particular style “Queen’s Ware.” You can read more about that here.
In America, athletes have been teamed with products since the late 1800’s; for example, tobacco companies included cards featuring sports stars in cigarette packs, and then branched out to other forms of celebrity. You can see an example of this in Calamity Jane when the men lust after the photos of stage star Adelaid Adams included in some of the packs.
When the movie business started churning out national and international stars in the 1910’s, companies took notice. In exchange for an endorsement, testimonial, or the use of a star’s name or image, the star’s studio might receive cash, and the actor or actress might receive money or the product; for example, as much soap or face powder as they wanted.
So, almost since movie stars have existed, they have also used their celebrity to endorse products. But there is a major difference in today’s endorsements versus those in the studio era. It’s a consequence of the collapse of the studio system and the end of the multi-year contracts that actors used to sign with a specific studio. This practice went back to the ‘teens when studios started signing actors and actresses to (usually) seven-year deals.
This gave the studio exclusive right to the star and provided a measure of security to the actor, though many chafed under the strict terms and wanted more control over their films and roles. Some of the biggest stars like Barbara Stanwyck and Carole Lombard refused to sign with just one studio and instead freelanced, working with specific studios depending on the picture.
But they were the exception; most actors continued under the seven-year system. This matters for endorsements because a studio effectively “owned” a star and his or her image. So a company might approach a studio to negotiate an actress’s endorsement rather than the actress herself.
It was a win-win for the company and the studio: the company got a powerful endorsement from a movie star, and the studio kept their precious actress in the public eye and got a plug for her most recent studio film. You can see copy like “Judy Garland, appearing in Meet Me in St. Louis, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Picture,” (left) in almost all of the vintage ads.
As you can imagine, the studios had enormous power when it came to endorsement deals. According to the fascinating book Endorsements in Advertising: A Social History, by Kerry Segrave, Variety reported in 1919 that a certain studio forbid its actors from signing endorsement deals unless the studio gave permission. If permission was granted, the star got some money or product, and the studio got paid for the use of “their” actor or actress, a fee that could reach as high as $5,000 for a major star.
By the late 1920s, endorsement deals had skyrocketed. Segrave notes that some companies had salespeople in Hollywood dedicated solely to creating and maintaining relationships with stars and studios in an effort to keep the endorsements coming. And “the studios receive hundreds of letters from all parts of the world seeking permission to use the names of their players in connection with the advertising of product.”
No star took advantage of the new advertising world as much as Constance Talmadge, who reportedly endorsed several hundred products. Indeed, one magazine from 1927 featured the actress in nine different advertisements, including one for a clock, a watch, a wedding ring, a weight loss pill, gum, radio tubes, and car tires. One wonders how long her credibility lasted for the reader as she flipped through the magazine!
Tobacco companies were some of the first to take advantage of celebrity endorsements. (But even in the 1920s, the Federal Trade Commission investigated the ads for misleading and false content. You can read more about that here.) Indeed, tobacco companies were so focused on actor endorsements that almost 200 stars were contracted to advertise their products in the 1930s and 1940s. An amazing two-thirds of the actors who ranked in the top 50 of box office draws were involved in tobacco endorsements during that period.
Another pioneer of celebrity tie-ins was Max Factor (of the eponymous cosmetics brand). At first he applied his innovative paints and powders to the stars for their onscreen appearances, but he began utilizing them in his ads when he took his “make-up” (a term the company first started using in 1920; until then it was “cosmetics”) to a wider audience in the 1920s. Other companies soon followed.
Lux Soap was particularly invested in the endorsement game, too, as you can see from the ads below. According to Segrave, an advertisement from 1933 claimed that 686 of the 694 “important” Hollywood actresses, “including all stars,” used Lux soap to keep their complexions camera-perfect!
The ad featuring Carole Lombard is particularly unsubtle, with an insert reading, “I’m a Lombard fan–I’ll never have ugly cosmetic skin because I use Lux Toilet Soap as she does!” The connection between star and product is awfully clear. According to Segrave, Lux didn’t pay the actors for their image, and the stars were “apparently content, or forced to be content by their studios, with the publicity value of the ad, and a certain amount of free soap supplied by Lux.”
Of course, plenty of advertisements continued to feature anonymous pretty faces, models, or even socialites, but suddenly they had competition:
Movie star endorsements became so prolific that accusations of false testimonials and stars endorsing products that they didn’t use or perhaps didn’t even realize they were endorsing led the Hays office to issue some restrictions in the early 1930s. Advertisers started going after freelancers to get around the new rules about studio-sanctioned ads.
But it didn’t work—the studios liked their endorsement deals and the publicity they provided, and companies were anxious to enlist famous faces. Eventually the ban was dropped, and in 1935, Variety reported that “Studios have gone wild on commercial tie-ins and have completely kicked wide open the Hays edict…”
As I mentioned earlier, although some stars were involved in negotiations for endorsements, others claimed that the studio took full control. Segrave notes that many stars admitted that the endorsement deals were “entirely out of their hands,” and some contracts with studios even included a provision forbidding the actor from signing any endorsement deals or testimonials except through the studio’s manager or the publicity department. But the studio could sign anything on behalf of the star.
For example, Esther Williams wrote in her autobiography that she and her fellow stars spent a great deal of time posing for photographs in the MGM portrait studio, and she never knew what MGM might decide to do with the images.
Some were published in fan magazines accompanying approved stories, for example, a Modern Screen feature includes an odd assortment of photographs of Williams screwing in a lightbulb, posing next to a dart board, dabbing on perfume at her dressing table, clutching a piggy bank, and sitting on her husband’s lap. These were provided by MGM to the magazine, which was a common practice.
But many of the photographs Williams posed for were used for advertisements. These ads were produced without her consent and without compensation because the companies paid the studio, not the star.
That’s why it was so shocking for MGM chief L.B. Mayer when Williams told him about a deal she had worked out with swimsuit company Cole of California in 1948. In exchange for using her image and endorsement to sell their suits, Cole would provide free suits for Williams and her chorus of swimmers in the film Neptune’s Daughter (1949), in which Williams played a champion swimmer turned swimsuit designer. Williams would also receive a five percent royalty on sales of the “Esther Williams suit,” and she signed with Cole to develop lines for kids and juniors.
Mayer was flabbergasted to learn that Williams was negotiating her own endorsement deals—it simply wasn’t done! But the idea of getting costumes for free made the deal palatable, and Mayer okayed it. In fact, you can see a color version of an actual Cole’s ad behind Williams in this scene with Betty Garrett in Neptune’s Daughter:
Here is the original:
Although product placement and cross-promotion and synergy and celebrity spokespeople sometimes seem new or perhaps more extreme than ever, they’ve existed for about as long as Hollywood. So the next time you see Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, or Johnny Depp eyeing you from a billboard or a page in a magazine, remember that they are just the latest in a very long line! And be grateful that you’re not confronted by depressing, sexist ads about halitosis! (That’s not to say that advertisements aren’t sexist now, just that it’s not as overt. Sometimes.)
For more on celebrity endorsements in the past and today, including the benefits and the challenges of social media, check out this article and this one. And check out Duke University’s incredible, digitized collection of vintage ads in the Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History.