Old ads look funny to us today in part because advertisers believed the purpose of ads was to educate consumers about the product. Direct hard sell didacticism resulted in repetitious ads, heavy with product attributes.
Today few ads include product information; most ads work by creating associations, such as with celebrities, making emotional appeals, or by entertaining audiences with humor. Today we are accustomed to the indirect strategies of the soft sell.
So, one reason some programs of old time radio sound unsophisticated to us today is that they were designed to educate not just entertain.
In the 1930s and 1940s, advertisers such as GE, DuPont, and US Steel also hoped to educate audiences with their corporate image advertising, known then as “institutional” advertising. Such advertisers financed highbrow cultural programming, such as classical music or serious drama, to educate audiences and uplift their cultural tastes, with the goal of demonstrating their own good citizenship and contributions to the progress of modern America.
Advertisers who used radio this way believed in strong media effects. The “hypodermic needle” theory of communication assumed that exposure to the message guaranteed its dissemination. Many advertisers felt a strong responsibility for managing these strong media effects, and so believed it was a form of “service” to use their advertising for what they believed was the public’s benefit.
As we enter a new era in which advertisers seek to integrate their advertising into content or programming, we see a new version of the desire to educate, as in IBM’s recent video using actual atoms.
Far more subtle, these advertising vehicles entertain as they inform and educate. Advertising as a form of education has not ended, only changed.