Postscript to “Advertising, the Red Scare, and the Blacklist:
BBDO, US Steel, and Theatre Guild on the Air, 1945-52”
Cynthia B. Meyers
For episodes of Theatre Guild on the Air, click here.
Long ago, in an archive far, far away, I came across a document that indicated that an advertising agency believed it should blacklist one of the radio programs it oversaw for a client. I made sure to copy all the documents relating to this client, and carried them back home. The story these documents told, however, did not fit into my dissertation, nor into my subsequent book, A Word from Our Sponsor, on 1930s and 1940s advertising agencies as the producers of what today is called “branded entertainment”—sponsored programs.[i] J. Walter Thompson, Young & Rubicam, Benton & Bowles, and Batten Barton Durstine & Osborn (BBDO), and other ad agencies not only oversaw their clients’ radio advertising but also often developed, produced, cast, scripted, and controlled every element of radio programs, integrating the selling goals of their clients into the entertainment.
Once the book was in proofs, I turned again to these documents, curious as to whether or not I could build a coherent narrative from the fragmentary information suggesting a struggle over blacklisting between the advertising agency, BBDO, its client, US Steel, and the program producers, the Theatre Guild.
Most sources on the broadcast blacklists indicate or assume that there are no surviving primary documents or actual “lists.” Most of what has entered the historical record about how broadcast institutions practiced blacklisting is based on the interviews (mostly anonymous) John Cogley and his staff conducted in 1955 and on the sworn testimony of a few agency executives, producers, and anticommunist activists during John Henry Faulk’s 1962 libel lawsuit against those he claimed falsely accused him of being a communist.[ii] In these BBDO documents, I hoped I had found rare contemporaneous evidence of the internal debates over blacklisting at one of the major broadcast blacklisting institutions.
While there is some excellent scholarship on the broadcast blacklists, very little of it concerns the specific role of advertising agencies in creating, maintaining, and executing the blacklists.[iii] As I argue in A Word from Our Sponsor, the role of the advertising agencies in shaping American commercial broadcasting, and by extension significant elements of American popular culture, has been overlooked and underestimated in most broadcast historiography. The particular dynamics of commercial cultural production have made it difficult, if not impossible at times, to trace the actual originators and producers of many sponsored programs. Advertising industry ethics proscribed public claims of authorship by the advertising agencies lest the name of the agency overshadow that of the product, so agency producers, writers, or directors have remained unknown.
Studying these and other contemporaneous documents, I put together the story of how BBDO pressured its client, US Steel, to protect its public image by allowing BBDO to pre-approve cast lists for the Theatre Guild. BBDO also convinced US Steel to change the name of the program from Theatre Guild on the Air to US Steel Hour to indicate who was actually meant to benefit from the audience’s positive response to the program. I submitted the draft to Cinema Journal in late 2013, satisfied that I had been able to expose a hitherto hidden corner of broadcast history through the fragmentary materials I had found in that archive long, long ago.
Then in 2014, while on sabbatical, I had two research opportunities that have since brought me more deeply into the topic. First, through complicated circumstances, BBDO allowed me access to some of its private, uncatalogued records, stored away in a New Jersey warehouse. These records do not mention blacklisting practices; but they do document the development and inner workings of the agency through many decades. Second, I was awarded a travel fellowship to the Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History at Duke University to begin research on my next book project, Madison Avenue and Television in the 1950s and 1960s, which picks up from where A Word from Our Sponsor ended. I went there to consult the extensive J. Walter Thompson (JWT) records for evidence of how advertising agencies shaped broadcasting through the 1950s and 1960s.
Much to my surprise, I discovered that among the JWT records were two boxes of papers deposited by the one-time vice president of the legal department, Edgar G. Wilson. Wilson had been in charge of maintaining the blacklists for JWT clients, and he had left actual lists of actors and writers whose political affiliations had to be “checked” before JWT could employ them for a sponsor’s program. Among Wilson’s papers was extensive correspondence with a particular client, John Platt of Kraft, regarding his orders to JWT to institute blacklisting on Kraft Television Theatre. John Reber, the JWT executive in charge of JWT-produced radio and television programs from 1930 until his death in 1955, wrote letters and memos arguing that some actors should be removed from the lists, including Walter Matthau, Lee Grant, Ossie Davis, and Sidney Poitier.
I have since drafted another article (soon to be submitted) about the broadcast blacklist based on the JWT records. Instead of extrapolating from fragmentary clues as I did in the BBDO article, I was able cite names, dates, and specific accusations in a detailed history of how the Kraft Television Theatre blacklist actually functioned—of how the agency handled pressures from the client and from the anticommunist activists accusing them of hiring communists, and how these relations evolved as the public climate changed.
That Wilson preserved evidence of JWT’s blacklisting, something that by the 1960s the advertising and broadcast industries were anxious to forget, and that he deposited it for researchers to study, indicate that he may have hoped that future historians might better understand the role of the advertising agencies in the broadcast blacklist. Unlike BBDO, Wilson’s agency was strongly pressured by its client, Kraft, and partially resisted; perhaps he was proud of his part in the struggle.
I hope both of these articles, once both are available, will advance our understanding of the hitherto obscured importance of advertising agencies in the evolution of American mass media.
[i] A Word from Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014).
[ii] John Cogley, Report on Blacklisting: II Radio-Television (N. P.: Fund for the Republic, Inc., 1956); John Henry Faulk, Fear on Trial (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983, 1963).
[iii] Thomas Doherty, Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); David Everitt, A Shadow of Red: Communism and the Blacklist in Radio and Television (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2007).