The Biggest PR Campaigns from Each Decade, Part 1 (1900s-1940s)

Tara Figg
 Posted on 25, Aug 2023

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

This famous quote was penned by George Santayana in his 1904 philosophical book Reason in Common Sense. It was part of a series, The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress, which Santayana - an American philosopher originally born in Spain - finished in 1906. The five-volume philosophical work explored the development and manifestations of human reason in society and personal life. Through this seminal text, Santayana conveys his belief that reason shapes art, society, and religion, culminating in the above oft-cited assertion that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

What does that mean for public relations (PR)? Well, PR is a delicate industry, where a wrong word or turn of phrase can spell disaster for an individual or company. To craft an ideal PR campaign, you can’t do better than to research, research, research - and part of that is learning what has succeeded and failed in the past.

Basically, if you want to avoid the mistakes of past disastrous PR campaigns, you have to learn about them.

This brings us to the study of PR during the last century. While the art of PR is as old as time, the 20th century saw an unprecedented evolution in the way PR campaigns were designed and executed. The rise of propaganda was evident of the negative effects of PR; but it did a lot of good, too.

From influencing public opinion to introducing new products, these campaigns set the foundation for modern PR tactics. In this two-part series, we journey through time, highlighting the most significant PR campaigns from each decade. Let's begin our retrospective with the first half of the 20th century!

1900s: The Upton Sinclair “The Jungle” Rebuttal

The early 1900s saw the power of muckraking journalism - and a clear example of this is with Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel "The Jungle.” The novel offered a harrowing look into the lives of immigrant workers and the unsanitary conditions of the American meatpacking industry during the early 20th century. 

Wait - what is muckraking journalism, you might ask?

Muckraking journalism refers to a form of investigative journalism that seeks to expose and reform issues of societal corruption, injustice, or public wrongdoing, particularly during the Progressive Era in the United States (around the early 20th century). Muckrakers, as the journalists were called, were often writers or reporters who used their platforms in newspapers, magazines, or novels to shed light on significant problems, such as industrial abuses, unsanitary conditions in food production, and political corruption, aiming to instigate change and reform through public awareness.

In response to the shocking revelations brought to light by Sinclair’s book, the meat industry launched a massive PR counter-campaign to rebuild its tarnished image. Initially, the meat industry tried to refute Sinclair's claims, dismissing the book as an exaggeration and defending their practices. They wanted to prevent any potential damage to their reputation and profits.

But due to the immense public concern generated by "The Jungle," President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned an investigation into the meatpacking industry. The findings of this investigation largely corroborated Sinclair's depictions - and this, combined with the public's demand for action, led to the passing of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. The Meat Inspection Act mandated clean sanitary conditions for the processing of meat and the presence of federal inspectors, while the Pure Food and Drug Act prevented adulterated or misbranded meat and meat products from being sold as food and ensured that meat and meat products were slaughtered and processed under sanitary conditions.

While Sinclair's primary intention with "The Jungle" was to spotlight the plight of immigrants working in brutal conditions, the most direct impact of his work was on food safety reforms. The meat industry, while initially resistant, had to adapt to these new federal regulations, which were pivotal in ensuring safer and more sanitary conditions in meat production.

1910s: Join the War Effort - WWI Propaganda 

The decade of the 1910s was indelibly marked by World War I, a conflict that engaged nations on a scale never before seen. As nations plunged into war, their governments recognized the critical need to galvanize public sentiment and secure widespread support for the war effort. In response, they embarked on comprehensive public relations campaigns, churning out propaganda that emphasized duty, patriotism, and shared sacrifice. This propaganda was designed not just to encourage young men to enlist but to rally entire populations behind the war, emphasizing their vital roles on the home front, from buying war bonds to conserving essential resources.

The United States, though initially hesitant to join the European conflict, eventually entered the fray in 1917. Recognizing the necessity of a united home front, President Woodrow Wilson enlisted the expertise of George Creel, a seasoned journalist and fervent patriot, to head the Committee on Public Information (CPI). The CPI, with Creel at its helm, curated a relentless stream of posters, films, speeches, and articles. Perhaps the most iconic image from this American campaign was the stern gaze and pointing finger of Uncle Sam, accompanied by the unambiguous declaration: "I Want You." This image, among countless others, aimed to stir patriotic fervor and create a collective sense of duty among Americans.

The culmination of these PR campaigns was more than just increased enlistment numbers or bond sales; it showcased the immense potential of public relations to shape the collective consciousness of a nation. As governments harnessed the tools of persuasion and motivation, they demonstrated that effective PR could not only inform but inspire, channeling national sentiments and directing them towards a shared purpose. The 1910s, therefore, stands as a testament to PR's transformative potential, having played a pivotal role in how nations rallied their citizens during one of history's most tumultuous times.

1920s: Torches of Freedom - Women & Cigarettes

The 1920s, often remembered for its jazz music, flapper culture, and economic prosperity, also witnessed a seismic shift in societal norms, especially concerning women. At the heart of this transformation was a cleverly orchestrated PR campaign led by Edward Bernays, commonly regarded as the 'father of PR'. Tasked by the American Tobacco Company to make cigarette smoking appealing to women, Bernays faced the challenge of countering societal conventions that labeled smoking as unladylike. Rather ingeniously, he positioned smoking as an act of defiance and liberation, aligning it with the broader women's rights movement.

To drive this message home, Bernays conceived the "Torches of Freedom" parade, a theatrical event that saw young debutantes boldly marching down the streets, cigarettes in hand, symbolizing their independence and challenging societal norms. This act not only drew significant media attention but effectively rebranded cigarettes as instruments of emancipation. While the ethics of promoting smoking can be debated, the success of the campaign in terms of its impact and creativity cannot. Bernays' strategy was more than just about selling a product; it adeptly tied a consumer good to a profound societal shift, resulting in a dramatic surge in the number of female smokers and solidifying his reputation as a master manipulator of public opinion.

1930s: The Rockefellers’ Image Makeover

The early 20th century bore witness to a slew of labor movements, with workers uniting to demand better conditions. One of the darkest moments during this period was the 1914 Ludlow Massacre. Striking coal miners and their families, seeking just working conditions, were brutally attacked, leading to the tragic death of several individuals. This incident placed the Rockefeller family, who owned the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, at the epicenter of a public relations storm, with widespread condemnation and outrage directed at them. As the 1920s ended, it was clear that the Rockefeller legacy was tainted by this tragedy, and there was an urgent need to mend their sullied reputation.

Enter Ivy Lee, a trailblazing PR figure of his time. Commissioned by the Rockefellers in the 1930s, his mission was clear yet challenging: transform the public image of a family seen as cold-hearted industrialists. Lee's strategy was multifaceted. He championed the family's involvement in charitable initiatives, ensuring their generous donations to societal causes were well-publicized. He also orchestrated a series of public appearances, allowing the Rockefellers to engage directly with the communities they served. Through strategic media engagements, stories of the family's dedication to the public good began to overshadow past transgressions. This masterstroke of PR not only rehabilitated the Rockefeller name but also laid the foundation for modern corporate social responsibility. The Rockefeller saga stands as a testament to the transformative power of well-executed public relations and the lasting impact of corporate goodwill.

1940s: Hollywood's Battle for Hearts & Minds - WWII Propaganda

As the storm clouds of World War II gathered, Hollywood, the world's entertainment capital, emerged as more than just a hub of cinematic spectacle—it became a potent tool for shaping public opinion. Recognizing the power of the silver screen to reach millions, the U.S. government initiated a groundbreaking collaboration with filmmakers. Together, they produced wartime propaganda, not just to inform, but to inspire. Movies such as "Why We Fight" were more than mere films; they were meticulously crafted narratives emphasizing the moral imperatives of the war and championing America's righteous position in this global conflict.

The 1940s witnessed not just studios but also individual stars rising to the occasion. Celebrities took center stage at war bond rallies, lending their fame and influence to bolster national morale and financial support for the war effort. Their active participation demonstrated the profound impact popular culture icons could have in rallying a nation. This decade underscored a transformative moment in the annals of communication—a moment that spotlighted the synergistic dance between media and public relations. It set a precedent for how popular culture, when intertwined with strategic objectives, can resonate deeply with the masses, leaving an indelible imprint on the collective consciousness.

To Be Continued!

The first half of the 20th century saw PR campaigns that not only shaped public opinion but also influenced policies, societal norms, and national sentiments. From crisis management in the food industry to war-time propaganda, these campaigns provide a fascinating glimpse into the evolving toolbox of PR strategies. In many ways, these early campaigns laid the foundation for contemporary PR, teaching us about the power of storytelling, the importance of aligning with broader societal movements, and the necessity of swift response in times of crisis. As we look forward to our next installment, covering the 1950s and beyond, it's clear that while the mediums and tactics may change, the core principles of PR remain remarkably consistent.

Imperium Group is an American public relations and marketing consultancy firm. Founded in 2016, it specializes in guaranteed placements, creating utmost transparency for its clients. Imperium Group generates over 15M impressions a month for its clients. Its team is based out of New York, Dallas, and Los Angeles.

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