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Undercover Selling: 1930s Whispering Campaigns

by Carrie McLaren | Issue #19

You may have heard about the ad agencies who hire beautiful people to go in bars and loudly order their client’s beverage. Or companies like Nike that hire a tribe to go to sporting events masquerading as adoring (Nike) fans. Or internet marketers who post fake queries in chat rooms such as "Who sings that song on the Home Alone 4 soundtrack? I just looooooove it!" then answer the question under a different guise later: "Why, that was Shit for Brainz. I just bought their CD on Dumpman Records..." This is, no kidding, how Christina Aguilera got famous.

What is now touted by its enthusiasts as "viral" or "buzz" marketing has its root in 1930s whispering campaigns. A typical whispering campaign worked like this: A company hired people to go out in public and secretly spread some rumor or blab about a promotion. For example, a department store hired young women to ride up and down an office elevator all day and talk loudly enough for others to hear about all the wonderful dresses on sale down at Sanfred’s. Another manufacturer hired actors to ride the subway and pretend to be businessmen. One would then "coincidentally" bump into an old friend (another actor) and talk about tires.

Whispering campaigns were largely inspired by the psychological warfare techniques used in World War I. The Allies spread false rumors–like the German atrocity stories–to win support for their cause. Not surprisingly, companies did the same thing, creating word-of-mouth campaigns designed to attack the enemy, usually the leading competition. A rival of Chesterfield cigarettes, for example, paid men along the Atlantic seaboard to run into stores and ask for cigarettes. When the clerk gave them Chesterfield’s, the men would respond, "I don’t want that kind. There’s a contagious disease in their plant." In case that wasn’t enough to scare people off, the men would add, "and the officers of the corporation are giving large sums to the Nazis." (Chesterfield responded by offering a $25,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the parties responsible for the rumors.)

Another rumor resembled an urban myth that later plagued Microsoft, among others: it was said that a certain company was giving away $100 to people who bought a particular product. People began writing in to claim their hundred dollars and were angry when they didn’t get it.

Corporations also used whispering campaigns to break strikes. During a strike, men posing as salesmen would go door-to-door in communities where the workers lived. The men would try to sell something to the wife of a striker. When she declined, he’d say, "I can understand perfectly why you haven’t any money to buy these bargains. Your husband is on strike, isn’t he? Well, of course it’s not of my business, but I hate to see you folks deprived of the necessities of life just so these few strike organizers can ride around in big cars and draw down fat salaries. I was once a union man myself. See where it got me: selling stuff from door to door. Do you know what salary the labor organizer draws when your husband isn’t on strike? Twenty-five dollars a week and no expenses. And when your husband is on strike? Well, then that organizer draws one hundred dollars a week and plenty of expenses."

Such campaigns were, all too often, extremely effective. After a company employed house-to-house propaganda during a bitter strike in Ohio, the strike ended in three days.

("Whispering Campaigns for Sale," Advertising and Selling, 11/8/34, p48; "Whispers for Sale: Verbal Advertising" by Robert Littell and John J. McCarthy, Harper’s Magazine, February 1936.)