Patriotic Advertising: Buy Now for the Red, White and Blue

Independence Day is here again. Time for cookouts, cold brews, outdoor fun and, of course, sales. How can we possibly observe a holiday in the Good Old USA without every advertiser from Madison Avenue to Main Street horning into the act?

Think about it. “American” holidays and days of remembrance pepper the calendar year —Presidents Day, MLK Day, Arbor Day, Memorial Day, July 4, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day. And each one brings a barrage of ads advising you, gentle consumer, that This Is The Absolute Best Time for an Unbeatable Deal on a New (car, washer/dryer, mattress, roof, kitchen, wardrobe, diet, fill-in-the-blank).

Over and over. And over again.

Now, this star-spangled selling has been going on for at least a century. (Probably longer if I bothered to look it up.) Originally, patriotic advertising had a practical purpose. Between the World Wars commercial radio exploded onto the scene, and patriotic-themed advertising came front and center, such as for War Bonds. Radio and magazine ads tirelessly appealed to citizens to buy bonds to support American troops against our enemies. (Even Superman and Batman took part from the comics pages, coaxing kids to invest their pennies and nickels for Uncle Sam. Some ads encouraged people to buy radios to stay connected in case of an attack on our shores.

After WWII, patriotic ads switched from foreign battlefields to domestic households. Companies whose technologies contributed to victory in the war touted the application of those same innovations for civilian use. For example, you could buy an Admiral Radio, the same brand used in our bombers over Europe and the Pacific. What could be more patriotic than that?

Probably nothing. But that never stopped the Big Brains of Advertising from trying.

In the ensuing decades, television supplanted radio, and patriotic advertising became broader and, in many ways, sillier if not downright farcical.

The Founding Fathers morphed from American icons into pitchmen. Think Washington, Lincoln and Franklin for banks and credit unions. Or your local Buick dealer.  (After the debut of the musical bearing his name, even second-stringer Alexander Sawbuck Hamilton enjoyed a brief run.) Sam Adams, a far better revolutionary than brewer, got his name on beer. Unfortunately, he wasn’t considered to be good looking enough for the image on the label. The man illustrated on the Sam Adams bottle is Paul Revere. Betsy Ross surfaces around Flag Day. Dolly Madison zinged hubby James with her brand of baked snacks. (Could she even cook?) Star-spangling one’s products and services has become a time-honored maxim of the holiday advertising game. Just announce a sale, wrap it in eagles and launch with fireworks. Boom. Done.

Does patriotism have anything to do, really, with a new living room sectional or garage door or high-tech treadmill? Of course not. Most of the time, patriotic ads are harmless fun. Attention-getters that tug at our red, white and blue heartstrings and evoke emotions (land of free, home of brave) that only the most curmudgeonly among us would find objectionable. As long as ads are in good taste, I’m OK with them, although I draw a mental line at Memorial Day, which is a solemn observation of our fallen heroes and ought not, to me, be commercially exploited.

Sadly, I’m wondering if patriotic ads are slowly going the way of cigarette ads. That is, up in smoke.

Certain retailers are redefining when it’s time for a sale. Prime Days, Black Fridays, Cyber Mondays and so on are not necessarily tied to a fixed holiday. The brick-and-mortar store vs. online shopping wars threaten to move “big sale” days around like chess pieces. It’s getting so you can’t count on anything anymore.

I for one am going to miss the ads with a young George Washington, axe in hand, earnestly explaining that he “Cannot tell a lie. This Is the Biggest Presidents Day Sale. Ever!”

And if George ever starts hawking for Amazon, I’m done.

On behalf of everyone at JP Enterprises, have a safe and blessed holiday. Watch the sunburn and shelter your dogs before the fireworks start.

Dan Skantar is Director of Content Services at JP Enterprises. A reformed “mall rat”, he adapted to online shopping, curbside pickup and takeout during the pandemic. His favorite Founding Pitchman is Ben Franklin.

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