Business propaganda coordinated by NAM presented an image of harmony between various interests—workers, bosses, consumers, stockholders—despite the obvious conflicts of interest that were apparent: ‘good times for industry mean good times for you’ and ‘you prosper when factories prosper’. According to business, what was good for business was good for everyone.
The attempt to portray worker interest as being in harmony with business interest and to posit harmony as necessary for community prosperity—’Prosperity dwells where harmony reigns’—was not only a way of getting public support for business but a way of undermining support for unions on the part of both workers and the general public.
NAM reprinted an article from Printers’ Ink that stated: ‘If manufacturers would invest one-tenth of the money in advertising preparation that they apparently quite willingly invest in labor spies, tear gas, and other methods, which have proved worse than useless, they will stand a far better chance of winning public support than is possible under present circumstances.’
The American economic system was portrayed as being just and delivering equal opportunity to everyone. It ensured that products improved and their prices came down, whilst good workers got higher wages and moved up in America’s classless society. Capitalism was portrayed as ‘an economic system of free men in which production and distribution is on personal initiative with the incentive of private profit’. Also the system was democratic because the price system meant that consumers determined what was produced and sold:
The customer has become the real Chairman of the Board of every progressive enterprise…The public really determines the wages that can be paid. The fact is that all of us pay each other’s wages. American business cannot be separated from America… American business is our business… ‘business’ is not a separate class,… it simply represents an extension of the public will, and the interests of management and of ordinary people are therefore identical (‘What hurts business hurts you’).
Business people portrayed themselves as striving to serve society. Everyone, it was argued, would be better off if industrial managers were given respect as the nation’s leaders and allowed to carry on without government interference. The message to be emphasized was that political freedom, religious freedom, and ‘economic’ freedom were indivisible and any encroachment on economic freedom would reduce other freedoms.
NAM opposed government expenditures and ridiculed bureaucratic efforts to cure economic problems. The NAM-sponsored cartoon character Uncle Abner espoused: ‘Seems t’me like business could stand on its own feet a lot better if the politicians would get off’n its back.’ Uncle Abner was opposed to government regulations, taxes, public works, politicians and government loans.
The American economic system and American industry was declared the best in the world —’There’s no way like the American way’. It was claimed that this perfect system involved leaving business free to do as it wished without interference from government. In this way NAM sought to ‘render public opinion intolerant of the aims of social progress through legislative effort’. It told school children: ‘It is essential, in a free system, that there should be no bureaucratic control of the citizens’.
The appeal to nationalism was also evident in this and subsequent campaigns. By equating free enterprise with the national interest, citizens were supposed to feel that their own personal interests should not take priority over the greater national interest. Even if they individually were not materially well off as a result of free-enterprise, the nation was, and this provided them with the opportunity to be better off in the future.
In reality the large businesses that dominated NAM’s agenda did not themselves believe NAM propaganda. A major purpose of business mergers was to overcome the uncertainty created by competition and so have more control over markets and therefore prices and sales. Despite the free market rhetoric about the benefits of competition big business tried to avoid it and often found benefits in cooperating with each other against the interests of the consumer. A whole range of industry and trade associations, trusts and holding companies were formed for this purpose.
Whilst executives publicly extolled competition and the way it forced them to lower prices the corporations they managed sought to control prices by swallowing up their competition. As a result the automobile, steel, rubber, tobacco, liquor, chemical and other industries all came to be dominated by a few very large companies (with names like International Nickel, International Salt, International Paper and United States Steel). A few marginalized smaller companies sometimes managed to hang on around the fringes. This industry concentration occurred in most industrialized countries.
Despite antitrust legislation, by 1933 the 200 largest American corporations (not counting financing firms) and their subsidiaries controlled almost 60 percent of the assets of all corporations. Not only were the large firms able to influence prices paid and received but they often acted in unison rather than competition. Even where there was not explicit discussions about prices, a lead firm would often set the price that others would follow. Competition between firms was therefore based on attempts to differentiate products with the help of advertising and marketing rather than on the basis of price. Competition had shifted from competition between producers and sellers to competition ‘between the business community on the one side and the consumers on the other’. Contrary to the prevailing corporate propaganda it was hardly a situation where business interests and public interest were synonymous.
Despite its discord with reality, free market ideology gained ground. In 1938 Robert Lund, NAM president, claimed credit for the shift of public opinion ‘to the right’. He pointed out that:
this program, five years ago, initiated a new era and a new formula in public contact by industry, that in volume of publicity the campaign has totalled more than all other similar programs combined, that it has continually—day by day and week by week—expounded to millions of people a certain set of principles, and that millions of our people believe today in these principles who did not five years ago.
Promotion of the free enterprise system did not cease with the advent of the second world war. In November 1942, with the world war as a backdrop to business’ domestic battle, James Selvage, Public Relations Director of the NAM, gave a speech entitled ‘Selling the Private Enterprise System’. In it Selvage asserted that ‘ours is not a job today of selling merchandise...we are selling America itself to Americans...else freedom and its blood brother free enterprise will perish from the earth; make no mistake... this is no sham battle that is going on behind the battle front.’ Selvage pointed out that since corporations had little civilian merchandise to sell during wartime, ‘selling the free enterprise system is the remaining reason for existence’ of public relations and advertising. It is public relations and advertising, Selvage insisted, that ‘must win or lose the battle for free enterprise’
A year later the Assistant Director of Public Relations at General Motors told an audience of newspaper publishers:
A manufacturer places a product on the market and gets a referendum from the people. The people in buying or not buying vote for or against the product. A free people expressing themselves in a free market, with an industry competing to serve them, brought the highest standard of living in the world… Beyond selling his own company the local advertiser can sell the free American economy. He can sell it in terms that the local public can understand. He can sell it in terms of how it affects the people… As Democracy requires a free press, a free people require a free market. The interpretation of the free market is the next job for institutional advertising.
These programs to influence public opinion, although massive, were only the beginning. The chief significance of the period leading up to the second world war was in the political coordination of business to defend the system as a whole from any change that threatened business control and power. The real free enterprise campaigns were yet to come.