Selling Freedom: Madison Avenue in Defense of the American Experiment 1945-1950

The year is 1945. The Allies had defeated the Axis powers on three continents. Europe, except for neutral Spain, had been liberated from the evil specter that was fascism. Yet, as the ink dried on Germany’s capitulation, a new war appeared on the horizon. This new conflict was waged not on the battlefield but in the boardroom. Not on the Seine but with signs, posters, and bulletins. This war would be as frigid as the taigas and tundra of the Siberian landscape, with main combatants separated by thousands of miles and an infinitely wider political chasm. Little did they know, they were witnessing the dawn of the Cold War. But how does one win a war without physical battlefields? If you asked the Truman administration, the answer was on Madison Avenue.

The Advertising Council cut its teeth promoting government initiatives during the Second World War. While the boots on the ground fought overseas, the Ad Council was waging a war of its own in publications. To make good on President Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy” broadcast, Madison Avenue marshaled their marketing experience to sell the American people the importance of their individual contributions to the war effort. Images and broadcasts bombarded Americans, summoning everyday citizens to do their duty to triumph in this existential conflict. As one Ad executive stated in 1944, “So advertising, the voice of American industry, foolishly denounced by some as wasteful, sometimes despised as frivolous and actually marked for destruction by extremists in various governmental agencies, has modestly accomplished tasks essential to the United States and to a free world.[1]

In this 1949 ad, the Ad Council announces that America is hiring “full time citizens” to build on the triumphs achieved by the American people.

Despite the end of armed conflicts in 1945, the wartime advertising apparatus did not dissolve. Both the Ad Council and the State Department agreed that a new war was on the horizon, albeit one fought within the hearts and minds of people. To win the Cold War, the US government needed an organized front to counteract Soviet propaganda at home and abroad, “The Radio Allocation plan is an excellent example of the teamwork in advertising that epitomizes the Council. After seven years, it still looks to many like the instrument which one national radio advertiser once called it: Perhaps the most powerful weapon for public service ever devised.[2]

Found on the rear of a pamphlet titled Freedom is Everybody’s Job, this questionnaire asks if the reader has been doing their due diligence as a citizen.

Before the Korean War, the “most powerful weapon for public service ever devised” was squarely aimed at reminding Americans what made America different from other countries in the world. The American Heritage Foundation ran several campaigns imploring Americans to take advantage of their freedoms and be more active democratic participants. The campaign admitted that the American system was flawed but stressed the importance of a politically engaged populace for a thriving democracy. Union members who never attended meetings, stockholders who sat idly on top of their profits, and parents who did not join the local PTA were all called out as hindrances. Their laziness contrasted with the “full time citizen” who embodied the principles outlined by the founders of the Nation. The ads implored Americans to diligently and willfully perform all the tasks expected of them as full citizens of the United States to truly “work for freedom.”

After consulting with the Truman administration on “the national economy, national defense, and foreign relations,”[[3] the Council created the American Economic System campaign. First released in early 1949, it sought to explain the economic virtues of the United States and its brand of capitalism. This campaign featured ads that the Council helped place in newspapers and magazines, promoting the uniqueness of the United States. The campaign explicitly connected the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution to the virtues of capitalism. Because of American capitalism, as the campaign materials claimed, people from all over the world flocked to the United States to escape famine and persecution.

Found on page 15 of the fifth edition of the Miracle of America, Uncle Sam encourages his fellow Americans to use the tools of democracy to build a healthier and stronger America.

Simultaneously, the Ad Council produced a pamphlet titled The Miracle of America which used Uncle Sam to lecture the reader on the basics of the economy. Uncle Sam explained that America was blessed with a bounty of natural resources and an innovative spirit capable of taking full advantage of its situation. The competitive nature inherent in capitalism made the US robust and resilient to whatever fate threw at the American people. The Ad Council’s pamphlet included several graphs that demonstrated how much better off the average American was. The average American worker made nearly twice as much as their contemporaries in the second most prosperous state, Canada.

In addition, the pamphlet sought to assuage fears of automation rendering American jobs obsolete. Between the post-war demobilization and the introduction of newer and more efficient machines, Americans worried about the long-term security of their jobs. Uncle Sam assured them that the introduction of new machines would not only create new jobs but continue to make lives easier. In his own words, “the machine isn’t an enemy, it’s a friend – and anything which helps us to turn out more work adds to our strength and prosperity.”[4]

Thanks to American’s industries being an ocean away from the brunt of the conflict, the United States was in a unique position to influence the restructuring of nations around the world. The Ad Council reminded Americans that they were truly lucky in more ways than one. There was much to be thankful for, and even more work to be done. If the United States wanted to make the world safe for democracy, its citizens needed to get their house in order as well.

While this concludes one chapter in the history of the Ad Council, there are countless stories waiting to be told about the Council’s 80 years of public service advertising.  Advertising provides a glimpse into the mindsets and culture of those who create it. If you are interested in discovering other hidden stories. I invite you to contact us at the University Archives by email or stop by for a visit.


“Advertising and the War Effort.” Collier’s, August 26, 1944.

Ketchum, Alton. The Miracle of America. 5th Edition. New York, New York: The Advertising Council, 1950.

“Minutes of Meeting December 16, 1948.” Meeting Notes. New York, New York, December 16, 1948.

“Public Service by Radio Networks & Advertisers … 12 Months of 1948.” New York, New York: The Advertising Council, 1948.