Partisan Politics, Market Research, and Media Buying in Canada, 1920

Article excerpt

During the 1910s, the Canadian newspaper industry consolidated as dailies closed, chains formed, and rivals cooperated through press associations and news services. The standard explanation for these changes links them to trends in the national economy. Developments in the advertising trade may offer a better explanation. Traditionally, advertisers used papers that shared their political leanings. As advertising agencies adopted new media buying practices, however, they claimed to use only papers with high circulation. This research tests their claims empirically to see where five politically partisan agencies placed their ads in 1920.

Canada's newspapers passed through a "golden age" in the first decade of the twentieth century. The number of dailies peaked in 1911 and national advertising expanded in step. Traditional narratives trace the industry's success to two macroeconomic factors: rapid settlement of the prairies and industrial growth in central Canada. By contrast, retrenchment characterized the following decade. The First World War ended the boom years and many papers subsequently failed.1 Despite parallel timelines, however, the newspapers' fortunes might be better traced to changes in the advertising trade than the national economy.

Before 1900 most newspapers supported one of Canada's two established political parties, the Liberals or the Conservatives, and depended on local advertisers and readers with similar loyalties. After 1900 this situation changed. Advertising agencies handled an increasing proportion of national advertising, and adopted quantitative market research to guide their media decisions. This likely channeled advertising dollars in new ways since they eschewed any political or qualitative rationale for selecting papers. Instead, they followed an economic or quantitative rationale, claiming to use only those papers with the greatest number of readers at the lowest possible price. In this they were part of a national trend toward more rational, economic practices in business administration.2

This study examines the validity of this claim through two methods: historical research and content analysis. Historical research reveals the media-buying strategies of advertising agencies circa 1920. Content analysis reveals how five leading agencies actually placed their clients' ads in twenty-one Canadian newspaper markets.

Literature

Traditionally, the commercialization of the press is discussed in relation to the newspapers' apparent disengagement from the party system: newspapers once served as the communication organs of parties but declared their independence to pursue greater profits from advertising. Increased ad revenue required greater circulation; greater circulation required a mass market rather than partisan readers; and hence divisive partisan sympathies were muted in favor of "objective" or "fair and balanced" news coverage. In the United States this change has been dated to the appearance of the penny press during the 1830s, in Great Britain to the removal of the stamp tax in 1855, and in Canada to the consolidation of an industrial economy after 1880. The break with parties was gradual, but took hold in all three countries after 1890.3

This remains the prevailing interpretation in Canada. Rutherford and de Bonville argued that publishers wanted to operate profitable businesses rather than dependent party organs. The result was heightened competition for readers and advertising which forced many papers into bankruptcy.4 Kesterton offered a different spin, suggesting mat greater revenue was required to finance new technologies such as linotype machines and color presses.5 However, competition for readers and advertising had long existed, and the adoption of new technology was itself a tactic in this contest. To note that competition intensified does not explain why it also changed the industry.

Recent scholarship challenges these narratives. …