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Charles Lindbergh and Mobiloil: The New Model for Modern Celebrity Endorsement

Article excerpt

This is the third in a series of articles on archival collections of interest to mass communication historians. Readers of Journalism History are invited to suggest collections that they would like to see appear in future articles, and the editors would welcome volunteers to write such articles.

Charles Lindbergh's 1927 solo flight in the "Spirit of St. Louis" from New York to Paris made the young, unknown aviator an overnight, internationally known celebrity. The press nicknamed him "Lucky Lindy" and the "Lone Eagle." Immediately after his journey, he received dozens of awards and became the premier figure in celebrations and parades in Europe, South America, Canada, and the United States. He flew the "Spirit of St. Louis" on a nationwide tour, creating widespread public support for air travel and airmail, and President Calvin Coolidge gave Lindbergh the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Hying Cross for his achievement. As the New York Times stated on the fiftieth anniversary of his trans-Atlantic flight, "A fame enveloped the 25-year-old American that was to last him for the remainder of his life, transforming him in a frenzied instant from an obscure aviator into a historical figure."1

"Lindbergh put the spotlight on aviation as never before," said F. Robert van der Linden, a historian and curator at the National Air and Space Museum. "All of a sudden, you saw people pouring millions of dollars into aviation investments, and in the 1930's passenger service to Europe would start." American historian Daniel Boorstin concluded that Lindbergh "performed single-handed one of the heroic deeds of the century." In his biography Lindbergh, Leonard Mosley stated the solo flight across the Atlantic created an unprecedented international sensation. "To millions of simple people, he was no longer flying for himself but for humanity; he was not simply flying to Paris but blazing the trail to a better life."2

After his monumental flight, Lindbergh assumed a leadership role in transforming the aviation industry. Within a few years, aircraft construction boomed, and all of the major cities in the nation had airports. While these accolades bestowed on him were valid, many historians and journalists have overlooked his contribution to public relations and advertising history. "Lucky Lindy" became one of the first and most successful high-profile international celebrities associated with a consumer product-Mobiloil. Shortly after his dramatic arrival in Paris, he cabled the Vacuum Oil Company, the producer of Mobiloil: "In my flight from New York to Paris my engine was lubricated with Gargoyle Mobiloil 'B' and I am happy to say that it gave me every satisfaction. My engine functioned perfectly." As part of a carefully planned advertising and promotional campaign, the corporation that produced Mobiloil began to reap immense benefits from his notoriety.3

Lindbergh never received what today would be termed an endorsement contract from the oil company. However, he clearly gained fame and fortune from the association. For the Vacuum Oil Company, the refiner of Mobiloil, Lindbergh and the "Spirit of St. Louis" became the number one feature in an advertising and public relations campaign for many years. The young aviator rejected a million dollar movie contract offer from William Randolph Hearst and turned down endorsement offers from cigarette makers. He later accepted consulting contracts from Pan American Airways and Transcontinental Air Transport (later TWA) and ultimately became a millionaire.

In a highly competitive arena in the expanding domestic oil and gas market of the 1920's, his celebrity status created a sales boom for the company and helped establish Vacuum and Mobiloil as a cutting edge petroleum business. In an era in which progress was beginning to be measured by material production and consumption, Lindbergh provided an entirely new dimension. The modern consumer economy shaped the national identity, and he put a face on this expanding culture. …