The Kid in Upper 4: How Nelson Metcalf, Jr., Sold Support of the Soldier Next Door to a Disgruntled Public during World War II

By Pinzon, Charles; Swain, Bruce | Journalism History, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Kid in Upper 4: How Nelson Metcalf, Jr., Sold Support of the Soldier Next Door to a Disgruntled Public during World War II


Pinzon, Charles, Swain, Bruce, Journalism History


"the Kid in Upper 4", an advertisement created for the New Haven Railroad during the early part of World War II by copywriter Nelson C. Metcalf, Jr., has been called "the most famous single advertisement of the war and one of the most effective of all time" by historian Frank W. Fox. James Twitchell labeled it as the beginning of advocacy advertising and as one of twenty advertisements that "shook the world." Drawing on interviews with Metcalf and other sources, the researchers detail the creation, context, and impact of a unique example of public affairs advertising.

If advertising effectiveness is measured by an immediate tidal wave of positive public reaction, Nelson C. Metcalf, Jr.'s "The Kid in Upper 4" is arguably the most effective advertisement in American history. However, curiously few thorough accounts of the copywriter's background and his intent and methods in creating the famous advertisement are available.

The history of advertising in America has focused largely on the role of innovators and pioneers in producing new forms of persuasive appeals. Advertising historians such as Roland Marchand have dissected the role of advertising in creating new needs and wants, which are soon to be satisfied by the latest products of American corporate ingenuity.' Other scholars have examined both advertising as a basic intellectual force' and advertising's role in wartime.3 However, little has been written about the effect of those messages on popular culture and will, and what people did in response to messages crafted by corporations and their advertising agents. Metcalf's advertisement presented the opportunity to examine precisely how one master of the trade fashioned a single advertisement, and to what effect, during World War II. In this article the context of the Kid's creation, Metcalf's background to that point, his motivation and approach to it, and evidence of the advertisement's impact are explored, drawing heavily upon interviews with the retired copywriter.

At the time of the Kid's first appearance in the pages of the New York Herald Tribune on November 22,1942, America had been at war for nearly a year. It is easy to assume that the events of December 7, 1941, produced all of the incentive necessary to put the nation on war footing. Yet, almost a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, while the military, the government, and the economy had been mobilized, and consumer rationing was in place, the American public psyche still lagged behind.4

Thousands of freshly trained troops were crowding aboard passenger trains, converging on ports of embarkation to Europe, North Africa, Asia, and Australia. Despite newsreel, newspaper, and radio coverage of the world war, civilian rail passengers complained bitterly to the managers of carriers such as the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad (commonly referred to as the New Haven Railroad) about delays, crowding, and the lack of sleeping berths.5

So, the New Haven decided to respond via a newspaper advertisement. What has become an icon in advertising was, in fact, the third in a series produced by a branch office of a large advertising agency for a low-profile regional railroad. The advertisement, which the editor of The 100 Hundred Greatest Advertisements termed the most moving of the war,6 was not prominently displayed in the New York Herald Tribune. It appeared on page 18 of Section X, a Sunday special issues section, but it produced an immediate impact well beyond imagining. By the end of January 1943, even competing railroads had hung full-color posters of the advertisement in their terminals. Sears, Roebuck and Company had placed 300 copies of it in stores nationwide, and articles about it had appeared in several newspapers as well as Time and Newsweek. Ultimately, about 10,000 letters were written to the railroad, its advertising agency, or the copywriter, thanking them for the wake-up call and the salute to the boy next door sent off to war.

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