Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Media Studies


Dr. Daniel Robinson


This dissertation examines how American food advertisers approached children in the early twentieth century and how this conceptualization changed during a critical juncture that lasted from approximately 1928 until 1945. Prior to the late 1920s, national advertisers acknowledged children as “consumers” (that is to say, eaters) of food and celebrated their idyllic innocence; however, advertisers rarely addressed children as active participants in the consumer marketplace. This perspective changed due to new commercial media platforms, such as radio and comic strips, as well as changing attitudes within the business community. By the 1930s, food advertisers began to communicate with children as a direct audience in a significant, strategic, and consistent manner, effectively positioning children as brand-loyal consuming subjects for the first time. Although parents and consumer activists pushed back against marketers, these groups were largely unable to contain food advertising to children.

This business, cultural, and political-economic history considers the following three research questions: (i) Why, and in what broader contexts, did national food advertisers begin targeting children in earnest? (ii) Using what strategies did these advertisers attempt to draw children into the marketplace as brand-loyal and demanding consuming subjects? (iii) How did food advertisers, their agencies, commercial media, and market researchers grapple with, valorize, and construct children as a valuable audience segment? My analysis incorporates extensive primary research from a variety of archival sources. I examine advertisements and papers from the advertising agencies that represented key food brands, including Cream of Wheat and Post. I also review the advertising trade press and numerous marketing practitioner textbooks. These latter sources provide a “back-stage” view of the industry and allow me to understand how early advertising practitioners approached, valorized, and socially constructed young people as a market segment.