Managing Little Orphan Annie’s excesses

Curator's Note

Please press play on the viewer to the left to hear soundtrack. Advance the slides by hand. Radio Orphan Annie (1930-1942) sold Ovaltine from 1931-1940 on NBC Blue whenever children collected labels and box tops to “earn” compasses, pedometers, and decoder rings with their hero’s face on them. Premiums were an important way of measuring both the size and consumer-friendliness of a given program’s audience. Ad agencies like Blackett-Sample-Hummert (BSH) were at the center of a discursive struggle over childhood. On the one hand, many of their properties were designed to bring children to clients. On the other hand, there was growing concern that children needed to be shielded from the blatant commercial appeal of these properties. In a February 9, 1933 memo, Enid Beaupre, NBC’s standards and practices monitor for children’s programming, noted that the network had received telephone complaints that “some of the incidents [on Radio Orphan Annie] had been disturbing enough to make children almost hysterical,” adding that such practices on behalf of the series’ sponsor were “incongruous for a product supposed to soothe nerves and induce restful sleep.” In a February 10, 1933 follow up memo, Beaupre suggested that this is perhaps “a new way of selling Ovaltine,” sarcastically pointing to the unethical economics of scaring children so as to then sell the sponsor’s product that was intended to relax them. BSH’s authoring strategies, however, were designed to promote Radio Orphan Annie as beneficial for children, justifying its commercial value by pointing to their ability to manage Annie’s ‘moral’ values. In fact, in 1938, BSH issued a protest of its own to NBC over the “blood and thunder tactics used in child radio.” While the ad agency’s intentions were to attack the merchandising strategies of another children’s series, Terry and the Pirates, whose sponsor directly competed with Ovaltine, the argument it presented drew a clear correlation between the economic value of commercial brands and the need to project the right values. Objecting to Terry and the Pirates “for selfish reasons, as well as moral reasons,” BSH bluntly stated, “This is another instance where ‘good morals’ are ‘good business.” Of course, this did not prevent manufacturers, sponsors, agencies, and networks from pursuing the children’s market; it merely demanded that such pursuits be justified on moral, civic and educational grounds, and not merely commercial terms. Hence, corporate authors like BSH worked to alleviate anxieties over exploitation by arguing that Radio Orphan Annie also taught important moral lessons and instilled good character values. In other words, corporate authors argued that it was all right to sell directly to children so long as what was being sold had moral, not merely financial, value. By keeping the child’s best interests in mind (at least rhetorically), BSH demonstrated to NBC its ability to balance consumer and cultural concerns and proved their right to claim the mantle of cultural intermediaries between consumers and sponsors.


Thanks, Avi, for pulling together this excellent week on corporate authorship and for making your own wonderful contribution with this piece. Can you say anything more about the Blackett-Sample-Hummert agency's "authoring strategies?" I'm curious about this particular advertising agency, because it played such a prominent role in radio, yet has been largely forgotten because it dissolved in corporate mergers (unlike so many prominent agencies from the era, whose names, at least, still exist). Have you discerned different authorial signatures or strategies that you can attribute to different advertising agencies in radio? Or are you speaking generally about the corporate authorship of advertising agencies in the radio era? In the recording itself, I'm impressed by the intensity of the address to a fairly individualized child listener. In other words, I expected the product promotion to speak to a generalized audience of children, but was surprised by the degree to which the announcer seems to speak to a particular listener -- by offering to customize the premium for each child, by drawing explicit attention to the analogy that equates the listening child's relationship to the sponsor with Annie's relationship to Daddy Warbucks. How characteristic is this particular mode of address that attempts to individualize members of a mass audience -- in terms of other premiums from the show, other children's programs, work by other agencies, etc.?

I’d also like to thank Avi for assembling us for this special week on corporate authorship. Avi, I was particularly interested in your source materials from the Blackwell-Sample-Hummert agency. This week’s posts have me thinking about our access to historical evidence of institutional cultures and their roles in creating these media texts. Unlike contemporary cultural industry research in which first-hand interviews and fieldwork are common practices, we’re increasingly limited with our early twentieth-century research by what remains in libraries, archives, and in the hands of private collectors (to whom we all should be grateful, though we run into problems of selection: collectors seem more likely to value Little Orphan Annie collectibles than BSH correspondence on the radio show, were they ever to find any. We all must be acutely aware that there are fewer and fewer players in these stories with whom we can raise our questions and that what remains has been mediated in various ways. Do we have a better picture of BSH’s work with Little Orphan Annie because of the company’s early demise and dissolution into other companies? In my own research, I’ve found that I often have access to more historical documents from record labels that didn’t survive the depression than I do with a label like Columbia Records, which has been bought and sold so many times that much of the company’s documents are long gone. And how important was this work to those involved? The answer to this seems to be widely variable. Many of those involved in creating this media saw their products as ephemeral, even if they understood their roles as important. From what Avi presents here, BSH was aware of their moral, civic, and educational responsibility to children, while also mindful of their task of selling Ovaltine to children – directly. Like Chris, I’m also interested in the direct mode of address the transcription recording uses to address the atomized child listener. In training for radio, disc jockeys have traditionally been trained to speak to an imagined, individual listener. And perhaps BSH understood that instilling the consumer imperative is more effective when speaking directly to a single listener – every single one.

Avi's post reminds me how intimately corporate authorship is bound to marketing, and, even more important, that this is not a fact to be lamented nor is it an uncommon phenomenon. Rather, it is inherent to the dissemination and consumption of all media formations, whether they be assumed to have primarily commercial, artistic, social, or educational motives. The entire week has been especially helpful in demonstrating that an acknowledgment of corporate authorship allows us to account for the wide spectrum of motives, values, and aspirations--whether they be industrial, social, or artistic--communicated by authors (whether corporate or otherwise) in the products they create.

By Anonymous

Thank you for all taking part in this great week and for the fantastic questions/comments on my piece. Sorry it has taken me so long to respond. First off, I do not have enough BSH materials to be able to distinguish their authoring practices from other advertising agencies. My research starts from the position of trans-mediated licensed popular heroes like LOA, Superman and the Lone Ranger and tracing how these non-corporeal icons were managed across different media and merchandising sites. LOA was owned by the Chicago Tribune, who also owned WGN and first broadcast the adventures of this comic strip character as an attempt to promote the newspaper. The Wander Company, owner's of Ovaltine, was located just outside of Chicago and was seeking to grow its regional and national market presence just as WGN was teaming up with WXYZ and WOR to form the flagship stations for the Mutual Radio Network. It was BSH that transferred the series to NBC, though it continued to be heard on WGN in Chicago. My access to the BSH document described in my piece came from the NBC archives in Madison, WI. Like so much historical work, I have had to piece things together and work with the scraps that have been saved by third parties. I can say, however, that BSH's strategy of foregrounding its "moral management" with LOA was similar to the strategies I uncovered with other attempts to promote popular personalities on NBC. In 1941, NBC rejected a pitch by Superman Inc. to launch a Superman radio series (even though a sponsor and ad agency were already in place) because there was something about "the general idea of the Superman material" that troubled them. Superman Inc.'s response was not to immediately go elswhere (though they eventually moved on to Mutual) or to point to the economic value of the property, but instead, to launch a literacy campaign in which Superman placards were placed in libraries encouraging children to read the classics and to hand out gold plaque's to children accomplishing meritorious deeds. As Robert Maxwell wrote to Sidney Strotz, "our endeavor [is] to put to good use the tremendous popularity and influence that Superman has". While this may not be indicative of authoring strategies writ large, it does suggest something about the ways companies had to articulate their moral authority to NBC when it came to children's programming. Though I am sure you are all familiar with it, I find Roland Marchand's work on the early advertising industry useful for thinking about the values and attitudes of the people who worked within these agencies. I tend to apply both Bourdieu's ideas about habitus and Paul Du Gay's work on the cultural economy in trying to understand the social identities these cultural intermediaries occupied. As for the mode of address in the episode, I have found this to be common amongst radio program's aimed at children that also starred child protagonists. Jack Armstrong did similar things, as did Dick Tracy whenever Dick Tracy Jr. was featured in the episodes. Note the way this advertisement for Ovaltine is both brilliantly (if not very subtly) integrated into the Radio Orphan Annie surprise birthday party storyline and also works to construct Annie as popular hero who exists outside of the texts that bind her. After all, it is Annie, herself – not Ovaltine (unless you live in Canada… Canucks are far too savvy to fall for this ploy) – who will send you your birthday ring. The promotion runs nearly 7 1/2 minutes (out of a fifteen minute episode) and never once mentions the need to actually purchase Ovaltine in order to participate in the “give away”. The request for a dime, however, in addition to an Ovaltine tin top might actually have gotten the show’s sponsor and producer, advertising agency Blackett-Sample-Hummert (BSH), in trouble with NBC, who vigilantly monitored against any direct selling to children.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.