The billboards that sold the American Way, 1937-1940

Many Americans first encountered the phrase "The American Way" on giant billboards that had spread to hundreds of American cities and towns by 1938.

While shopping for groceries, going to work, or entering an empty stretch of highway, they're suddenly struck by a giant tableau of a cheerful American family greeting Dad at the end of the workday, or a family gathering. Were taking a Sunday drive with the dog.

The bright smiles, comfortable cars, and lattice-decorated homes of all four indicated that they had some material or psychological concerns, an impression that underlines the bold lettering at the top of each sign.

"The world's shortest working hours," declared. "The world's highest wage," declared another. "The world's highest standard of living," a third trumpet blew. The script on the side of each billboard instructed the audience: "There is no way like the American Way".

The billboards, which were designed and distributed by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), may have seemed out of place to many Americans mired in the depths of capitalism's worst crisis. Nevertheless, they testified to the intensity of the debate on national values ​​sparked by the Depression.

When other nations turned to communism and fascism as solutions to global economic collapse, America's capitalist idols knocked their paddles, so Americans too began to examine their political options.

In this passionate atmosphere, New Dealers, industrial unionists, conservative businessmen and their various allies seized on the language of Americanism and sought to define the nation in ways that furthered their own political and social agendas.

Using new techniques and public relations techniques, he offered his own version of America's history and core values ​​and attempted to determine the boundaries and possibilities of American political culture.

NAM was reacting to Roosevelt's liberal leanings and his New Deal, echoing conservative calls that competition, not government intervention, was the most obvious way out of the Depression economy.

The billboards, designed by the Campbell-Ewald Company, numbered 45,000 nationwide and were placed in every city with a population of more than 2,500, reaching an estimated 65 million Americans daily.

Those Americans included photographers from the Farm Security Administration, who were sent to chronicle the struggles of the poor and government programs to help them.

Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lang, John Vachon, Arthur Rothstein, Edwin Locke, and other photographers captured the striking contrast of "There's No Way Like the American Way" billboards and wandering migrants, destitute families, and gloomy landscapes.

In a way, these ads provide an authentic portrayal and a significant reimagining of capitalist corporate imagery at the same time.

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