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Overview

“The subscriber offers for sale, American manufactured Gun-Powder, from the Brandywine Mills, of a quality which is warranted equal and believed to be superior, to any imported from Europe, and at prices much under those of the imported Powder.”

This 1804 newspaper advertisement, the company’s first, was too much for E.I. du Pont. Staid though the advertisement may seem today, du Pont found sales agent Archibald McCall’s boasting unseemly. He could scarcely have imagined how company advertising would change in the next two centuries as DuPont targeted changing markets, carefully burnished its image and refined the message so bluntly stated by McCall.

Through most of the nineteenth century, independent sales agents like Archibald McCall bought DuPont powder wholesale and sold it as they saw fit. Local markets and limited competition meant that aggressive product promotion was seldom necessary: it was enough to point out that DuPont gunpowder was as good as imported brands and better than American ones. Advertising was limited to handbills and lithographs of pastoral hunting scenes that kept the DuPont name before the public. The powder that was part of the nineteenth century landscape, never far from mine shafts and railroad cuts, remained the company’s best advertisement

But by the early twentieth century the frontier had closed, regional markets were being knit into a national marketplace, and the du Pont family partnership had become a modern corporation. With huge sums of capital at stake in large-scale production and distribution, it was no longer enough to cater to existing demand. When DuPont and other large corporations sought to expand and even create new markets for their products—in essence promoting new needs for new products—the modern age of advertising had begun. Formerly independent sales agents like McCall were absorbed into the corporate sales department and DuPont began selling its products directly to consumers.

By 1909 DuPont had created an Advertising Division within the Sales Department to help influence the buying public. The company revived a faltering sporting powder market by popularizing trap shooting and created a new market by convincing farmers that the best way to clear their fields of rocks and stumps was to use DuPont dynamite. As the company diversified and began competing in an increasing number of markets, the distinctive oval trademark, devised in 1907, kept the “DuPont” identity before the public.

By the 1920s, DuPont was among the large national firms whose distribution networks and nationally advertised brands were supplanting smaller scale producers. Its Advertising Department, established in 1921, coordinated the promotion of a widening array of products. Lacquers, celluloid collars, Fabrikoid artificial leather, and Pyralin® plastic-handled toiletry items were among the products that helped shape the emerging consumer culture.

At the same time rising standards of living spurred corporations to equate use of their products with a new middle class “American Dream.” A series of “DuPont American Industries” advertisements suggested that products formerly considered luxuries were now necessities. They also linked the company to the automobile industry, the leading edge of the twentieth century consumer revolution. DuPont offered Rayntite® car tops and Fabrikoid automobile upholstery to “discriminating buyers,” and Duco finish gained status by premiering on pricey Oakland automobiles before spreading to lower-end models.

As the company diversified it became crucial that advertising highlight its reputation as a science-based firm. A series of advertisements featuring an idealized “DuPont Chemical Engineer” announced the company’s new status as a multi-product chemistry firm to the nation. This campaign was especially targeted to trade journals because DuPont’s biggest customers were commercial users of fibers, paints and industrial chemicals. These industrial users benefited from the expertise in large scale, high quality production that DuPont had gained in World War I munitions production.

That experience proved to be a liability during the 1930s. When a Senate committee, playing upon anti-big business sentiment spawned by the Great Depression, investigated the munitions industry, DuPont was tarred with a “Merchants of Death” reputation. In response, the company began using advertising to sell not only products but also an image of benevolence and social responsibility.

As its advertising grew more sophisticated, DuPont, like other large corporations turned to professional advertisers. In 1935 it hired one of the best: Batten, Barton, Durstine, & Osborne (BBDO). BBDO set out to change DuPont’s image from “the powder people” to “peace time manufacturer” and launched a corporate advertising campaign that promoted DuPont’s role in improving daily life for all Americans with the slogan “Better Things for Better Living . . . Through Chemistry.”

The campaign's cornerstone was the DuPont-sponsored weekly radio show, Cavalcade of America, featuring historical vignettes that portrayed traits like perseverance and ingenuity as traditionally American. In 1952 Cavalcade made the jump to television and began to take on more contemporary subjects. It was eventually followed by the DuPont Show of the Month and Show of the Week. The commercials that closed each episode countered the munitions maker image by detailing, in BBDO’s words, “the other 99 percent” of DuPont’s products. The strategy worked. By 1957 polls revealed almost 80 percent of the public viewed the company in a favorable light.

The scale of DuPont’s advertising efforts grew along with the company in the postwar years. By 1980 the company employed six major agencies and had ties with sixty others worldwide. Its emergence as a global firm posed new advertising challenges. Meticulous market research and careful product positioning were necessary to ensure that trade names like SilverStone® would carry the same positive connotations in France and Germany that they did in the United States.

At home DuPont continued to anchor its product advertising within larger corporate campaigns that stressed its contribution to middle-class affluence. One notable television spot featured a toddler pitching his airplane-shaped, food-laden dish into an expanse of Stainmaster® carpet. For the first time consumers began buying carpet by name brand. Stainmaster® outsold its competitors, the spot garnered industry awards, and DuPont had effectively conveyed the old “better living” message. The advertisement also had a surprising collateral effect: DuPont was swamped with requests for airplane-shaped dishes, which had to be specially produced.

The rise of environmentalism in the 1970s gave chemistry a bad name, and by the 1980s DuPont’s television spots and print advertisements had been shorn of the tag line “through chemistry.” Indirect means of advertising, particularly its sponsorship of award-winning NASCAR racer Jeff Gordon, continued to work effectively for DuPont, but public animus toward the chemical industry, and the company’s own success in linking “better living” with “chemistry” finally led by the company to break with its advertising past.

In 1999 a new campaign and a new slogan, “the miracles of science,” capitalized on DuPont’s traditional strength by identifying the company as a science company. At the same time it established DuPont’s credentials as an exemplary global citizen with a television spot that featured a “to do list for the planet.” The advertisement emphasized how company efforts to create drought- and disease-resistant crops, develop anti-HIV drugs, and design safer building materials benefited the poorest as well as the most affluent dwellers on the globe.

Two centuries in the increasingly competitive national and global marketplace led DuPont to promote itself and its products to a degree that E.I. du Pont may never have approved, but then and now, the company’s advertising has always promoted superior products attained through cutting-edge science.

See Also

Edwin R. Manchester, “140 Years of DuPont Advertising,” Hagley Museum Archives, Accession 1866.

William L. Bird, "Better Living:" Advertising, Media, and the New Vocabulary of Business Leadership, 1935-1955 (Evanston, 1999).

John Day, Six Decades of Corporate Brand Advertising at DuPont (1999).

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Copyright © 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. All rights reserved. The DuPont Oval logo, DuPont™, The miracles of science™ and all products denoted with ™ or ® are trademarks or registered trademarks of E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company or its affiliates.

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