Selling the Private Enterprise System


By JAMES P. SELVAGE, Public Relations Counsel, Lee & Selvage, New York City

Delivered before the Advertising Club of Worcester, Mass., November 4, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 144-147.

ALMOST everyone talks about the future. Perhaps it is because the present world is such a nasty, bitter place that one hesitates to bring it closer to his audience. And then again, it may be that a speaker looks around the earth and finds the future the safest focus for his words. Tomorrow is too near today. America after the war is safer because it is distant.

To look beyond the end of the war we first assume that we have proved a simple-minded liar out of the little yellow man who said the peace would be dictated from the White House by the Japs. That assumption we do make—but we must be sure that we make it in the spirit that we pledge to the task our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor—and not assume vaingloriously that victory will be ours because our forefathers were tough guys who never lost a war.

We also must make certain other assumptions as our premise for peering into the future.

We must assume the rebirth and continuance of free enterprise under representative government after the war—for the alternative is the Washington propaganda mill and the regimented distribution of the products of State Capitalism.

We must assume that Vice President Wallace's dreamy economics of a quart of free milk for every African savage have been washed away; that hard-headed Yankee ingenuityand individualism—which will win this war—will be permitted to rebuild after the peace.

We must assume that America can fulfill its destiny as a world leader without bankrupting itself—that over a period of years we can help take the good things of life to the undernourished, underprivileged and badly housed people of other lands without forcing ourselves down to their levels and stabilizing depression in our land.

And we must assume that we have retained the national pride and national spirit of Americans undiluted by the sociological vaporings of those who talk of world states unhampered by citizenships and passports. Those are broad and brave assumptions when we think of them in the light of what skillful propaganda and a willful minority of radicals have done to the economic and social fabric of America in the past decade.

Now where does public relations and its helpmate, advertising, fit into this scheme of things—into the future pattern of America?

I hope I shall not seem to be carrying a sales kit when I make the blunt declaration that these two allied media for reaching people's thinking have become by force of events the most important business in the country; that they hold almost entirely the answer to our assumptions that the United States will thrive and progress in the post-war world.

For instance, we know incontrovertibly that industry has done in the past 18 months the most magnificent job of production in the history of the world. And yet we alsoknow that the country is far from completely aware of the extent of this accomplishment, else the people would today be rearing up on their hind legs and demanding that business be turned loose by the politicians to win the war. Production is one job. Selling the job to the people is another. It is not enough now just to build a better mousetrap—if it ever was.

I believe—humbly but vigorously—that the extent to which every businessman—every exponent of free enterprise every conservative liberal—practices good public relations and expounds bis own gospel to those he can reach during the coming years will determine the future of the free United States after the war. There is a definite ratio between our success in selling the American Way to America and our recapture of the spirit of enterprise after the war.

I mean no deprecation of any man of production (for he is winning the war) when I say that he needs the services of skillful and intelligent publicists to unsell millions of Americans on a lot of economic tommyrot that has been taught in recent years through the medium of propaganda, including the use of our school systems. Else the foundation stone upon which American production rests will be gone. We who are practitioners of these arts—and our allies in every segment of life who think in terms of good public relations—have the most tremendous responsibility thrust upon us.

Ours is not a job today of selling merchandise. The life or death of a single corporation, regardless of its size, does not greatly matter in the future of this country. Our merchandise is and must be enterprise—the American system of individual initiative and profit as contrasted with a regimented economy. We are selling America itself to Americans who have forgotten what America has symbolized in the past as the envy of every other nation in the world—and what it must continue to symbolize—else freedom and its blood brother free enterprise will perish from the earth. They will be gone until another hardy group of Paines and Jeffersons and Adams come to rally human beings from governmental bondage.

Make no mistake, gentlemen—this is no sham battle that b going on behind the battlefront. Our opponents in economic philosophy want to win the fighting war just as we do, but they have found in it the possibility of an easy road to long-incubated objectives for remaking America—and even the world. They know well the arts of good public relations and advertising as applied to propaganda. They know well and have shown they know well the science of swaying people's minds. They have learned too well the Hitler-Stalin technique of creating doubt in the mass mind and traditional institutions; the propaganda value of the personal libel and the "smear."

And, in their wake they suck in many who either do not know where they are going or else will follow any parade that for the moment creates the most hullabaloo. That dangerous word "liberal," no matter what kind of poison it hides, is like a honey jar to flies.

I attended a meeting last month where a group of businessmen were assembled for an evening's discussion with representatives of government. One young man from Washington arose and suggested to this group that they not oppose the principle of renegotiation of contracts because out of the resulting turmoil might come something worse. He did not explain what could be worse than not knowing for maybe three, five or eight years whether in 1942 you made $50,000 in your business or lost $50,000.

When he had finished, one fine exponent of business, whothought more of being looked upon favorably in Washington than of standing on the side of practical business conduct, arose to tell Mr. Smith who had gone to Washington how right he thought he was. But thank the Lord there was one man in that room who had the courage to rise in the face of an array of government officials and say flatly he believed the principle of renegotiation of contracts over a period of years was completely destructive of industrial production and morale.

And the applause he received showed plainly that businessmen still admire courage among their numbers—if sometimes they are hesitant to stand individually and be counted.

How many times in the last decade has business been desensitized with that sly poison—don't fight or you may get hurt worse?

When I speak of applying our talents in public relations and advertising to selling free enterprise, I do not mean that it is the job alone of those of us who practice in the field as a profession. We can and should give direction, advice and stimulus. But the job is one for willing hands and thinking minds in every walk of life.

Public relations is nothing more than the mass production of personal good manners and good morals. It is the projection through our association with many people of the Golden Rule. Maybe we have become too busy to think in simple terms like these in our mass relationships. We have forgotten how to talk the language of the other fellow.

I think that the psychologists might readily determine, if they set themselves to the task, that back of many of our nation's ills is the fact that we have grown from neighbors into competing groups. There are too many people living next to each other in the United States but apart.

Democracy, or representative government as our system of government is rightly defined, demands of its people understanding of each other whether they live in California or Maine, and particularly an understanding of neighbor by neighbor. It demands sympathy by one with the problems of another. Benjamin Franklin described it as Brotherly Love.

We who deal with masses of people—must get closer to them. We must get back to the cracker barrel and Main Street. You and I know there are many men running industrial plants today who, because they originated on the farm, in small towns, or started as office boys or in the factory, still think that they talk the same language as they did years ago. They like to think that because they can still first-name many of their men, they are part of them. They aren't. They changed under the pressure of a thousand and one other duties of a growing industry. And, resultantly, another facet of this public relations profession grows more and more important—the industrial relations man who, in many instances, faces the almost insuperable job of wringing out of employer-employee relationships in a brief period an accumulation of years of dirty water.

I think it is the wish of every person in this room—of every person with whom I talk—that we could all lay aside discussion of politics, of social problems, and internal bickerings and devote ourselves to the winning of the war. The realism of war itself would bring us back together as a nation of neighbors standing shoulder to shoulder as Americans first and competing groups last.

But dare we lay aside our watchfulness?

Is there a man here who believes that when this war is won by our combined armed forces and industrial production that Washington will order, as Woodrow Wilson did in 1919, the immediate dissolution of war's necessary Fascist controls?

Is there a man here who believes that, once the fighting isdone, American industry will be permitted—and encouraged—to go back to its job of filling the terrific pent-up demand for necessities and luxuries which compose our standard of living?

Hardly I If you listen well you will hear very little of our brothers fighting and dying for dear old Rutgers,—in this case the U. S. A. Instead, we hear a multitudinous twaddle about fighting this war for almost everything under the sun except to preserve the American way of life, representative government, and enterprise that our boys can come back to.

The hidden ball trick is the favorite play of powerful groups in the nation and it isn't being run from the Statue of Liberty formation.

Vice President Wallace, from the eminence of his position, promises something that sounds suspiciously like a combination of shovel-leaning and ploughing under every third pig on a global basis, with American farmers and workers paying the bill.

Out in California, Lewis Mumford, who identifies himself to the Associated Press as a "social planner," interpreted Mr. Wallace by predicting that because of the needs of other nations, Americans should make up their minds to endure a starvation diet for years. The phrase, "for the duration" actually means 100 years, Mr. Mumford forecasts, adding that for many years Americans would have to live on a war economy, foregoing private comforts in order to share their production with the people of foreign countries. Think that one through.

And Mr. Mumford, whom I repeat at some length because he has long been one of the "thinkers" of America's New Order, is quoted by the AP as saying "some American leaders" were making "only false empty promises" when they talk about the likelihood of a great outpouring of private airplanes, automobiles, refrigerators, air conditioning and other material comforts after the actual fighting has ceased.

Just a "social planner" talking, perhaps. But he is saying in 25 cent words what Henry Wallace didn't dare lay on the line for the American people to examine.

And another straw in the wind—

Writing in The Atlantic, Professor Alvin H. Hansen, Harvard economist and intimate advisor of our government, almost makes a good case for total war being a fine thing as a builder of national prosperity. In order to assure the country endless booms, he opines, we must ignore the size of the Federal debt, step up the spending after the war, put the government "in the investment area" in "a much larger way than it has been in the past," and divert the RFC into widespread lending "on an international scale."

Just a professor talking, perhaps, but we might have been better off as a nation ten years ago if we had listened to these professors more attentively—and got our guards up.

Another straw—

Charlie Chaplin, forced to deny in a New York interview that he is a Communist, states:

"I feel I'm a citizen of the world. And I hope that after the war the nations won't bother about such things as citizenship and passports."

Just an ex-actor talking, perhaps. But he is far from alone in talking about the surrender of American sovereignty to some world-wide conglomeration of Socialist States. New York's radical PM carries the torch with the quotation at its masthead: "My country is the world; my countrymen are mankind." And what became of Yankee Doodle?

In the recent election campaign in New York, the press carried two front page stories in one afternoon of prominent people resigning from sponsorship of so-called political meetings because they suddenly discovered they were being madethe dupes for Communist attacks upon American citizens and institutions.

You and I know that I could go on for an hour enumerating one instance after another where groups—many of them powerful and well-heeled—are using this war as a springboard for uprooting the American Way and precipitating some form of world-wide hybrid of Fascism and Socialism in which our country would be one of the pawns—a world without citizenship or passports or tariffs—and without free enterprise or free men.

Those are the forces that we who are charged with "selling" enterprise and industry and the American Way have to reckon with. We can't laugh them off. We tried that for years. And I return to my original thesis that the professions of public relations and advertising have a greater responsibility than we could ever have dreamed of a few years ago.

There is, however, one more very important element to this picture.

If I am correct that public relations, including advertising, must win or lose the battle for free enterprise and representative government, then business and industry, in turn, have the right to ask of us, "are you who labor in this field equal to the task?"

You have the right to inquire how much ground we have regained in recent years against the disciples of regimentation.

Above all, I believe you have the right to ask bluntly of those who represent you in public relations and advertising—"Do you yourself believe truly, absolutely, and with fidelity in the free enterprise system? Do you understand the principles of the incentive system? Do you believe in the necessity of survival of those industries and those industrial executives who retain you? Or is there a little pinko in you that keeps you from carrying the flag valiantly?"

You have the right to ask those questions and you are eminently stupid if you do not ask them of every man and every woman who functions or aspires to function for you in public relations or public relations advertising.


Because you would not ask a salesman to sell a product that he did not believe was the best on the market. You would not send out a man to sell leather soled shoes who believed they were second-best to rubber soles.

And you cannot expect to get a good, militant job of salesmanship from those who weasel on the conflict between enterprise—your right to do business—and some admixture of Fascism and Socialism.

Mark this, those who are trying to sell you down the river in favor of a regimented state ask what are the economic and social principles of those whom they call into the vineyard. That is one of the reasons they get a job done, for there are zealots at work.

Those who have sold a $25,000 limitation on earning power, who for ten years leapt from the crag of one emergency after another and into the dull hollows of American regimentation know well whom they retain to sell their economic horse-linament to the people.

Industrial executives are the only suckers left who retain men and women to sell free enterprise who hold economic beliefs contrary to theirs.

Why do I emphasize this point?

Because I myself question that we have been equal to our job—or that our profession has grown apace with the responsibility which it carries.

Because I blush too often when I sit in discussions with advertising and public relations men drawing their livelihood from business and find them through ignorance eitherinadequate to fight for the things in which their clients believe—or else reaching out with their right hands to reap neat incomes, and with their left to stroke the ears of those who march on the left economically.

I was talking just last week to the head of an advertising agency serving industrial clients, and he remarked vigorously, "Oh, Dewey is a damned Fascist." Now whether he was for or against Dewey as a candidate was his business. But I submit it is his clients' business if, through either ignorance or lack of understanding of radical propaganda methods, he is able to bandy that word Fascism around with such facility.

For some nine years since we at the National Association of Manufacturers began the first industrial information program, it has become a stock speech for our fraternity to lecture business and industry upon the necessity for telling its story to the public. We have really been rather critical of you in a superior sort of way. It is difficult to find an advertising or public relations man who at some time in recent years has not stood on a platform before a business audience and informed his auditors sagely that their job was to go to the public with their story. You probably are shocked that I have not done so today.

Well, if you are expected to carry your story to the public to interpret the enterprise system, what are the implements that you use? And through whom are you supposed to act?

The answer to the first question is "public relations and advertising" for that is their reason for existence since right now we have little merchandise to sell. And the answer to the second is "those who practice in these relatively new professions."

In the last five years you have given us millions of dollars to work with—through your associations, through your corporate budgets for public and industrial relations, through your institutional advertising—and sometimes personally through the medium of politics.

You cannot read results of this type of activity in a balance sheet. You can't measure cost of production against cost of sales, or cost of advertising against per unit profits in this business.

But somewhere along the line, if our business as publicists is to retain the prestige that is inherent in it, then we have got to make good in our salesmanship of the very foundations of business.

Somewhere along the line you should expect to be able to say to us, "you told us to tell our story to the public. We gave you the money. Have you preserved the private enterprise system, or are we being constantly out-maneuvered by a small group of radicals, parlor pinks, and intellectual crackpots who presumably know nothing of the arts and mechanics of propaganda?"

Those are some of the questions you are going to begin asking, and the sooner you do so the better. Every new business must go through a boiling out process before it achieves stability. The doctors whom you retain to protect you physically and the lawyer who protects you legally had their growing pains as professions. Public relations practitioners whom you retain to protect your reputations are growing, too. But we must grow fast, for the patient is sick. There isn't much time.

We have got to be equal to our responsibilities and you, in turn, have got to find those who are equal to the job and then listen to their counsel, for it is the duty of the public relations counsel to compose day by day the mural of good relationships.

We can't win this fight for free enterprise and the American Way with professional publicists who talk fast and are looking for a soft living.

We can't win it with leaders who don't know—and swear by—the fundamental tenets of the merchandise they are supposed to sell.

We can't win it with publicists who have discovered that the safe way to hold a client is to do nothing, for errors of omission are not legible on the public opinion registers.

And, over and beyond everything else, gentlemen, we can't win if those who are supposedly carrying the banner are faint-of-heart—or if they are Hessian mercenaries—crusading for a doctrine in which they do not believe with all their hearts and all their souls.

A good fighter loves his own cause and hates the enemy. This is a many-sided war America is in today. We have got to lick hell out of the Japs and the Nazis. But the whole vortex of the world-wide conflagration is economic and political. And if we are going to win our fight to regain private enterprise from the stronghold of war's Fascism, then we have got to learn to hate those chains of Fascism. The people have got to hate those chains and accept them only as a temporary necessity. We have got to make our high resolve that once the manufacture of death is no longer the business of life, we will demand the casting off of our shackles and return the American people to the American Way of representative free government and honest free enterprise. And that is the big job of public relations now and tomorrow.