ELECTRICITY MAY BE THE DRIVER!
America’s Independent Electric Light and Power Companies Future Technology Ads
Part of a series of articles on ad campaigns featuring futuristic inventions.
Your food will cook in seconds instead of hours. Electricity will close your windows at the first drop of rain. Lamps will cut on and off automatically to fit the lighting needs in your rooms. Television "screens" will hang on the walls. An electric heat pump will use outside air to cool your house in summer, heat it in winter.
Sounds good today in the 21st century. Every prediction a winner. Imagine the impact on readers in 1956.
And that was the copy on just the first of a series of ads. The domed swimming pool at top came later, along with self-driving cars, moving sidewalks, robot hedge-trimmers, flying cars, and two-way home shopping via TV-telephone. What would make all these fabulous inventions possible? Electricity!
America’s Independent Electric Light and Power Companies (AIELPC) put their name on the ads. If you wonder who they are and why they did this, a full article can be found at the bottom of the page. Bonus feature: their full set of atomic power ads!
Yet it's this series of future technology ads that sets off tingles in retrofuturists all over the internet. You can easily find one of five ads on Pinterest and Reddit or framed for sale on Amazon and Etsy or stumble across them wherever flying cars are talked about. No one appears to list all of them, and almost all the pictures are undated unless a simple "1950s" or "1960s" is given.
A good deal of digging was required to correct those omissions, but here they all are with original print dates. Or at least an original print date, since the ads appeared at different times in different magazines and newspapers, sometimes a year apart. As another special bonus I managed to discover a sixth ad in the series that apparently no one has ever noticed before, and possibly a seventh.
Let's start before the beginning. The AIELPC was the name for their lobbying group that the electric power industry finally decided on after running an Electric Companies Advertising Program (ECAP) since 1939. All of the ECAP ads were not-subtle pronouncements that the incredible array of new appliances that consumers were putting into their homes needed more electricity to run. Therefore new electric plants had to be built constantly. The ads cleverly lead to - albeit unspoken and between-the-lines - the realization that all the costs reflected in higher electric bills were justified because you, the consumer, created the problem.
What did consumers get for their money? Nothing less than the greatest headline in the history of advertising: "Junior - put down that book and turn on the electric dog-washer."
Colliers, Sept. 9, 1950
Alton [IA] Democrat, Jan. 18 1951
Will you be using room-to-room television in 5 or 10 years? Electric dog-washers? Child-scrubbers? Hardly anything seems too farfetched for the future!"
Talk about helicopter parenting! The dog is literally right in front of the mother. Is Junior supposed to turn the washer on remotely? Will she get splashed? Why does the dog look so unhappy at the prospect? So many questions.
This image is taken from Collier's, a major weekly magazine. Newsweek, Time, U.S. News & World Report, and The American Magazine also ran the ad. At least 27 newspapers carried a version, stripping in the name of the local electric provider, from October 3, 1950 to this last one on January 18, 1951. Newspapers generally reformatted the text from three columns to one column to fit vertically on a page. As above I'll give examples of both, from the big-name magazines to a variety of small-city newspapers to show the breadth of the campaign.
The similarities between this ad and the later AIELPC ads are too huge to ignore. Someone must have dug into the archives. In the booming 50s, when the consumer world changed daily, the future beckoned. Disneyland imagined American history starting with Frontierworld and continuing through Tomorrowland. Disney always caught the zeitgeist. AIELPC latched on just a few months later, by coincidence or using its example to realize that talking about the benefits electricity would be bringing in the future was too great an idea to let sit with a single silly image. After a five year layoff they went for the gold: a self-driving car.
Life, January 30 1956
Green Bay [WI] Press-Gazette, February 2, 1957
Great work. Looks good, plus an academic could get a long paper pointing out how many markers with psychological symbolism are embedded in the seemingly simple image. As a reader, your eye would go first to the center, a standard American middle-class household of formally dressed mom and dad with two children, one boy, one girl. That's clearly how a family should look. The parents are turned toward us - the car drives itself. Nothing separates them from their children - the family is one whole. The bubble top reveals them - and how perfect they are. They are playing a game - leisure time even while traveling. Look up and more is revealed. They drive down a highway, no, a super-highway. The road is broad but endless. What lies ahead but a bright future, full of possibilities without obstacles.
This one striking and enticing image captures everything that middle-class America strove. It hardly needed copy, given how many 1950s' buttons were being pushed, but who could resist what the text spelled out?
ELECTRICITY MAY BE THE DRIVER. One day your car may speed along an electric super-highway, its speed and steering automatically controlled by electronic devices embedded in the road. Travel will be more relaxing and enjoyable. Highways will be made safe - by electricity! No traffic jams ... no collisions .. no driver fatigue.
Sixty-five years later we're still lusting for this future, now a few steps closer to fruition.
Whose brilliant mind created this ad is unknown, but AIELPC used the giant advertising agency N. W. Ayer from 1939 to 1974, and they were among the best. The image is signed with an unhelpful squiggle I can't quite make out. "HMiller," perhaps. AIELPC loved the ad. We know that because they ran the campaign twice, first in 1956 and then again a year later. The earliest hit in the newspaper archives is from the Bernardsville [NJ] News on January 5, 1956, with at least 40 more papers using it through March 1956. Life magazine ran it in the January 30, 1956 issue other top magazines followed.
AIELPC - for some reason, the word "Independent" was left out - foreshadowed the second newspaper round by placing the ad in the December 10, 1956 Time magazine. Life ran it again in the February 25, 1957 issue. In between, another round of newspaper placement started up and lasted for months.
And the wonderfulness of the ad didn't stop there. In an oddity unlike anything I've seen before while combing hundreds of issues of old magazines, I found the "self-steering" car used in an ad for a completely different company, run in the August 1958 Fortune magazine. The details are altered but the concept is identical. Even the swapped-in back-seat adults are playing a game.
Fortune, August 1958
Thompson Products also "borrowed" the copy, using the same theme reworked to meet its needs.
Self-steering car of tomorrow traveling on super highway patrolled by radar towers. Future car may be powered by radical new engine, cover with new wonder metal, equipped with car-to-home phone, and controlled by automatic pilot.
Thompson made auto and airplane parts. They would soon get into rocket design and a host of other advanced technologies. 1958 was also the year they merged with the Ramo-Wooldrige Company and soon became the giant conglomerate TRW. The future technology theme was perfect for them.
They aren't listed as a client for Ayer, so where and how did they get permission for the image? AIELPC had to know they did it. Didn't they? Yet another mystery.
AIELPC quadrupled down on the future in June 1956. No hits come up when I search for the image, so you're probably seeing this ad as part of the series for the first time. Little wonder. For the usual mysterious reasons, AIELPC hid it away in Boy's Life magazine. At least they got their own name right this time.
Boy's Life, June 1956
After repeating the image and caption of the first ad, three new images are added, two of them great. A spot-on look ahead to flat-screen tv and multiple programs in various rooms.
Because TV "screens" may hang on your walls! Every room in your home may have its own television "screen" that hangs on the wall like a picture. A single master set, centrally located, may bring as many programs into your house as there are walls screens to receive them.
... and that staple of The Jetsons, moving sidewalks.
Because sidewalks may do the "walking"! You may move along ramps, walkways, subways, even sidewalks on electrically driven conveyors. You will arrive at your destination twice as fast with half the effort. Congestion at street corners may be avoided with elevated crossover conveyors.
The third image is prosaic but practical, except for the part that implies automation will throw people out of jobs.
Because of new jobs you will be doing electrically! You may be an electronics specialist operating a giant production line, or even a plant, through electric automation. Work will be more interesting. Many routine jobs will be done automatically, freeing workers for better jobs.
The next ad is also calculated to drive historians nuts. Is it part of the series or isn't it? The first one appears on August 23, 1956 (again in the tiny Bernardsville [NJ] News: could that mean something, anything?) and continues to migrate through local papers for a month or two.
Bernardsville [NJ] News, August 23, 1956
Future technology is again the bait. Push-button technology may not be as flashy as a self-driving car, but that control panel would baffle a jet pilot. And the text could easily be fitted to a different future image.
Plenty of electricity can make your home of the future a house of marvels! From a central control panel, you may be able to wash your dishes, raise and lower windows, control the lighting in every room - even make your beds!
Beds made by electricity? Sounds loony - until you remember that George Jetson slept in a bed that made it itself automatically. Were Jetsons writers - like those at Thompson Products - stealing their ideas from AIELPC?
Probably not. Push-button housekeeping was a phrase that newspaper writers couldn't get enough of in 1956. Take this article syndicated by the Associated Press that had appeared in May, plenty enough lead time to whip up a quick ad. And detailing a good approximation of one of the food machines also shown on The Jetsons.
Fairbury [NE] Daily News, May 12, 1956
Although the copy is apropos, the look and feel of the push-button ad is all wrong for the series. Nor was the image used in any magazine. Probably not part of the "official" series, but everything AIELPC did in 1956 crossed boundaries.
What did repeat in magazine ads was the tag line, "Plenty of electricity can make your home of the future a house of marvels!" And on the first full-color ad no less.
Time, Nov. 26, 1956
The convenience that electricity will bring to your future home is spelled out in this variant.
In the future, you'll be able to flip switches to raise or lower table and work surfaces to every height. Electricity will bring beds out of the walls in the evening - then "make" them and fold them into the walls in the morning. The power that controls your home's climate will even do the dusting.
At least they had the decency to put quotes around "make."
The shiny color house omitted the insanely complicated control panel and substituted a marvel. While one boy is making a snowman in the depth of winter, another is frolicking inside a dome that contains summer. Dad's relaxing in the swimming pool, Mom is gardening in shorts, and the flowers are in full bloom. Any science fiction magazine of the 1950s could have run this scene on its cover and gotten raves. The caption tells us that more marvels are hidden in the background.
FUTURE HOMES will be able to face in any direction - turned at will by your electricity. Electrically operated climate-conditioned extensions will permit "summer terraces" all year round - enjoy winter and summer fun both at once.
Imagine how much electricity would be needed to power this marvel. Imagine how high your electric bills would be. Little wonder that AIELPC was touting presumably low-cost atomic power at the same time and talking about the need for more and more power plants.
This ad may have been the capstone in their campaign. It appeared in Time, Life, U.S. News & World Report, The Saturday Evening Post, Red Book, Look, and Coronet. Not one newspaper, though. Presumably the poor black-and-white reproduction would lose all the marvelousness.
More confirmation that the campaign was intended to be brief is that AIELPC took all of 1957 off, except for rerunning its first ad. Then suddenly in 1958 a new addition to the series made its appearance in newspapers and Sunday supplement magazines, although not magazines.
Parade, June 22, 1958
German Valley [IL] Bulletin, June 20, 1958
"One day you may have an electric "gardener" like the one pictured above." Another borrowed idea. Automatic lawnmowers are older than this ad. The "Snappin' Turtle" was commercially available in 1952. Lawns are easy compared to hedges. Does anyone think that a robot hedge-trimmer could do topiary? Nope, it definitely had one setting and that involved right angles. Perfect for the 1950s.
The next in the series followed the same ad buying patterns in 1959, first in major magazines and then in Sunday supplements, although appearing one week later in Parade than This Week.
Time, May 18, 1959
This Week, June 21, 1959
YOUR PERSONAL "FLYING CARPET!" Step into it, press a button, and off you go to market, to a friend's home, or to your job. Take off and land anywhere. Plug in to any electric outlet for recharging. They're working on it!
Eat your heart out, Tesla.
Flying saucers were the in thing during the 1950s and AIELPC never saw an idea it couldn't steal. One of the most rediscovered articles from that era was Frank Tinsley's "Flying Saucers for Everybody" in the March 1957 Modern Mechanix.
Modern Mechanix, March 1957
Note how the two images were pitched to entirely different audiences. The pop sci magazines still relied heavily on ex-military readers, while AIELPC targeted consumers. The confort level in Tinsley's flying saucer is nil, totally unsuitable for Mom and the kids. Both vehicles have good visibility - if your vehicle didn't have a bubble how could people be sure you were wearing pants? Those bubbles made depicting control panels and dashboards a nuisance, though, so artists simply eliminated them and left it to imaginations what else was needed besides a steering wheel.
The final ad in the series appeared one year later. Again Time got first shot at it followed by newspapers and the Sunday supplements, all the way through September.
Time, March 7, 1960
Steele [MO] Enterprise, September 9, 1960
Companies had heavily shifted their advertising targets to suburban Moms, the ones with money and appliances, stuck far away from easy access to stores, flying saucers notwithstanding.
One of these days you may shop by TV ... have an appliance that takes food from the freezer to the range, then cooks and serves it, all electrically ... and a scrubber that cleans the kitchen floor automatically and scurries back to its own wall-cupboard.
Two of the three predictions worked out well. What's odd is that the copy doesn't match the scene depicted or the caption.
SHOP AT HOME BY TV. It's raining hard and she's busy. So she presses a button and talks to a store over a two-way TV telephone. She sees the merchandise in color and makes her choice. Already, they're working on this.
The underlined emphasis is from the original copy. And yet the Time ad is in much cheaper black-and-white. Start the foreboding music.
Right. This would be the last future ad from AIELPC. The lobbying group itself was nearly finished. Read on for a quick history of the group, its advertising, and the complete set of atomic power ads that they ran concurrently with the future technology ads.
ECAP: The Electric Companies Advertising Program
You've probably heard of the TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority. It should be part of any good American history textbook. One of Roosevelt's major Depression-era projects, the TVA poured money into poverty-stricken rural areas in and around Tennessee and soon began building massive hydropower dams. These provided the power for the the Oak Ridge uranium enrichment plant during World War II.
Who could be against that? Well, conservatives fought every Roosevelt program to the bitter end. Privately-owned power companies in particular hated the idea of government-run power plants. For them, the idea was pure socialism, a word thrown about just as much then as now for anything the federal government did to benefit people.
Lobbying groups were also part of the landscape. In 1939, electric companies from all over the country pooled their money to start a national ad campaign, dubbed the Electric Companies Advertising Program (ECAP).
The first ad I can find is very mild, touting the benefits of "modern electric living," a catchphrase they would use for years, while emphasizing that the companies were run by locals, your friends and neighbors, implicitly not those faceless bureaucrats in Washington.
Reading [PA] Times, April 8, 1939
The socialism accusation had to be toned down during the war after the USSR became an official ally. The gloves were taken off right after, the golden age of anti-communism and red-bashing. The ads, produced by the giant N. W. Ayer advertising agency, grew increasingly strident, hardsell, and in-your-face. Those damn commies were coming to take away your children's bibles!
undated, probably 1950
Life, April 3, 1950
You can't get much more patriotic and anti-government simultaneously than billing yourself America's business-managed, tax-paying Electric Light and Power Companies.
The fine print also asks readers to tune into "Meet Corliss Archer." That was the name of a popular radio program running nationally on CBS and sponsored - meaning completely paid for in those days - by ECAP. ECAP started its radio campaign in a small way in 1943, changing programs almost every year. By 1951, two-thirds of its budget was going to radio. Corliss was the archetypal middle-class 15-year-old girl, preoccupied with boys, dances, and dresses. She had been voiced by professional teenager Janet Waldo since 1944, who would in 1962 become the voice of 15-year-old Judy Jetson for the next 30 years.
Imagine the thoughts of the boys and girls - for whom listening to Corliss Archer at 9 pm on a Sunday was probably the last thing they did before going to bed - if they bothered to listen to this ECAP commercial that ran on the October 7, 1951 program. Remember that the U.S. was in the middle of the Korean War, literally fighting Communists, at the time.
MUSIC: "Rockabye Baby"
WOMAN: (gently) "With folded hands ... while eyelids sink ... just for a moment of Stalin think..."
ANNOUNCER: Yes ... state-run nurseries in the Soviet Zone of Germany are using that lullaby these days - under orders from their Soviet commissars! Now, there's a pretty terrifying example of how an all-powerful government controls the lives of people from the cradle on! Perhaps you're thinking: "It can never happen here." Well, it won't happen here ... as long as you recognize the signs of danger.
For example - everybody wants the government to have certain controls and powers - especially in time of emergency. We're even willing to give up some of our rights and freedoms temporarily to go all-out for national defense. But, some people would take advantage of the emergency. They would have the government take over more and more of the nation's basic services and industries - for keeps! The railroads, for example - the doctors, the business-managed electric light and power companies! That would be a dangerous step toward socialism. Whenever government, moving step by step, takes over enough services or industries, you have socialism automatically.
We of the business-managed, tax-paying electric light and power companies believe that most Americans recognize the danger. Most Americans know that government management of business and industry can lead straight to socialism ... and they know under socialism, the government finally takes over everything, including people's freedom!
As I said, the world then was very different and amazingly the same.
Although the ads were obviously coming from a single source, they ran over a variety of names until 1952, when the ECAP was consolidated in print under the name America's Independent Electric Light and Power Companies (AIELPC). Hundreds of different ads were run in magazines and newspapers. The anti-government power campaign lasted into the 1970s.
In 1956, for unknown reasons, AIELPC started running two other series of ads simultaneously in the same newspapers and magazines. This is not normal in advertising. Competing messages are discouraged. Yet readers never knew what might appear in any given week, an anti-government spending ad, a future technology ad, or one boasting about the wonders that atomic power would bring.
The series was oddly incoherent, without any more connection than power from atomic plants. One would think they turned to a half dozen advertising firms for samples and then printed them all. Even the typeface changes.
The October 1956 ad from Boy's Life contains a footnote saying "Names on request from this magazine." The mind boggles both at the thought of Boy Scouts asking for the name of their local power companies - Boy Scouts are resourceful: couldn't they find the name on the bills sent to their homes each month? - and what information the magazine staff was provided to answer these letters. Then again, the note was soon changed to read "Company names on request through this magazine." Whose names were the readers asking for that forced this clarification?
Whether the ads made sense as a whole, some of the images are great, reminders that atomic power had yet to gain the disastrous air it would be given after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. It offered unlimited promise and seemingly no downside. You can feel the wonder seeping through the page.
Boy's Life, August 1956
Life, October 8, 1956
Boy's Life, October 1956
Life, March 18, 1957
Life, April 22, 1957
Life, July 22, 1957
Life, Nov 18, 1957
Life, December 16, 1957
Why did the group behind the ad campaign change its name from America's business-managed, tax-paying Electric Light and Power Companies? Perhaps because the name hid a subtle irony. They didn't pay their taxes. Or at least not an important fraction of them. After a year-long investigation, the IRS ruled in 1958 that AIELPC was illegally deducting the cost of the ad campaign as a business expense, reducing the amount of tax they paid. This had the effect of charging the ratepayers for the cost of the campaign, rather than cutting profits for the stockholders - the ones who benefited from the power companies making more money.
The Federal Power Commission and the Federal Trade Commission launched their own investigations. AIELPC fought back. In 1962, the case reached the Supreme Court, which quietly affirmed a lower court ruling against them. And that was pretty much the end of advertising by AIELPC.
Labeling itself Investor-Owned Electric Light and Power Companies, the group continued to spend heavily. Only a few ads promoting the wonders of atomic power appeared under that name, with this one being my favorite.
Newsweek, April 1965
Most notably for our purposes, ECAP sponsored a four-part series on NBC in 1968 called "Tomorrow's World."
Salisbury [MD] Daily Times, Jan. 4, 1968
N. W. Ayer continued to be their official advertising agency until 1974, but the print ads lessened in the 1970s. They still yelled about government taxes and the need to build ever more electric plants, but also started mentioning recycling programs. The Clean Air Act of 1970 had a profound effect on the country. The same battles get fought over and over. Tomorrow's World is always today's as well.
August 12, 2022