Saturday, November 1, 2014

Advertising Disaster

People homeless and bereft? Make money on their distress! From movie projectors to tornado insurance, venal entrepreneurs began hawking their wares not 24 hours after the Easter 1913 tornadoes and flood

“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” advised Winston Churchill. But he doubtless meant something quite different from what enterprising merchants began doing not
"Withstands tornado and flood" trumpets an advertisement for Simplex motion picture projector
in the May 10, 1913 issue of the movie theater projectionists' trade magazine
Moving Picture World.
24 hours after the 10 devastating Great Easter tornadoes cut swaths of carnage and destruction across Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, and Indiana Easter Sunday night.

The very next morning—when ruins left in the wake of tornadoes were still smoking, floodwaters were still rising, and families were still seeing loved ones drowned or 
This page of ads for tornado and fire insurance--just one page of about four--appeared on Monday,
March 24, 1913 in the Omaha World-Herald, not 24 hours after a violent EF-4 tornado
(still Nebraska's single deadliest) roared through downtown Omaha, Nebraska.
mangled before their eyes—already vendors were placing ads to sell goods and services to people stripped of all they owned, literally to capitalize on the disaster. Indeed, at least two manufacturers used the fact that their adding machines and 
Also on Monday, March 24, 1913 this raft of ads for tornado insurance appeared in the
Terre Haute Tribune, not 24 hours after another Easter EF-4 tornado
had roared through Terre Haute, Indiana.
movie-theater projection camera survived tornado and flood as a selling point that their mechanisms (to paraphrase the famous advertising slogan from Timex watches) “took a licking and kept on ticking.”

As seeing is believing, here are just a few display ads from half a dozen different newspapers and magazines. On the cringe-factor scale, they range from near zero 
This ad for a bank vault for free for 60 days, advertised in the
Columbus Dispatch
on March 27, 1913, was likely not offensive to flood victims.
(the merchant is offering a necessary good or service for free, although it would gain good will) to ten (soulless, pitiless hard sell based on fear). Nor were these the only 
This ad for Burroughs adding machines in the Dayton flood was one of a 19-page special
series of ads in the June 1913 issue of The Rotarian, seeking to
direct business to members of Rotary in Dayton, Ohio.
products advertised and sold. Plagiarizing authors threw together newspaper stories in weeks to publish half a dozen instant books (see “Profiting from Pain”) and movie
This low-key ad from a lumber yard, observing that it was also a victim of the Omaha tornado,
appeared in the March 25, 1913 issue of the Omaha Bee.
theaters packed seats withthe curious all around the nation wanting to see footage of the devastation (see “Screening Disaster”).

Interestingly, as far as I have observed thus far in some 60 newspapers, the ads in 
Ranking about 5 on the cringe-factor scale is this ad from a church in Anderson, Indiana,
advertising its tabernacle service the first Sunday after Easter,
printed that day in the Anderson Herald.
the flooded states were less crass than the ones in the tornado zones, mainly offering flood-damaged wares at a discount. Mayors and governors promulgated injunctions 
Ranking about 7 on the cringe-factor scale was the full newspaper-width ad for the Omaha Bee's
own booklet of photographs of tornado devastation that began appearing on Thursday, March 27,
1913, even above the paper's title. Tasteless as it was, the tactic worked:
within a week or two, the paper claimed 35,000 copies had sold.
prohibiting merchants from price-gouging (marking up merchandise that was suddenly in high demand, be it food, furniture, or construction tools). Nonetheless, the Ohio State Board of Health reported finding several unethical grocers and butchers--
The all-time loser--ranking a full 10 on the cringe-factor scale--was this full-page scare-tactic
hard-sell ad for tornado insurance, published Friday, March 28, 1913 in the Omaha Bee.
desperate not to have to accept a total loss on their foodstuffs--trying to sell meat that had been submerged in filthy floodwaters, and seizing and condemning the contaminated food. One wonders: would those merchants themselves have eaten the meat they were trying to sell?

Next time: Great Easter 1913 Dust Storm, Prairie Fires—and Red Rains  

Selected references
Aside from the publications already cited, see McCampbell, E. F., “Special Report on the Flood of March, 1913,” reprinted from Monthly Bulletin Ohio State Board of Health, May 1913; pp 299–445. 

Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me), or order from the publisher