History of advertising: No 180: Orson Welles' War of the Worlds

History of advertising: No 180: Orson Welles' War of the Worlds

The story of Orson Welles' radio production War of the Worlds has become legendary. On the day after it was broadcast on 30 October 1938, newspapers across the US were awash with tales of how people had been fooled into believing the Martians had landed.

Lurid tales abounded of mass hysteria, armed mobs roaming city streets, road crashes, suicides, panic-related deaths and even of the National Guard being called out to restore order.

The whole thing beggared belief, which was not surprising because none of it was true. In fact, the real war being waged was not between Martians and Earthlings but between two media locked in a bitter ongoing rivalry. And its catalyst was advertising revenue.

Ever since commercial radio’s arrival in the US in the 1920s, the fight between broadcasters and newspapers had grown ever-more intense. Print began losing significant amounts of ad revenue to radio during the Depression. And the haemorrhage showed no signs of being staunched.

Radio’s march seemed unstoppable – its share of total US adspend rose from 1% in 1928 to 15% in 1945. As a result, the newspaper industry seized every opportunity to undermine radio and prove to advertisers and regulators that its management was irresponsible and untrustworthy.

Newspapers are said to have sensationalised the panic to discredit radio as a source of news. The New York Times castigated War of the Worlds for using spoof newsflashes "offered in exactly the same manner that real news would have been given".

In 1970, Welles told David Frost: "I’d replaced Benedict Arnold as an American villain and that was because the newspapers, who’d been griping about radio taking away the advertising, finally found somebody to blame."

Things you need to know

  • Telephone research after the programme by CE Hooper, the ratings service that helped broadcasters set ad rates, found that only 2% of those called had been listening to a radio play.
  • The tiny rating for War of the Worlds was unsurprising because it was scheduled against a show starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, one of the most popular national programmes of the time.
  • After War of the Worlds, radio networks agreed with the Federal Communications Commission not to use fictional newsflashes again.

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