May 1, 1880, is the birthdate of Albert Lasker, the man dubbed the “father” of modern American advertising, whose creativity and manipulative skills got people believing that smoking was good for women’s health; that a made-up compound called “irium” in Pepsodent toothpaste would make their teeth whiter; and that Quaker Puffed Rice and Puffed Wheat were the “grains shot out of guns.”
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Perhaps the only significant Lasker campaign that failed was his all-out and honest effort to prove to the Georgia legal system that Leo Frank, the Jewish manager of an Atlanta pencil factory, had not murdered a young female employee, and that the charges against him were trumped-up and based on anti-Semitism. Notwithstanding the accused man’s innocence, and Lasker’s sophisticated campaign on his behalf, Frank was dead before justice could run its full course, having been kidnapped from his jail cell and lynched by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Albert Davis Lasker was born in Freiburg, Prussia, where his parents – Morris Lasker and the former Nettie Davis – had come for medical care for Nettie during her pregnancy. Morris had immigrated from Germany to the United States in 1856 and married Nettie, an American-born Jew of German and Russian descent, in 1876, after he had established himself as one of the leading businessmen of Galveston, Texas.
The family returned to Galveston about six weeks after Albert’s birth. When real estate prices collapsed in 1893, and with them the value of most of Morris’ holdings, he sent all but Albert back to Germany. The father and son moved into a single rented room while Morris began to recoup his losses. Later in life, when he became one of America’s most successful businessmen, Albert avoided investments in real estate – other, that is, than the 480-acre tract he bought north of Chicago for his home and private 18-hole golf course.
Father knows best
Albert’s first consuming ambition was to be a journalist: At age 12 he started his own paper, the Galveston Free Press, which he distributed free, and paid for by running ads. After graduating from Ball High School in 1896, he worked locally while waiting for the opportunity to move to a paper in New York.
In 1898, Morris, fearing that the journalist’s life would turn his son into a dissolute alcoholic, arranged for an advertising executive in Chicago who owed him a favor to hire Albert on a trial basis. Albert, too, was told he could walk away after three months if the work didn’t suit him.
By 1903, Lasker was a partner in the agency, Thomas & Lord, and in 1912 he bought out the firm, remaining its sole owner until his retirement in 1942.
Before Albert Lasker, companies with something to sell wrote their own ads, describing their product, and ad agencies placed the ads in newspapers. Lasker convinced advertisers to let his company devise their campaigns, which would explain to consumers just how a product would change their lives for the better.
Lasker’s firm helped save a troubled citrus industry by urging mothers to serve family members orange juice, and thus provide them with their daily dose of Vitamin C; suggested to women that they could “Keep that schoolgirl complexion” with Palmolive soap; and convinced those concerned about their shapes to “Reach for a Lucky [Strike] instead of a sweet.” Lasker figured out a respectable way to sell “sanitary napkins,” and convinced Americans to elect the incompetent Warren G. Harding in 1920.
Lasker was not religiously observant; his Jewish identity was catalyzed when he witnessed anti-Semitism, whether the victim was Leo Frank or himself, when he was denied membership in restricted country clubs. He became involved in a variety of Jewish organizations and, in 1950, made a first visit to Israel where, “For the first time in my life, I [learned] what the expression ‘the Jewish people’ means.”
Lasker and his third wife, Mary Woodard Reinhardt, played key roles in establishing the American Cancer Society, Planned Parenthood (he thought up the name) and the National Institutes of Health, and together set up the foundation that presents the prestigious Lasker Awards in medical sciences.
Albert Lasker died of cancer on May 30, 1952.