During the early 20th century—especially in the decades of the twenties and thirties, marketing turned to offering solutions and advice for problems that evolved in modernity. In the first decade of the 20th century, for example, AT&T tried to convince its readers that “the constant endeavor of the associated Bell companies…is to give you the best and most economical management human ingenuity can devise.” The PR team was suggesting that the sole mission of AT&T was to make the consumer’s life easier. AT&T, at that point, held a purposeful “bias towards utilitarianism,” as Roland Marchand suggests in Creating the Corporate Soul. However, a company which had picked up the noble challenge of serving as a nation’s communications lifeline needed to align itself with the civic good and listen to its customer base—both male and female. Therefore, in a turning point for marketing and advertising, Marchand suggests that by 1911 through the 1920s, marketing by companies like AT&T and others presented a “social tableaux” with the woman as an essential customer. The telephone, for example, became the essential device in a woman’s life to ensure that: mother was well, the children were being released from school because of a snowstorm, and the husband was not bringing the boss for dinner. In the ad, “Man, Get her a Bell Telephone,” originally published in December, 1911, Santa calls a husband and agitates his pain of, perhaps, not yet having a gift for his wife. He suggests installing a telephone because “it’ll make life much more pleasant for your wife and she’ll always have things ready on time.”
This new marketer (who was typically an upper-middle class, highly educated male) could somehow relate to and connect with clients who not all looked like he did. With this solution-centered, human to human, and more segmented technique, marketing pinpointed the anxieties of the modern consumer and began a more personal approach towards helping consumers negotiate those anxieties—turning a corner towards the marketing of the mid-20th century.
In the 1950s, when computers arrived, even they were announced through direct marketing. Lester Wunderman, the father of direct marketing and innovator in direct marketing projects for the financial services industry, coined the term “Direct Marketing” in a 1961 presentation to New York’s Hundred Million Club. Members of the club were engrained mail-order marketers who understood that there had to be more efficient ways to reach their potential customers. Acknowledging the mail-order model’s limitations, Wunderman expressed the greater savvy behind direct marketing: “a new and more efficient method of selling, based on scientific advertising principles and serviced by increasingly more automated warehousing, shipping and collection techniques.”
Today, one may say that direct marketing is any sales communication that generates, fosters, or depends on a direct relationship with a customer.
Although it did not catch on immediately, the term: direct marketing went “viral” after Wunderman’s next talk at MIT in 1967. By the 1970s, direct marketing was enlivened by the impressively developing color in computer graphic design, with eye-catching headlines and illustrations capturing the attention and imagination of consumers.