History of advertising: No 156: Printers' Ink

George P Rowell did more than almost anybody to take the US ad industry into the modern age.

Nothing better articulated his vision for it than Printers’ Ink, the weekly trade magazine he founded.

From the time he opened his own agency in Boston in 1865 booking ad space with newspapers in New England, Rowell became a pioneering writer and commentator on the nascent profession.

So it was no wonder that, when Printers’ Ink launched 13 years later in New York, it would become the industry’s mouthpiece and a champion of the issues confronting it.

Always wary of possible US government regulation of advertising, Printers’ Ink famously came up with a model law that made certain types of false advertising illegal. By the 20s, as many as 25 US states had some of this law on their statute books.

Meanwhile, the magazine became a tool in Rowell’s efforts to force newspaper publishers to report data honestly. The publishers, which overstated circulation figures to boost ad rates, fought him while advertisers backed him. Most publishers eventually modified their claims to more accurately reflect Rowell’s estimates of their circulation.

These initiatives helped build Printers’ Ink into one of the most successful and influential journals of its kind and a vehicle for its founder’s forthright views on advertising.

For example, Rowell rejected efforts to turn advertising into a science by using psychology. Instead, Printers’ Ink published articles supporting careful examination of what made campaigns successful and the need to use instinct.

In addition, the title often analysed the pros and cons of campaigns while its founder ran competitions with prizes for the best examples of ads.

Things you need to know

  • By the 1890s, Printers’ Ink had a circulation of about 16,000, making it the most widely read advertising trade magazine of its day.
  • One of Rowell’s ideas – accepted by newspapers – was that there should be a cash discount in addition to the agent’s commission.
  • The last issue of Printers’ Ink appeared in September 1967. It was acquired by Decker Communications, which changed its name to Marketing/Communications. The title was axed in February 1972 due to lack of ad revenue.