The Advisory State: Physical Fitness through the Ad Council, 1955–65

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:20 AM
Chicago Ballroom C (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Rachel Louise Moran, Pennsylvania State University
After World War II, the body and fitness of the American male was condemned both behind government doors and within the mass media. Extraordinarily high military rejection rates for a myriad of physical and mental ailments were grouped under the banner of “physical unfitness.” Experts deemed men “soft,” spoiled by the ease of modern living. The way back was through exercise, strength building, and bodily measurement. But in the aftermath of a war against totalitarianism, and with the looming specter of communism, mandatory training programs seemed dangerously authoritarian. The best solution would have to be the most capitalist, the most liberal, and the most voluntary, while still compelling boys and men into participation. The President’s Council on Youth/Physical Fitness (PCPF), then, promised to shape bodies without stepping on toes.

Through the use of advertising, primarily through the non-profit Ad Council but also through corporate support, the PCPF spread messages and programs of universal male fitness while proudly avoiding developing a large bureaucracy or using substantial tax dollars. This economic arrangement was necessary for its success. Federally managed advertising and programming that remained outside the federal budget allowed the PCPF to spread a military program of exercise, physical improvement, strength building and weight-loss without crossing the unspoken boundary of directly telling Americans what to do with their individual bodies.

Through this examination of the relationship between this federal agency and its economic partnerships we can recalibrate our understanding of (a) the methods used to shape the American body in the 1950s-1960s, (b) the ways government interventions in daily life through these methods, and the arm of the State, proved more extensive than we typically imagine, and (c) the ways public acceptance of civilian military preparation in Cold War context was most achievable through advisory rather than compelled methods.