The advertising program at Penn State started in 1936, when Donald Davis arrived on campus. Davis, who had been teaching advertising at Northeastern University, was asked to come to Penn State to establish an advertising program. He laid the foundation for the program on two main tenants -- ethics and social responsibility. Davis was interested in advertising education as a means of improving professional standards. It was an interest he maintained throughout his life, and a direction that has shaped the advertising program at Penn State from its inception. It was also an approach that generated a response from students.
During Davis’s nearly 23 years at Penn State, the University’s enrollment in advertising courses grew to be the largest in the country -- and it was that way almost from the start. During the 1936-1937 academic year, 60 students (40 men and 20 women) focused on advertising as their major. The advertising curriculum was labeled with journalism course numbers and was designed for students who planned to enter the field of periodical advertising.
During the 1937-1938 academic year, classes offered for juniors and seniors majoring in advertising included:
- Journ 40, Newspaper Practices in Advertising
- Journ 41, Writing of Advertisements
- Journ 42, Advertising Layout
- Journ 43, Advertising Campaigns
- Journ 46, Selling of Advertising
- Journ 47, Practice Course in the Selling of Advertising
While several universities created a place for their advertising programs within business and education schools, Penn State’s advertising program was housed in the School of Liberal Arts. In that way, the program was also ahead of its time. Specifically, while some other colleges and universities discontinued their advertising programs with some regularity after World War II in the 1950s (only to have them reappear later as part of journalism and mass communications programs), Penn State’s program consistently maintained its broad-based, liberal arts influence. As the School of Journalism grew out of the College of the Liberal Arts and the advertising program’s home shifted accordingly, the program maintained its focus and surpassed previous levels of interest among students.
A National Leader
Along with an ethical approach and a consistent concern for advertising’s social impact, Davis helped lead advertising education nationally. He served as national president of Alpha Delta Sigma, the professional advertising fraternity, in 1947 and in 1955 published his textbook about the field, “Basic Text in Advertising.” That same year, Penn State’s advertising program moved from the School of Liberal Arts to the School of Journalism and Davis was the professor in charge. By 1958, Penn State had more juniors and seniors enrolled as advertising majors than any of the other 46 accredited schools in the country.
Under Davis’s direction, the program continued to add to its critical mass of expertise and interest.
Among faculty members, Roland Hicks found a home at Penn State in 1950. After Davis’s death in June 1959, Hicks took over as professor in charge and maintained Penn State’s active presence nationally. In 1961, Hicks was elected Eastern Vice President of Alpha Delta Sigma and he was a member of the Advertising Council of the Associates for Education in Journalism.
Among Hicks’s research interests was cooperative advertising. He also investigated employment practices and advertising curriculum problems in an effort to correlate the attitudes and opinions of employers with those of advertising educators. Following the standard Davis established, the program emphasized a conscience-minded approach to advertising in general and practical experiences for students in particular.
Another influential faculty member also arrived on campus before Davis’s death, learned from him and concurrently worked with Hicks. In fact, William Gibbs was a Penn State advertising student before graduating, establishing his own ad agency and eventually earning his master’s degree from Penn State before joining the faculty.
Gibbs earned his bachelor’s degree in 1957, established the W.E. Gibbs Agency and then became a vice president and partner in Gibbs Sarters & Gibbs from 1960 to 1963. In 1963, he became an advertising instructor at Penn State and by 1969 was named assistant professor. He taught courses such as advertising and society, advertising communication problems, advertising media planning, advertising campaigns and advertising message strategy.
During his time at Penn State, Gibbs conducted a survey for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers Association to study newspaper acceptance policies for X-rated movie advertisements. In an effort to improve advertising, he also campaigned to improve the image of African-Americans in advertising to get them away from stereotypical roles. More importantly, Gibbs, who stayed at Penn State until 1988, helped shape revisions to the advertising curriculum and was responsible for the design and development of the public relations major.
A Controlled Major
Because of the popularity of those options, by 1988 the advertising/public relations majors grew to the point where they became the only controlled majors in the then School of Communications -- which had been created in 1985 to house programs in advertising/public relations, journalism, film-video and telecommunications. The controlled major meant that only the top 80 advertising candidates each year were accepted into the major. That approach enhanced academic competition and ensured the quality of students.
Controls did not limit interest in the advertising/public relations major, though. As the School of Communications grew into the College of Communications and then grew into the largest accredited mass communications program in the country, interest in advertising/public relations was a key factor in that growth. Course offerings, enrollment (even with tighter controls based on grade-point average), honors and recognition for the program have grown together on the foundation created by Davis and nurtured by people such as Hicks, Gibbs, Kathy Frith and Charles McMullen, who followed that lead in the ensuing years as professors in charge of the program. The overriding philosophy remains a commitment to ethics and social responsibility.
Departmentalization of the College
In Fall 2000, the College of Communications departmentalized. Four departments, including the Department of Advertising/Public Relations, were created. The department places an emphasis on internships, partnerships with alumni and professionals and a student-centered approach to advertising education. Also, the creation and growth of Ad Club (officially the Donald W. Davis Chapter of the AAF) and the Lawrence G. Foster Chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America has helped students become even more engaged and earn a national reputation for their work and for the advertising/public relations program as a whole. Specifically, students have crafted a consistent spot in the annual competitions, such as the Most Promising Minority Students Program and the National Student Advertising Competition, both coordinated by the American Advertising Federation. These successes have become regular because the Department of Advertising/Public Relations consistently has taken a proactive approach in its course offerings and educational perspective.
For example, capstone courses emphasize the development of a strategic campaigns designed to efficiently meet the marketing communications needs of a client. Service-learning initiatives are also valued and many students create campaigns for non-profit organizations near Penn State.
In order to assure that students can complete the program within a four-year time frame the department reduced the number of credits necessary for graduation in 2000. The 120-credit program allows students to complete all required coursework and increases the opportunity for more out-of-class experiences such as internships. When the College of Communications departmentalized, Robert Baukus was named head of the Department of Advertising/Public Relations. Under his leadership, several course options have been added based on meetings with alumni, professionals and interviews with students. New selections emphasize ethics, portfolio development, agency/client relationships, graphic design and courses specifically tied to national competitions in advertising and public relations.
Students have responded positively to these changes, and the strong interest in the major is reflected in the fact that students in advertising/public relations comprise about one-third of the College’s annual graduating class. The faculty, which possesses a complementary mix of applied and theoretical experience, has grown as well. The College recently authorized four additional tenure-track faculty positions (two of whom joined the faculty for the Fall 2006 semester) and the department continues to refine its curriculum to meet the expectations of students and the profession. A commitment to teaching, service to the profession and research define the education experience at Penn State.
-- Terry Mulvihill
Page last updated: October 9, 2016