Servitude, sex and slavery: decoding old magazine ads
A Vintage Summer: A trawl through old ads is funny, but also a jarring reminder of past social truths
Clockwise from main, the Caribbean bath ad (1973); an ad for Wondermash, a kind of piped concentrated mashed potato, from the same magazine; an ad for a Chin Strap (1948); and an ad for a Formica kitchen (1965)
One of the most fascinating ways social history becomes visible over time is through printed advertising. Ads capture the zeitgeist. They reflect what was popular at the time, be it avocado- coloured bathrooms, concentrated mashed potato, or a truly terrifying 1948 contraption called a “Chin Strap” that promised the wearer “amazing new loveliness to throat and chin”.
Ads in vintage magazines can be more interesting than the articles. I have spent some time mining my collection of old magazines for ads to show to Eoghan Nolan, founder and owner of Brand Artillery, an advertising and branding agency. He was the creative genius behind the One Million Dubliners poster advertising Glasnevin Cemetery.
We start with my 1948 copy of American Cosmopolitan. I’m struck by how wordy most of the ads were; long pieces of copy. “It was a type of long-form short-form writing,” says Nolan. “Lots of novelists started out in copywriting.”
We look at the 1948 ad for Bell Telephone System, which reads more like an essay about the marvel of the telephone: “Stranger than any Jules Verne fiction is the trip your voice takes by telephone . . . The wonder of it is that the words sound like you and are you, with your own tone and mood and personality.”
“It evokes that childlike fascination with the future that America really embodied,” says Nolan. “It’s sweet and naive. We’re too sophisticated for this now. But there used to be an expectation that copy would be quite poetic, gazing in wonder at the new. There’s not much wonder in advertising now. It’s all about selling things to you.”
In the same magazine is an ad for a product that is still sold in 2014: Tampax tampons. “I’m surprised enough that ad is there in 1948,” says Nolan.
The copy begins: “How would you like to feel many years younger, and twice as active – like a schoolgirl on holiday in the spring?” I react to this ad by laughing at the bizarre suggestion that use of a personal sanitary item would make you feel years younger. “It says, ‘Invented by a doctor’,” Nolan points out. “That’s giving the ad a medical authority figure.”
As for the chin strap that promises a “lovelier profile”, we both howl into our sandwiches. “She looks like Hannibal Lecter,” says Nolan. The ad comes with a coupon at the bottom. “Coupons were the first examples of early direct marketing. The US had a history of distant purchasing, due to the size of the country, which is why Amazon became so successful so fast.”