Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Vintage car Ad's.

We often hear the phrase 'Golden age' bandied about when referring to some by gone halcyon days.

Memories, often tinged with those rose tinted spectacles, recall to mind a better time, a time when things were done differently.
There is the 'Golden age of steam' for railway fans, the 'Golden age of Cinema' for film buffs, and for me there was also a 'Golden age' of advertising.

Looking at today's ad's selling anything between new cars to a jar of coffee one can't help notice the superficiality of it all. The slick modern car ad's with their CGI special effects are designed to entertain, (they need to capture a nano second of the ever dwindling attention span modern consumers possess) just long enough to persuade them to buy.
Who can also remember the dreadful old coffee ad' that was more like a romantic soap opera?...will they?...won't they?...Zzzzzzz

I set myself to try and determine if, in the case of Automobile advertising there was a 'Golden age' and if so when was that, and why?
Firstly I set out to quantify what it was about those old ad's that attracted me, and that became immediately apparent - they were works of art!
As in many areas of commerce, with the uptake of modern technology comes 'progress', and the older, obsolete technology thus replaced fades away and eventually all but dies.
We can see this today in trades such as signwriting or film photography for to name a couple, when was the last time that you saw a traditional signwriter with mahlstick and brush? "it's all computers these days innit mate?"

From a commercial standpoint, anything that takes less time to do is obviously more profitable, and a photograph is infinitely less expensive than an illustration, so it makes good business sense to use the latest options available...your competitors certainly will!

So I have set my own personal 'Golden age' of Auto advertising as the period from around 1930 to 1970, and the reasons for this I'll give here.
To begin with the picture at the head of this post which advertises Gulf petroleum. As you can see this is a painting which today would be acceptable on its own as a work of art depicting of early motoring, the advertising content of the painting is very subtle with just the pump head to plug the product.
This particular image is actually from 1914, but as very few people owned cars at that time and therefore ad's were rather specialised this is why I chose the starting date for my golden age to be a little later.

In the 19thC it became clear that the advertisers greatest weapon was the illustrator, the Victorians used artists, even famous ones such as Millais to advertise their wares, and with photography in it's infancy the colour and 'realism' needed to portray goods in a favourable light was still the task of these illustrators.
Even well into the 1950's when the Oldsmobile ad above was made, illustrators still provided the cover artwork for many vehicles. I believe this ads a charm to the brochure that a mere photo wouldn't have managed to do, I remember reading and collecting old magazines and brochures of the '40's and 50's which were full of such images!

As time moved along and photography began to creep into the auto-ad' there came a new type of advertisement - the airbrushed photo. These seem to be the curious transitional phase between the pure illustration of the 1940's and the exclusively photographic ads of the 1970's.

Anyone who remembers the old 'Practical Motorist' magazine of the 1950's will remember the cover illustrations that were a perfect example of this type of artwork, which was essentially a photograph which was then 'painted over' to give the look of an illustration!

Some manufacturers used a style of brochure that contained both illustration and photography, as this 1960 Dodge line-up shows.

Just look at the lines of that tail! Some may say brash, but certainly bold styling typified the late 50's and early 60's designs. How sad it is to think of these cars today, rotting away in some rural junkyard.

Here in Britain our vehicles were less outlandish, but the ad's for them tended to contain an element of practicality or humour. As I mentioned in an earlier post 1950s Britain was a time of austerity, of make do and mend practicality, and this was reflected in the motor ad's.
A selling point might be the MPG figure, and the ability to carry 'four adults in comfort' rather than the amount of chrome the vehicle wore.

In the '60's that theme of practicality also coincided with an increase in women drivers as the nation took to wheels, giving rise to ads specifically emphasising the sort of car that the ad men felt displayed properties attractive to women, such as being simple to drive and of course ease of parking... I leave the inference of those requirements to you dear reader!

With the coming of the 1970's photography had all but replaced those charmingly rendered illustrations for automotive advertising and I have only included them here not for their artwork, but more for the humour.
My 'Golden age' of auto ads conclude with this decade as the one that finally ended the use of the illustrator as the preferred choice for adverts and brochures. Photography was cheaper, but they at least still supported the photographic content with humour, (a humour that in some cases would perhaps not be found acceptable today) and we are in my opinion poorer for the loss of that.

I'm sure that there will be those that may conclude the use of such 'sexist' humour in advertising is better left in the un-PC 1970's, personally I don't entirely agree.
While not wishing to cause deliberate offence, I do miss the fact that we aren't able to gently poke fun any more without someone deciding that it's wrong to do so.
Today, and sadly an industry seems to have arisen dedicated to 'taking offence', and as a result printed Auto advertising has become either dull and factual, or aimed at the ridiculously aspirational.

I leave my last old car ad as an indication of how in today's society, not only have we lost the style, romance, and often beauty of the illustrators art, but how society itself has been changed.

Could you imagine advertising a car using the terms 'Gay' and 'well endowed' today as Chrysler did in the 1950's?.... hmmm...wonder if it would sell?

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