Looking at ads can like looking at an homage to all the important things in popular culture. The Golden Age of Advertising, largely considered to be the 50s and 60s, tapped into the psyche of a post-war Western society better than any Freudian devotee could.
The most popular vintage ads seem to be for affordable luxury – which was and still is one of the most lucrative markets out there. So the best ads from the 50s and 60s featured cars, makeup and beauty products, cigarettes and Coca-Cola, which were amongst the most popular affordable luxuries of the time.
Cars – 3
In the post-war boom, people were finally able to afford their own cars, and ad agencies took advantage of this. They made the cars look like the goal of what everyone was fighting for: freedom, independence and progress. That the cars started mimicking the look of spaceships further heightened the sense that cars were society’s ticket to a better future.
This Buick ad from 1959 ticked all those boxes. Modern? Check. Looking like it can take you anywhere in the world? Double-check. Affordable? Well, two out of three new car buyers can buy one, so check mate.
This simple 1969 ad for a Fiat sport coupe uses line drawings to illustrate how fast and powerful their car is.
This 1963 ad for the “new” 1964 Plymouth shows a man in the car with two beautiful blondes, with plenty of open road and gorgeous views to enjoy. What more is there to say?
Makeup and beauty products
These were some of the very few products marketed directly towards women back in the days. And like today, companies could generate huge profit margins by selling the idea of pampering oneself to women who, though tired from all their work, felt pressure to look good.
This 1959 ad for Revlon Touch-and-Glow foundation makeup is not subtle: it will make you look soft and lovely when you are having a candle-lit, formal-dress evening.
Meanwhile, Prell suggests in 1960 that its shampoo lather is so rich, it can only be matched by a diamond and emerald tiara.
Seeing cigarette ads from years back can be very jarring. They often featured respectable-looking, older doctors promoting the brand, claiming that brand of cigarette caused less throat irritation and even helped breathing. During the 50s and 60s, however, the link between smoking and cancer was being demonstrated, so ad agencies sold it as another little luxury to grant to yourself. After all, following the wartime austerity, everyone believed they deserved to treat themselves regularly.
This 1950 Chesterfield ad featured international superstar Bing Crosby on a sprawling ranch, giving the viewer an idea that they, too, could be like Bing if they smoked the right cigarettes.
By the 60s, cigarette ads made it clear that the people smoking their cigarettes were having amazing adventures, usually in the mountains or by some water. This 1963 Camel ad managed to get both with this shot of a couple having a grand time skiing. It might also be one of the first times advertisers acknowledged the existence of affluent people who weren’t Caucasian.
A well-known study looking at people’s preference for Coca-Cola and Pepsi showed that in blind taste tests, participants were evenly split when deciding which cola they preferred. When they knew one was Coke and the other was Pepsi, however, they overwhelmingly preferred Coca-Cola. Why? Well, the researchers concluded it was because of the participants’ associations with Coke, and specifically the wonderful marketing campaigns Coke has. And Coca-Cola has had wonderful marketing campaigns since it started creating ads.
Coca-Cola was a product that crossed class and racial boundaries more than just about any other product. This first ad (from 1952) demonstrated the appeal of what many people thought was the premier cola beverage. It shows a well-dressed woman who is clearly hosting a nice cocktail party, and she is serving Coca-Cola because she has taste and cares about her guests having the best.
The next ad, form 1958, shows how Coke was embraced by working-class people, too.
Finally, it’s only appropriate to end this exploration of the Golden Age of Advertising with a mascot that has endured since its introduction in the 1930s: Coca-Cola’s Santa.
For many people, this series of ads is associated with the warm feeling of being with family during the holidays. After all, you truly know it’s almost Christmas when Santa takes the pause that refreshes.
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