TRAVEL BACK TO THE GOLDEN AGE OF MID-CENTURY ADVERTISING IN AMERICA Discover America through this incredible collection of ads from the 1940s and 50s. Packaged foods, cars, travel, technology, liquor, cigarettes, movies, appliances, furniture, ...
re, toothpaste; products and services the American consumer needed, even if they sometimes didn’t know it until Madison Avenue told them. Viewed together in the first two volumes of a projected series that will cover the entire 20th century, these ads portray the spirited capitalism that dominated America in the 40s and post-war 50s. It almost seemed one’s patriotic duty to consume, and consume we did, with unprecedented dedication.
Many of these ads would not fly by today's standards of political correctness. Idealizing the squeaky-clean persona of the all-American, nuclear WASP family, these ads portray the sexist and racist status quo that was also an element of mid-century American culture. Also featured are cigarette ads with medical spokesmen, and travel ads touting nearby atomic bomb testing as an added draw for the Las Vegas tourist.
All American Ads of the 40s
World War II was the dominating presence in the first half of the 1940s, no less in advertising than in any other part of American culture. Overnight, car manufacturers retooled to produce tanks and jeeps. Women streamed into factories when their husbands and sweethearts left the assembly line for the battlefield, and the public was exhorted to do their part by obeying blackout restrictions and investing in war bonds. Thrift and rationing were made palatable, even downright rousing, by the most inspiring advertising ever produced. Bold and graphic, this was the work of an industry that fueled - and was fueled by - American patriotism.
For example, to convey the necessity of gas rationing to protect the supply at the front, the Ethyl Corporation shows fires burning on the globe wherever the war was “hot,” the Pennsylvania Railroad shows soldiers being transported in a train with drawn blackout shades, and the War Department ran the chilling image of a sinking battleship accompanied by the now-classic “Loose Lips Sink Ships.”
Not all 1940s advertising was war-related, but if a company could find a way to capitalize on this collective American experience, the opportunity was taken. The iconic character of Rosie the Riveter makes an appearance for Monsanto Chemicals on behalf of coolant – during the war to keep her rivets at the optimum temperature, and for her benefit after the war, when she returned to the kitchen; and Baby Ruth candy claimed that “Food is Fuel for Victory.” On the other hand, imagery which we now find offensive was considered harmless and humorous. Just look for the couple racing off to purchase an Electrolux refrigerator because their black maid, driven mad by the noisy old model, declares “I’se quittin’!”
Starting in 1947, television began to dominate home entertainment, and Madison Avenue leapt to harness the infinite potential of this powerful new medium. After the war, America rushed to make up for lost time, and ads at the end of the decade joyously pitched the big cars, gleaming appliances, and luxurious vacations that people once again could dream about.
All American Ads of the 50s
World War II may have ended with the chilling dawn of the Atomic Age, but the Cold War took its place. If war dominated the 40s, the space age now ruled and “newer, faster, and better” became the watchwords of the new era. In an ad for Lincolns, Ford Motors asked “Why be tied down to yesterday?” as autos became the most visible symbol of personal wealth and accomplishment. Cars in the 50s grew, sprouting huge chrome-trimmed fins, and starting a trend of automotive one-upsmanship that, though more subtle today, has never abated. In response to the terrifying specter of nuclear annihilation, America also got a little silly, and fads were perpetuated by advertising – the cult of pink: phones, lipsticks, toilet paper, appliances, and poodles; Tiki-themed everything; hula hoops, coonskin hats and six shooters; and of course, a television was a must in every home. Through its bland, glass face America was transfixed by an impossibly idealized version of itself, and advertisers wer! e quick to capitalize on this captive, and captivated audience.