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Advertising Before the Age of the Computer
Elaine Ashburn on Mon, October 20th 1 comments
In this article, Elaine Ashburn takes a fascinating look at how the worlds of marketing and advertising have changed since the advent of the computer.

A little history lesson

If you’re a fan of Mad Men, you probably at least partially know how advertising was created from its inception somewhere in the 1930s until around 1990 or so when computers became a fixture on every desk. Copy was typed out on a typewriter and Wite-Out was splashed everywhere, anytime the copywriter wanted to change a word. Sloppy comes to mind. And layouts were created on paper, drawn by the art director and rendered with magic markers. The smell was enough to give you or a headache, or make you high…whichever came first. 

And when the ads were finally sold in, the studio created the mechanicals on a drafting table using a T-square and triangle to make sure all the elements were straight. Type was set by an outside typesetter; copies of the visuals were made with a stat machine and everything was put into place using rubber cement, which was highly flammable. Of course everyone smoked at their desks and if the fumes didn’t kill you, the cigarette smoke would. This doesn’t sound very romantic to me, but it was the way it was. However, this is not the picture I want to paint. I want to take a look at the advertising itself. 

Let’s start with the age-old question. What does this ad want me to do? Of course it’s buy the product but there are different ways to get there. You can entertain your reader, you can give them enough relevant information to make a sale or you can motivate them to try your product.

The 1950s and before

In the 1950s we were, for the most part, working off of image campaigns. We had the Marlboro Man to sell us cigarettes. (Image 1) Marlboro Man was a macho, cowboy/horse-rancher kind of guy that men could relate to and women found attractive. And it worked. He sold tons of cigarettes. In under a year Marlboro went from a brand that had less than one percent market share (because it had originally been marketed to women) to one of the top four brands. And while I was searching for the Marlboro Man, I came across this ad for Camel also from the 1950s. Yep, it’s still an image campaign but the image is totally different, “More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette”. (Image 2) Hmm. Wonder if it’s true? This had to be before the American Cancer Society began running its anti-smoking campaigns, so my assumption is that people believed everything their doctors told them and this became a way to sell cigarettes. Kind of the antithesis of the Marlboro Man.

Image 1: Marlboro ad; Image 2: Camels ad.

Images 1 and 2.

I found these old Coca Cola ads created between 1935 and 1959. The campaign was called “The Pause that Refreshes” and it showed people doing things that made them hot (and remember, there was no air conditioning during this time either—everything made you hot in the summer). Spring Cleaning (Image 3), getting a permanent (now that’s scary) or even coming home from a day of shopping or working (images 4 and 5). No matter what you did, Coke was the answer.

Image 3, 4 and 5.

Images 3, 4 and 5.

The concept of an art director and copywriter ‘team’ was first conceived during this time too. We can credit Doyle Dane and Bernbach with this idea. One of those first ‘concept’ advertisements created by DDB was for Levy’s rye bread. “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s”. I think for its time it was brilliant. The campaign was created in the late 1950s and used obviously non-Jewish people to sell the brand. (Images 6, 7 & 8) At first I didn’t understand the policeman, but I did a little research and learned that most policeman during this era were Irish. Oh. So now I get it.

Images 6, 7 & 8.

Images 6, 7 & 8.

The 1960s

And of course some of the most famous ‘concept campaigns’ were created during the 1960s. The Volkswagen Beetle ads, also created by Doyle Dane and Bernbach, come to mind. I think the “Think Small” ad is genius. The advertising team used what was perceived as a negative (the car was small) and turned it around to be the selling point. (Image 9) And it worked. Here are a few others that made me smile. (Images 10 and 11) This is what I meant about ads that entertain you. Yes, they’re still trying to sell cars, but the advertising itself is so creative you just have to read it and enjoy it.

Images 9, 10 and 11.

Images 9, 10 and 11.

The 1970s

I wanted to find an advertising campaign from the psychedelic era of the late ’60s early ’70s but I guess advertising was not considered counter-culture enough as I found very few. Looks like all the good psychedelic thinking went towards album covers. I was able to find a campaign for Olivetti typewriters though. The Valentine typewriter was one of the few post-1920s typewriters that really deserved a place in a museum. It was small, lightweight and red. Minimalistic, just like its ad. Notice the ad has no words, just these super-cool images. (Images 12, 13 & 14).

Images 12, 13 & 14.

Images 12, 13 & 14.

The 1980s

I’ve taken us through the 50s, the 60s and the 70s by way of advertising. Now I want to take us into the early 80s. I just adore these old Casio keyboards ads. (Images 15, 16, & 17) These were concept ads in a way that Volkswagen ads were and they had energy to them. It was the beginning of the electronic era. The keyboards themselves were new and innovative and so were these ads. These were keyboards for musicians not tech people, and I loved how they called that out. Remember this is the mid-1980s when it practically took a technician to turn on a light fixture.

Images 15, 16 and 17.

Images 15, 16 and 17.

And introducing Apple

And to bring us up to the age of the computer, I found this ad from Apple. It was 1984 and the IBM PC was three years old. It was hard to use, did not have a user-friendly interface and was not navigated by a mouse. (Image 18)

Image 18.

Image 18.

Gee, we’ve come a long way :)

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Comments (1)

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  • Iain Anderson
    Also fascinating is how much/little text is in ads these days compared to times gone past. 20 years ago, an Apple ad was an essay. Now, it's a photo. Thanks!
    • 5 years ago
    • By: Iain Anderson
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