ALL-AMERICAN ADS OF THE '50s
By Jim Heimann
Taschen -- 764pp and 928pp -- $40 each
It was an era when men wore suits on picnics, Country Club Malt Liquor could still be portrayed as a staple of the golfing set, and smiling TWA stewardesses delivered mouthwatering in-flight meals. In reproducing such scenes for us, the first two collections of All-American Ads from art-and-erotica publisher Taschen, covering the 1940s and '50s, provide a remarkable window into the lives and aspirations of Americans a half-century ago, as reflected, pandered to, and often created by Madison Avenue.
These are utter grab-bag collections. Outstanding ads with lush graphics and clever copy appear next to ads that are flawed ethically, strategically, or stylistically. ("More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!" says a notorious one.) The sparse comments of the editor, graphic designer Jim Heimann, reduce those decades to their basest stereotypes--to the point of illustrating the cover of the 1950s volume with the smuggest male face to be found in the book's 928 pages (from an Arrow Shirts ad). In a claim as shallow as any to be found amid the actual ads, the books are said to have been "produced in record speed." Alas, the haste sometimes shows.
But if you can surpass the editor in eliminating modern-day prejudices, you'll find the ads offer a panoramic view of American culture. After viewing ads highlighting the stresses, privations, and jingoism of World War II, it is actually easier to be sympathetic to the pitches that launched America on its postwar consumption binge. Images of young company men ingratiating themselves with bosses don't seem quite so pathetic. Nor does it seem so ludicrous for a returning veteran to be shown proudly swapping his Army uniform for a Texaco service-station get-up. And it can be exhilarating to witness the cornucopia of new products, particularly autos in all their postwar sculptural extravagance, shown mastering American landscapes.
The books also provide perspective on marketing today. As quaint and sometimes wrongheaded as they may seem now, ads extolling the virtues of long-playing records, automatic transmissions, blast-resistant concrete homes ("Houses for the Atomic Age!"), and Univac computers heralded genuine technological progress. By contrast, it is remarkable how difficult it already was by the '50s to say anything meaningful about such products as beer and food. Your choice in beer? You can drink National Bohemian beer because it's "wet, cold and delicious" or Goebel because it's "Mello-ized." In belaboring the obvious, copywriters seem like unprepared students faking their way through an exam. It is not surprising that such nominally product-focused ads gave way to approaches focused on lifestyle and social aspirations, and most recently on sheer entertainment value. If the alternative is preposterous claims about "beer at its best--in cans!" (Schaefer) or cigarettes "you can light [at] either end!" (Pall Mall), I'll take today's dancing monkeys and talking lizards. Whether those make you any more inclined to buy the product is for another book to consider. By Gerry Khermouch