Love em or hate em – you have to admit that ads are a fascinating creative form. They are – more perhaps than any other form of creative expression – a message with a mission.
Orson Welles once said, “The Enemy of Art Is the Absence of Limitations.”
Lorne Michaels – Executive Producer of Saturday Night Live, agreed, “To me there’s no creativity without boundaries. If you’re gonna write a sonnet, it’s 14 lines, so it’s solving the problem within the container.”
I do agree with both Mr. Michaels and Mr. Welles, so let’s strip down advertising to the 4 bare walls that make up the boundaries of a commercial message:
- It has to get your attention when you may not want to give it
- It has to get you to think about something you’re not currently thinking about
- It has to persuade you to buy something or do something you probably don’t absolutely need to have or do
- It needs to get its message across in an incredibly short span of time
Given these limitations, a successful ad gives us a fascinating glimpse into the context of the culture it was created within. In order to successfully tick all the boxes above, it can’t be subtle. It has to prick our consciousness, piercing through the fog of the cloud of cultural content we exist within. And, in doing all that, it then has to leave us feeling somewhere north of ambivalent about the product or brand that the ad is about.
For this reason, ads have to be unapologetically commercial, often blunt and sometimes push against the edge of what’s acceptable to us. They have to arouse our brains without triggering outrage. The boundaries of an ad help define the form of creativity that goes into the creation of an effective ad. This creativity, in turn, becomes an interesting reflection of the culture in which that ad has to perform.
I’ve talked before about the psychological concept called “leveling and sharpening” – where our brains repackage our experiences to make them easier to remember and retell as stories. Unnecessary detail is “leveled” out and certain outstanding details are “sharpened” to add interest. I suspect ads may represent an intentional leveling and sharpening that make them caricatures of the culture they come from.
I have a friend who’s a history professor. Some years ago, he oversaw an archeological dig at a site that had been a railway laborer camp 100 years before. He told me that for an archeologist, the most interesting area to dig was where they had the latrines, because that’s where you threw everything you didn’t want people to find. It was there that you found out what life was really like in the camps. In this way, maybe ads are a kind of metaphorical outhouse for our culture.
This all came to mind when I happened across an online post that featured ads from the past that would be unacceptable to us now, but as a relic of the culture they came from, gives us a fascinating and often uncomfortable glimpse of what was acceptable in a different time and place.
Take an ad for Kellogg’s Pep Cereal, circa 1940s. The ad’s headline is, “So The Harder a Wife Works, The Cuter She Looks” The ad features a picture of a couple, wife in front wearing a dress and apron while holding a feather duster, while the husband hugs her from behind with an admiring look in his eye. This messaging is not so far removed from the cultural context that would have surrounded it. Women were meant to be at home, making the house tidy and cooking dinner for her husband. Her only other worth is hinted at in the headline.
At least that ad is a little more subtle than the one for Pitney Bowes Postage Meters from 1947. The headline here is “Is It Always Illegal to Kill a Woman?” The premise – wait for it – is that the postage meter makes life so easy for a secretary that she has more time to gossip and slack off at work, driving her boss to justifiable homicide.
This ad, in particular, makes my point. Obviously, the supposed humor in the situation has been grossly exaggerated to get your attention. But even with this, there had to be a culture that saw this as being within the bounds of the acceptable, resulting in a “wink-wink” type of bemusement rather than moral outrage.
You also have to wonder about the targeting strategies of these ads. In the case of Kellogg’s Pep, it would have been assumed that women did the grocery shopping, so the ad would have been targeted with this unspoken message: “Women, throw some Kellogg’s Pep in your grocery cart and you’ll be the perfect wife.”
In the case of the Pitney Bowes ad, men would buy postage machines for an office (no women should have that much power) and so the ad played on what an “unsufferable pain in the ass female employees were.”
It’s in these ads where you see how misogynistic the culture truly was. These attitudes towards the place of women in society were more muted and often glamorized in other longer-form media, such as movies. Consider the bluntness of the chauvinism found in these ads compared to the more subtle forms found in popular movies of the time – such as the loyalty of Donna Reed to James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life or Ingrid Bergman’s “Ilsa” in Casablanca. All views came from the same culture, but through a different lens.
Ads didn’t have the luxury of being subtle. When you only have a few seconds to get your message across, there is no room for nuance. The boundaries defined the form of the message, and the message was that culturally, women were still considered chattel.
In our current reality of cancel culture, these ads are in a category of poor taste that can only be described as jaw dropping. But they do act as a lens through which to look at another place and time. They are cultural caricatures that – hopefully – point out that we have made some progress and perhaps, the past wasn’t as golden and innocent as some would have us believe.