Hunk a' Burnin' Consumerism: Video Ads in the 1950s

Part One of Trove's "Ad Nauseam" Blog Series

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As I sat writing this blog, tucked away in the orange glory that is the Trove Studio office, I looked around to notice that, somehow, the room seemed to be relatively barren of ads (besides, of course, the majestic “TROVE STUDIO” logo). I was fixing to make a point that you can’t escape advertising in everyday life, but it appeared my theory and therefore my entire introduction to this blog had been cast into the shadow realm.

Then I notice the deer.

It’s a real mack daddy stag, strutting his stuff, dominant but...noble. Behind him is a vast countryside, complete with a roaring waterfall. This particular deer, and said vista surrounding him, is the face of the brand Deer Park, “100% Natural Spring Water,” the particular brand of my half-empty bottle of water (or is it half-full?) While the deer isn’t cavorting about with its deer bros on my T.V. or anything, an ad is an ad, and branding and packaging are essential to a successful campaign. There’s even an ad within the ad, as Deer Park advertises their delivery service on the label as well. This is some Christopher Nolan, “Inception” level advertising here folks.

The point here is that advertising, whether we’re blasting down a busy urban highway at an alarming rate or sitting in a cozy production studio office, is all around us. It’s a living thing, as the Electric Light Orchestra would say, and it’s constantly growing, changing, and adapting in accordance with society. Advertising is of such pivotal importance to both Trove and to culture as a whole that we’ve decided to do a three-part post on it discussing how it’s operated and looked through the ages. So here we go with Part 1, where we go way back to a time that is essentially the birth of modern advertising. A time where the phrase “cruisin’ for a bruisin’” actually struck fear into the hearts of men, and where fedoras were actually deemed normal -- the 1950s.

Obviously, advertising had been around for ages before the 1950s in the form of print -- and I mean ages. The ancient Egyptians were literally making posters for medicine on freaking papyrus thousands of years ago. Like Roger Sterling once said on the hit show “Mad Men,” “For all we know, Jesus was working on the fish and loaves account.”

So what makes the '50s such a big deal? Well it’s a combination of a couple of factors, the first of which being the old boob tube -- television. The television as we know it debuted in 1941, and by 1951 advertisers were earning about 41 million dollars in revenue from it. Not the most stunning of numbers with today's inflation, but at the time, that was a damn decent amount. Which makes the fact that by 1953 television was producing 336 million dollars in revenue extremely impressive for the time period.

Why the explosion in productivity? Well, as decreed by the gods of economics, the fundamental concepts behind any economic expansion of a product is supply and demand. And gee-whiz (as they would say in the 1950s) was there demand. In 1945, World War II had finally come to a close, and it was time for America to kick off a new generation -- the baby boomers. In 1945, there were roughly 2.8 million births in the United States of America. By 1950, there were 3.6, and by the end of the decade there were 4.3. To reference both my genius title of this blog and the words of a man who was absolutely killing it in the '50s, there was some serious burning love going on.

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And with said romantic inferno came quite the economic domino effect. The growth in population led to the growth of the classic form of suburbia that we all know today, with its white picket fences and cookie-cutter houses, i.e. “Edward Scissorhands” and “The Stepford Wives.” By the end of the decade, about one third of Americans lived in the surburbs. They were a perfect spot to raise families; a commutable ride to a major city, but not in the actual city itself. So you have seemingly endless rows upon rows of suburban homes, with seemingly endless amounts of families coming to fill them, and seemingly endless demand from a country that had been exhausted from a massive war. Enter advertising and its newest weapon: the television.

Sights, Sounds, and Sponsors

People needed the latest, greatest, and most fashionable new appliances to fill their homes. They needed the sleekest and most stylish new car to show off on their way to work. They wanted the tastiest and most easily made food to feed their probably massive family. And advertisers stepped up to the plate and just Mickey Mantled the thing. Air conditioners, heaters, stoves, ovens, refrigerators, washers, dryers, furniture of all shapes and sizes, frozen foods and/or prepared food; pretty much anything you see in your house right now saw a major spike in demand. And, of course, it had to be fashion sensitive. Nobody wanted a pea green and dark yellow couch (I tried to think of possibly the worst color combination imaginable). Advertisers began to emphasize catchy slogans, mascots, and celebrity endorsements in an attempt to stand out in the midst of such rampant demand. The '50s gave us such classic mascots as Mr. Clean, the Jolly Green Giant, the Budweiser Clydesdales, and the beginning of beautiful, breakfast-centric friendship between three gnomic elves named Snap, Crackle, and, of course, Pop. Speaking of breakfast icons, a surprisingly jovial predator feline named Tony the Tiger showed up in the '50s too, telling the world that Frosted Flakes are “Grrrrreat!” And that was just one of a bevy of legendary slogans to spring up during the time, as we also learned that Rice-A-Roni was the San Francisco treat, you can double your pleasure (as well as your fun) with Doublemint Gum, a little dab of Brylcreem will do ya’ just fine, many people wanted you to give them a break of your Kit-Kat Bar, and Dinah Shore told us all to “see the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet.”

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Speaking of Dinah Shore, celebrity endorsements became more popular in the '50s as well. John Wayne essentially said if you smoked Camels you’d be just as much of a badass as he is. Frank Sinatra serenaded us about Halo shampoo. Loretta Young evoked some serious product placement for laundry detergent. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz smoked Philip Morris cigarettes like it was their devout religion on “I Love Lucy.” In a shocking twist, Philip Morris heavily sponsored the show (gasp).

In fact, the 1950s is when America saw some of the heaviest sponsorship from advertisers to the point that shows were actually taking on their names in their titles in a fashion that seems more than mildly ludicrous today. (For you young people out there reading this, I swear to you that these shows actually existed and their names have not been altered in any way.) Such shows included “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” “Texaco Star Theatre,” “Kraft Television Theater,” “Goodyear TV Playhouse,” and the “Gillette Cavalcade of Sports,” and that’s just to name a few. Back in the '50s the advertising agencies had the real power, with the networks basically acting as a secretary of sorts, working on scheduling. Networks were the fat little Sancho Panzas to the Don Quixotes that were the ad agencies. However, the agencies would soon find themselves tilting at the wrong windmill and losing that power with what are known as the quiz show scandals, but we’ll get to that when we talk about the 60’s in the next blog.

But while memorable slogans, anthropomorphic cartoon animals, cowboys smoking cigarettes, and radical sponsorships were the name of the game in the '50s, the most iconic bit of advertising that came out of the decade and legitimately redefined the culture was simple--family. With the 1950s came the portrait of the “idealized” American family. The father was a suit-wearing, smoking, 9-5 worker, driving his outrageously nice car home from work to his lovely wife, donning her best apron as she made an immaculate dinner after cleaning the house so well it practically shined. The children were well-behaved and respectful, watching “Howdy Doody” or “The Mickey Mouse Club” while not dutifully accomplishing their chores. At the end of the day, the family sits around the dinner table, says grace, and shares a warm meal. This image, while obviously not the most legitimately idealized version of an American family in today’s society, was all any family wanted in the 1950s, and advertisers knew it, and attempted to sell them products that could help them achieve it. And, to most people, it appeared to be working, as the '50s were seen as quite an idyllic era, especially after the strife of the '30s and '40s. But little did they know, the not-so idyllic '60s were right around the corner...

 

So while that’s it for this week’s blog, that’s definitely not if for advertising! Stay tuned for the next chapter of Trove’s "Ad Nauseam" blog series, where we’ll tackle the 1960s and '70s! If you want to see what else is “buzzin’, cuzzin’” (more good fifties slang) with Trove, check out our other blogs and website, daddy-o (I had to include one more). Thanks for reading!