August 18, 2009


The Birth of Television
Television was reaching the masses of America during the 1950s (the first color sets hit the market in 1951) and it allowed the hard-sell to be thrust right into the country’s living rooms. Suddenly there was a fascinating array of must-have products that people had never realized before they needed. Whole programs were devised not for any artistic reasons but simply as a vehicle for selling. One of the best examples was the ’soap opera’. These were ongoing, episodic works of dramatic fiction presented in serial format, originally on radio but transferred during the 1950s with great effect to television. The name “soap opera” stems from the original serials sponsored by soap manufacturers like Colgate-Palmolive and Lever Brothers. They were aimed at, and consumed by, a predominantly female audience and typically had weekday daytime slots when mostly housewives would be available to listen.

Dream Cars
Speaking of cars, there is possibly nothing that symbolizes America in the 1950s as perfectly as its cars. It was a time long before the global dominance of foreign car-makers and bland corporate design, when you would buy a car made in the USA and choose from a huge range of genuinely different models. American cars of the 1950s dripped with chrome and had swooping tail-fins. They were extravagent, futuristic, and glowed in the bright pastels and primary colors of an optimistic age. Car advertizing in the 1950s was as unrestrained as the product itself, stressing the car as an essential part of the ‘American Dream’.

Clothes Maketh the Man
There was no point in having all of the brand new shiny gadgets and the dream car and a super-size fridge full of food if you dressed like one of the Beverley Hillbillies so clothes figured large in advertizing. As with so much else the ad-men were selling a dream, that all it would take is a new Arrow sport-shirt or a new Dacron suit and you would get that promotion, you would be popular, you would be a hit with the ladies. For generations people had got by with only their work clothes and a ’sunday-go-to-meeting’ suit that lasted for years but now they were introduced to the concept of ‘leisure-wear’ for the new-found leisure they had so little of because they were working so hard to buy all the new ’stuff’ they were told they needed.

Selling Family Values
One of the most interesting things about advertising from the 1950s, or any other time for that matter, is what it tells us about the society it was aimed at. Old ads often provide unwitting social commentary. In the case of this ad (for shirts) you can see that the basic premise is the nuclear family. Dad, Mom and the two kids all live happily together in the suburbs. Dad goes out to work and Mom stays at home to look after the children. That was the publically accepted norm in the 1950s and you wouldn’t find any ads pitched at single mothers or divorced dads. It was a different world then and the ads reflect that very clearly.

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