Common Themes in Vintage Advertising

24 Aug

As our society becomes more modern and open, the more racy and controversial our advertisements get: think of anything you can see on the first 20 pages of every high fashion magazine. But it’s easy to forget how far, and, in a weird way, not so far we’ve come with our advertising.

Sure technological developments in graphics have contributed to noticeable progress in today’s advertising world, but there’s something to be said for the simple look and feel of ads from decades back, and what needs to be said is simplicity of appearance didn’t necessarily correspond with simplicity of message in the years of yonder.


Maybe it’s because of the limited availability of artistic tools for graphic artists in the 50s and 60s, but mute tones and open-outline illustrations dominated the landscape of hand-drawn print ads. This aesthetic was often paired with images and messages depicting family life, invoking that unmistakable warm, homey feeling. Whether promoting the new Buick or the latest product from Clairol, major corporations of this era seemed to avoid bold, bright dominate colors.

In terms of look and feel, minimalism dominated the print advertising landscape. The product being advertised was almost always displayed in the ad, but the human subject paired with the product would often be positioned as the dominant image. And, unlike the image-heavy and busy ads we see today, there was little visual competition with the advertised product in these display ads.

Text, however, is a whole other situation. Large bulky blocks of text crowded the frames of the vintage ads; it’s rare today to see sets of body copy like that even in articles of the nation’s most prominent publications. The fact is that consumers from these vintage eras had more patience and were willing to devote more time and attention to their publications, including ad copy.


There’s no doubt about it, the iconic nuclear family was one of the most prominent themes of ads from the “Golden Age,” but use of the family theme wasn’t always found in the most appropriate settings. We all know by now that knowledge about smoking has progressed quite a bit over the past few decades; it’s hard to imagine mother and child paired together for a pro cigarette ad or babies guzzling soda, but it happened… a lot.

retro marlboro ad with children and smoking

Not much change in the way of babies, puppies, and kittens being able to sell anything; it’s just that ad agencies of the past took this age-old selling strategy a step farther than you’d imagine. Iver Johnson Revolvers apparently found no wrong in using the image of a child lying bed with a revolver in hand to promote the safety of their product (yes you read that right, safety).

Iver Johnson Revolvers 1913

Iver Johnson Revolvers 1913


Advertising agencies used to be largely populated by men – if you’ve seen just one episode of Mad Men you’ll know what we mean – so it’s no wonder why misogyny popped up everywhere in vintage advertisements. Women used as objects (a bearskin rug), as “property” (being spanked for not testing the coffee), as the inferior sex (incapable of opening a bottle) didn’t seem to phase the public of the time. One infamous ad leads with the headline “Is it always illegal to kill a woman?”

Is it always illegal to kill a woman advertisement

It’s also strange to think that doctors used to promote everything in ads from cigarettes to skin bleaching products. This not only speaks to the general social consciousness of the time but also to the perception of the medical professional as an additional authority-figure of the family. This is quite a contrast to today when doctors are rarely even featured in medical advertisements, avoiding any liability of being tied to one product over another.

About Dana Bashor

Dana Bashor is the founder and owner of Dana Bashor Consulting Services. Dana Bashor consults for small-to-medium sized businesses and provides management tools and tips on her website. On her free time Dana Bashor loves to freelance on different topics and provide consumer alerts for sites like planet antares scam alerts.  Catch up with Dana on her blog or connect with Dana Bashor on facebook.


2 Responses to “Common Themes in Vintage Advertising”

  1. GrouchoMarxist February 28, 2013 at 2:16 am #

    Gonna buy the Grey Poupon next time I shop!


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