“Advertising has gone from something that reflects popular culture to becoming a part of popular culture, from something that’s influenced by popular entertainment to being popular entertainment.” – Jimmy Siegel.

If, like the rest of the television viewing public you’ve been seduced by the sexy and sophisticated world presented in the excellent HBO series Mad Men, you’ll almost certainly have a growing interest in the real people and advertising from which the show draws its inspiration.

Mid-Century Ads – Advertising from the Mad Men Era is a new, double volume coffee table book developed by the New York Times journalist Steven Heller and Taschen Executive Editor Jim Heimann, collecting the best examples of print advertising from the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Each book uses its end papers to display a cleverly designed timeline that highlights important moments from the two decades, including the opening of the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency in 1949, to the introduction of recognisable brand names and logo designs such as The Marlboro Man, Colonel Saunders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken and IBM. Volume One in particular – and naturally for a book covering the 1950’s – features some outstanding examples of lifestyle and fashion illustration, featuring attractive young couples enjoying sunnier climates courtesy of American Airlines, or aspirational car ads that present your drive to work in a brand new convertible fitted with space age tail fins as ‘a short holiday every morning.’

Although it’s an idealised view of the world shown through the ad man’s eyes, the politics of the time are unmistakable. It’s clearly a man’s world and women are often kept to the position of housewife or secretary who might, upon seeing a new Royal typewriter think ‘that’s the job for me!’. The ads show a carefully controlled design, working to a level of sophistication that appeals to a post-war, white, middle-class America short on creature comforts and optimism. A bright, comfortable and illustrated world that Steven Heller describes in his introduction as ‘an artificial truth.’

The 60’s bring with it developments in photographic techniques and the mass adoption of TV resulting in a notable decline in illustration, with even the Saturday Evening Post dropping the legendary Illustrator Norman Rockwell for reasons of ‘wanting to update it’s image.’ The formulaic use of girl, product and type of the 1950’s made way for a more creatively experimental approach to advertising with some of the greatest examples created for a previously unpopular and cheap little German car, the Volkswagen Beetle.

Where once the consumerist ethos of ‘buying American’ went hand in hand with patriotism, growing foreign competition from brand names such as Sony meant that everything had to sell its message of being easier, faster, cheaper or just simply better in a new, bold and exciting way, summed up in the phrase ‘The big idea.’ Where Volume One includes great examples of commercial illustration designed to comfort, the Volume Two tells of a period full of bold changes in fashion and consumer demands with tag lines designed to inspire the imagination, shown through a lens for a more TV literate nation.

All of the ads are brilliantly reproduced at full-page size from Jim Heimann’s collection and a concise introduction to the two decade sets the tone for each volume. As a fan of classic lifestyle illustration it’s always great to see this work being celebrated, and more so seeing it displayed in context with the cultural zeitgeist. As a look back at the history of advertising it’s equally as interesting for the standards these Madison Avenue agencies established and are now so deeply rooted in how we consume and present a product for sale today.

When taking the 2 volumes as a whole it’s a deeply satisfying reference title on this most stylish period in history, offering a huge amount of material for those now enamored of characters like Don Draper and Joan Harris. On finishing these books I was left considering just how little our buying habits have changed, given that some of the ads are now over 60 years old, and even with the introduction of the internet, we still ‘sell’ in much the same way.

Mid-Century Ads
Advertising from the Mad Men Era

Hardback 720 pages
(2 volumes in slipcase)
35.2 x 25.4 x 8.4 cm

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