Lunatorium Designs

Advertising: A Comparison Between the Early-Mid 1900s and Now

It’s not a stretch to say that advertising has changed considerably over the last 100 years.  Technological and sociological shifts have both had a huge impact on the form advertising takes, and what themes it presents.  Some of these changes are very obvious, and some are more subtle.  Today, we’ll take a look at some modern advertising (within the last 5 years), and compare them to some advertisements from the early to mid part of the 20th century and consider the possibility of a ‘retro-advertising’ comeback.

Irresistible Cosmetics (1935) & Dior Sunglasses (2007) Comparison

Irresistible Cosmetics ad from 1935 ((Source: Ad*Access at the Duke Libraries.)) (© Irresistible) vs. Dior Sunglasses ad from 2007 ((Source: Google Image Search)) (© Christian Dior).

One of the most obvious changes in advertising in the last 80 or so years is the shift from illustration to photography.  Although photography was indeed frequently used, mostly in personal hygiene and beauty products, the photos were usually of a person or couple posing and were not nearly as common as illustrations of people and products.  Cameras at that time were more unwieldy and slower than today’s models, so options were more limited.  During the 40s and 50s, photography’s use in advertising dipped as the austerity and nostalgia of illustrations and paintings became preferred.  In the 60s and 70s, its use increased drastically, and has been the predominant graphical element since.

Southern Pacific (1950) & Absolut Vodka (2008) Comparison

Southern Pacific ad from 1950 ((Source: Ad*Access at the Duke Libraries.)) (© Southern Pacific) vs. Absolut Vodka ad from 2008 ((Source: Found in Mom’s Basement.)) (© Absolut).

Another conspicuous change is the vividness of color and quality of ink used for advertising.  The middle of the 20th century had a definite “technicolor” vibe while the early part of the century was softer and more reminiscent of pastels or paints.  Modern advertisements have a more photo-realistic coloring and lighting, due in large part to the predominant use of actual photographs, but mostly due to the improvement in printing technology and ink.

Plymouth (1938) & Infinity (2011) Comparison

Plymouth car ad from 1938 ((Source: Vintage Ad Browser.)) (© Chrysler) vs. Infinity ad from 2011 ((Source: Personal scan.)) (© Nissan).

Looking at all three vintage advertisements we’ve seen so far, you’ll notice another major difference: wordiness.  Up until the last 20 years or so, advertisements were much more verbose.  They tried to really sell the product to you, and explain why you should want or need to purchase it.  Over time people began to realize that humans respond better to images than text.  Now, advertisers choose to use imagery to sell an emotion rather than logic to sell an object.

Sexist Van Heusen & racist mayonnaise ads

Van Heusen ad from the 1950s ((Source: Vintage Red T-Shirt.)) © Van Heusen, mayonnaise ad: ((Source: Listfav.)) brand, copyright, year unknown.

Finally, we get to one of the biggest, most obvious differences of all: political correctness.  Political correctness didn’t really become a major thing until the 90s, and sexist and racist advertisements were ubiquitous throughout the early and mid part of the 20th century.  Racism began fading out of advertisements after the civil rights movement, but sometimes sexist ads still pop up now and then.

Many visual changes have occurred in advertising over the years, but not all of them have really died out.  For instance, although paintings are not used nearly as often in modern advertisements, think of the common use of airbrushing or Photoshopping on photos of models and celebrities – it lends an almost ethereal quality and dims the realism.  Also consider that even if misogyny is frowned upon, sexism against men is still not uncommon, and advertisers still very frequently play upon family dynamics to sell products.

Vintage advertisements also hold a certain appeal aesthetically and continue to inspire modern Graphic Design.  Art Deco fonts and styles are making a comeback, and illustration is becoming popular again in some genres as well.  With these trends returning, feel free to use vintage and retro advertisements for inspiration.  Whether you design a mock wartime ad or just find ways to creatively use elements from retro advertising, its popularity is worth exploring.

What are your favorite (or least favorite) old time ads? Share in the comments!


All ads are copyright their respective owners and are used with the sole intention of research.

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