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Looking at Vintage Advertising – Are you Ready for a Blast from the Past?

old cameraI’ve always had an interest in history.

When I was a child, I would sit and listen for hours to my grandpa tell me stories of his youth, the war, our family and town, and generally – the way things used to be. I would pour over the old family photo albums, and all of my favorite books were set in the past.

I like old things too; china, jewellery, furniture, clothing – things that have a history.

My grandparents moved out of the old family home last year, and we are talking about the home my grandmother was born in, so cleaning it out was a heck of a challenge, but what treasure we found!

My favorites, after the Dougherty family memorabilia, were a stack of old country newspapers from the twenties. They were remarkably well preserved, and held a feast of fascinating things.

Now, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with you, now, in 2013, and you are right to wonder, but I do have a point. I promise. 😉

These old papers, written sixty years before I was born or thought of, had much to teach me about the way life used to be, and yes, the way business and marketing used to be. So it got me thinking: where did some of the principles and ideas we take for granted now, come from? When did they begin, how have they changed and crucially, have we forgotten anything important?

So I rallied the troops, and over the course of this month, Robyn, Amanda, Steph, Nick and I are going to be exploring history to find lessons and strategies that are as relevant today as they were decades, or even centuries ago.

Today, I’m going to give you the rundown on what we’re covering this month – and make the strongest argument I can that despite technological advances that would have baffled and bewildered the marketer of a hundred years ago – not much is really as different as it may seem…

Hurtling From the Past Into the Future

On Tuesday the 4th, Amanda is going to explore how tobacco companies (with their beautiful and horrible old cigarette ads!) can teach us how to efficiently and effectively pivot within the marketplace, and respond with great agility to changing trends.

On Monday June 10th, I’ll be talking about how online communities may just have found their roots in the social columns from days of yore – and how to combat one big glaring difference between then and now.

That Wednesday, you’ll be hearing from Robyn who is going to prove, beyond all shadow of a doubt that there is one perpetually, and unarguably superior way to demonstrate value and convince your customers that you know your business.

On Friday the 14th, Steph traces the history of what we’re calling On the Edge Marketing – the kind of extreme marketing you can ONLY attempt if you are among the bravest and most self-assured of individuals. This is not advice for the faint of heart.

Finally, the following Tuesday, Amanda will be wrapping this up with a look at what you used to be able to buy from the comfort of your sofa – long tail marketing in full effect before the internet made it commonplace. There are some interesting similarities, and a few noticeable differences as well.

I’m pretty excited about this series, and I hope that you are too!

But before we get to any of those – I want to present a little activity for your enjoyment.

Free Offer! This Will Make You the Envy of Your Friends!

I’ve got three examples of vintage advertising here, and I would like you to examine them, and let me know in the comments what you think the takeaway lesson about them could be

  • It could be an interesting old-school way to look at a modern problem.
  • It could be a principle that is as effective now as it was then.
  • It could be something so crazy to us, that it proves how times have changed – and how they might again.

There won’t be any right or wrong answers – this is just to get your brain working, and ready for the most relevant history lessons you may ever receive. 😉

Example 1: All the Kids are Doing It

This is a 1920’s ad for Bobbie pins – a pretty revolutionary invention in their day.

bobby

What do you think? What can we learn from this – would an ad like this work today?

Example 2: Glamor Sells It

Coca-Cola has been top-of-the heap in terms of advertising pretty much from the day they opened their doors. Here is one of their ads from the early 1900’s.

512px-Cocacola-5cents-1900

What marketing principles do you think were at play here?

Example 3: Things were crazy in the 70’s!

My mom assures me that anyone who remembers the seventies wasn’t actually there – but there is photographic evidence that people dressed to impress. Here is a men’s pants ad from that forgotten era.

Mens-ads-7

What about this ad makes it interesting? Could one like this be run today? Why or Why not?

Okay – I’m really excited to hear what you have to say about this vintage advertising, so I’ll leave you to it. Let me know what you take away from the different marketing styles, statements and intents.

About Megan Dougherty

Megan Dougherty is an alumnus of Mirasee and is passionate about online education, small business and making a difference in the world. You can find out what she's up to and how side-hustles will take over the world at PayingforLife.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MeganTwoCents.

41 thoughts on “Looking at Vintage Advertising – Are you Ready for a Blast from the Past?

  1. #1 is my favorite of the 3. Does a great job with social proof, and capitalizing on a trending topic (bobbed haircuts). It’s an uncluttered ad, which helps with the message.

    #2 is definitely going after a specific audience of women who want to look beautiful & rich. I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t fly today. At least, it doesn’t appeal to me. 🙂

    #3 is crazy weird. But then, it’s no weirder than the hair gel commercials for men that imply using their hair gel will get you wild make-out party nights with sexy blond ladies. It could probably work, if updated for the 2010s.

    History has always been an interest of mine, too, especially when it comes to “social” things like “who did first adopt x,y,z marketing principle.” Excited to read about the various research projects!

    • Thanks Felicity!

      I’m partial to the Bobbie pins one myself – simple, elegant and beautiful illustration.

      It’s really fun to try and trace the path of things from then to now – I can’t wait until the articles start coming through either!

  2. Damn! I wish I thought of this series. Great idea.

    The first ad uses the word “want.” A few days ago, Copyblogger had a post about giving your clients/customers what the “want” instead of what they “need.” The ad also states, “Keep Bobbed Hair Tidy.” You’re solving a problem.

    The second ad shows that Coca-Cola was only five cents. What! Seriously, it shows a sophisticated lady drinking Coca-Cola. Want to be sophisticated? Then drink Coca-Cola. The color scheme is vibrant; it’s eye-catching. Coca-Cola’s branding is front and center. You can’t miss their logo or product.

    The final ad looks more like an ads from the 1960s. Lol! I guess the ’60s and ’70s have a way of blending together. I think the ad kind of sort has a risqué feel to it because the man and woman are turned towards each other. It’s as if the ad is saying to guys, “Be seen in Scene Jeans. Attract women.” This ad could work today, but it would be ‘sexed up’ more. 😉

    This was a fun exercise! 😉

  3. The bobbie pins ad uses the follow the crowd marketng principle…”all the other girls are wearing them so I should as well” ( I do not speak from experience!!)

    The coke ad uses aspirational marketing…drink coke and you too can be this posh.

    As for the third one what can I say, it was the seventies and I’m sure I had a pair of these! It’s actually fairly subtle for the time with a suggestion of fun and excitement to come from wearing these pants ( rather than the more common sexual connotations of the era).

    I suspect that with a few tweaks these ads could run today as they tap into some of the basic desires of us humans.

    Keep em coming Danny ( and team)

    • I can highly recommend bobbie pins! 70 years later and as of yet – nothing better to hold hair in place. Perhaps loose strands aren’t much of an issue for you! 😉

      Maybe this is a subdued ad for the times – I must look into some of the crazier ones…

  4. No. 2 utilizes the ultimate, timeless marketing message. Drink this and you, too will fit in with the in-crowd–the elite group of the times. That one will work into infinity. This one is my favorite.

    No. 1 also works on a similar level. Most people use bobby pins, so you don’t want to be left out, do you? The numbers game is always going to appeal to a certain crowd.

    I have no idea what to say about No. 3. I think it has to do with sex appeal. Wear these (horrific) pants and you’ll get to dance with the hot chicks. This concept continues to sell stuff.

    Interesting! Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

  5. Reading backward is great to facilitate thinking about what might only be true today vs. what is always true. I love the idea of finding old ads to study!

    I am going to look for some old ads that relate to my business.

  6. Megan,

    As many of the others have commented here, Social Proof is still just as valid as it has always been! Also, trendsetting, we can’t be out of sync with the the times. In today’s marketing we have taken trendsetting, the need to have the latest and great. How many cell phones have you been through in the last five years?

  7. Ooohh, fun exercise. 1 is a good example of anxiety + aspirational marketing. Create a problem, use the product to solve the problem. The ad is doing something interesting with the idea of social proof + authority — “7 out of 11 bobbed heads” which sounds scientific + pretends to mean something but doesn’t really (the haircuts are forming their own union? these are their demands?). The ad works hard to link the idea of the bobbed haircut to the bobbie pin, especially given what the haircut represented at that point in the culture: female liberation, youthful rebellion, female independence, the flapper and everything that goes along with the flapper (jazz, liquor, Scott + Zelda, wild times…). It’s playing to the aspirations of an audience that wants to buy into that very potent, cool mythology — without actually having to find the courage to bob their hair or sneak into a speakeasy. They can buy bobbie pins instead.

    • Interesting points, Justine – but I think the fact that the Bobbie pin really was an innovation needs to be considered as well. I believe that before the Bobbie pin – there were only straight hair pins available – fine if you had plenty of long hair to thread them through – but for bobbed hair they just weren’t functional. Even for long hair styles, the bobbie is a more effective hair fastener.

      The social and mystique elements come into it too, I think – but the product did serve a function beyond the cosmetic.

  8. #2 is pulling the ‘prestige’ trigger (one of Sally Hogshead’s 7 ‘fascination’ triggers that we are hardwired to respond to). what’s interesting here is how the ad invites you in to this rarefied world, assumes you are already a part of it. this is a woman of leisure sitting in a parlour during a social visit: you see what appears to be a social card or invitation on the table angled toward you, and the mirror is angled toward you as well, and the woman in the ad is holding your gaze as if listening to you talk. So this ad is aimed at fashionable, privileged women, women of the leisure class, who spent part of each day going on social visits: what should they serve (or are already serving) during these visits? Coke! So Coke establishes itself as a catalyst of social togetherness (and female friendship) as well as the chosen drink of an elite. Kind of reminds me of how Red Bull initially thrived by putting itself into the hands of cool kids raging at nightclubs or cool kids doing extreme sports, etc.; once it became ‘their’ drink, and created that brand identity, it spread out into the mainstream (despite its terrible taste).

    • Good point! I had assumed she was sitting in a cafe – but it very well could be a social call! Hard to beat the tradition of tea – but boy did Coca-Cola try! A lot of the other old ads also used words like refreshing and invigorating – just the thing for one hot and exhausted by hauling around 40 pounds of dress, hat and steel underwear!

      A catalyst for female friendship … really cool idea – it reminds me of their Teach the World to sing ad from the …60s?

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1NeogMh1JI

      Togetherness – maybe that’s been their goal the whole time!

      • Yeah, they definitely do this whole thing about healing divides within the culture + bringing people together. I don’t think proper, respectable women of the Victorian era were “allowed” in cafes — public places were for prostitutes, actresses and other fallen women — so maybe this was Coke’s way of bringing the coffeehouse culture to them, or offering itself as a substitute.

  9. Hi Megan,

    This is an eye-opening and instructional activity.

    All three ads stress the power of their products/services to solve customer problems. Companies rely on our concern for our appearance, status and social acceptance when they plan their campaigns. That hasn’t changed.

    What has changed are the range of problems, types of settings, and the types of spokespeople and symbols depicted in mainstream media ads.

    Companies always reflect the prevailing sentiment of the country. Since the advent of the internet, we can all rapidly share our opinions about products and services in seconds. As companies have discovered the dramatic and measurable affect public opinion can have on sales, they have learned to be more sensitive in planning their ads and more responsive to reactions to them.

    A recent example: There has been a negative public response to a statement from Abercrombie & Fitch’s CEO about carrying no sizes above 10 and only wanting to attract “the cool and popular kids”. Maybe we’ll see a softening of that policy if the tide of public opinion pushes sales down, but note that the current backlash is in response to a statement made seven years ago in 2006. (The wheels of progress don’t move as fast as we think or would like.)

    Abercrombie & Fitch are not alone. Popular mainstream ads always reflected exclusion. Ads of the past typically focused on the problems of young, affluent, attractive, thin and white females (or white men trying to attract them.)

    Since the 80’s, companies slowly began to reflect ethnic diversity and a wide range of ages in their depictions of customers as public awareness and sentiment changed. As we’ve become a global economy with concern for societal and health needs, companies have responded with ads that imply that they, too, are sensitive to and responding to these problems.

    With the public ever more vigilant and willing to loudly voice their opinions, companies are watching and listening. We can expect future mainstream ads to reflect society’s changing attitudes toward the physically challenged, gay couples, and many other issues that are currently working their way into social acceptance.

    My takeaway: With their eye on the bottom line, companies reflect the prevailing public attitudes and sentiments in their representation of themselves in mainstream ads.

    • I heard about that A and F problem! One guy responded by starting a campaign to give A and F clothes to the homeless (which is, of course, problematic in it’s own way.) On the one hand – at least they’re being honest? On the other… just ew.

      It’s definitely true that companies are starting to reflect more diversity – and thank goodness for it! (Though as you say – there is a long, long, long way to go yet) Ads are a big part of the social landscape that normalizes behaviour. I read a really interesting article about a new cheerios ad that featured an interracial family (warning – there is some cursing in this piece, and the associated comments – http://bit.ly/ZjqOMm) and what that can mean to families and individuals who for a long time didn’t see themselves well represented in pop culture or otherwise.

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Flora! I really like to think that, collectively, we can make it worth the while of bigger companies to be inclusive instead of exclusionary.

  10. #3 makes me laugh. Holy phallic symbols, Batman! This ad is all about getting aroused — note the use of the words ‘male’ and ‘exciting’ in the copy and the placement of the woman in the ad, which conveniently lines up with the crotch of the pants — there’s also a man + woman in a romantic clinch in the corner. The jeans are presenting themselves as an emblem of male sexual freedom, power and dominance as well as the whole Scene of ’70s sexual experimentation. Women exist for your sexual pleasure. I imagine this ad held strong appeal — and was probably aimed at — men who felt trapped in domesticity and routine, who wanted fantasy + escape. This ad is also a response, or even a backlash, to the growing feminist movement that was still at or near its cultural peak and causing a lot of social anxiety. Don’t worry about that whole idea of ‘woman power’, the ad seems to be telling men, and how that might subvert or upset the social order. Woman’s rightful place is at your crotch! The ad was probably quite popular. 🙂

    • I wonder how it performed? And whether the men who saw it made the same kind of connections, or if it just glanced off the surface making them think “hmm – groovy pants!”

      • The most powerful messages reach the viewer on some kind of emotional level and slip through to the subconscious, so I would vote “groovy pants!”

        I note my own reaction to brands. I am once again loyal to Starbucks, for example, and I don’t even know why. Yes, the coffee got halfway decent again (they were really sucking there for a while) but is it so much different, or better, than Coffee Bean or Peets? Not so much. And yet I look for Starbucks, I am constantly choosing Starbucks. Somehow they got me — maybe because they’re telling a story about me as a cultural creative that the other places aren’t quite managing to do? How are they doing that?

  11. Just to respond to Flora’s comment above — companies thrive not simply by reflecting the prevailing sentiment of the culture, but by telling a story addressing specific anxieties within that culture for a specific demographic. Buying a product helps ease that anxiety — which isn’t just the ‘little’ anxiety that the product actually solves (flyaway hairs, your thirst, the need to wear pants in public) — but a larger anxiety such as social disruption, social isolation and class anxiety, or female empowerment, etc. All these ads give the intended viewer a very reassuring place in the world (you *are* part of the Jazz Age! You *are* part of a privileged social fashionable scene! You *are* a powerful sexual adventurer!) — so long, of course, as you use their product. The big lesson here, I think, is how specific these ads are to their place and time — they’re not just trying to ‘own’ abstract words.

    • I like your point a lot, Justine. Some ads are very specific to a certain place or time. But surely other ads are more timeless?

      Nike’s “Just Do It” strikes me as enduring. The same for Apple’s Think Different commercial.

      What these have in common is that the message connects with something that the target audience identifies with about themselves already, which makes buying the brand consistent behavior. That’s very different than positioning an offer as a condition to have any specific association.

      • But look at the context in which those slogans get *expressed* and that give them resonance and meaning. Just Do It spoke to a larger message of individual warrior darwinian triumph over a difficult economy, and so their commercials have a lot of overcoming-adversity-through-sport imagery (kids rising out of the inner-city ghetto, for example). Would that message have resonated the same way during the post WW2 baby boom?….Apple speaks to a myth of the (male) creative rebel making a dent in the universe in a free-agent workplace (and I would argue that that’s a generation that is steadily becoming disillusioned and will soon need a new myth). If these messages were truly timeless, brands would never fade out of relevance or have to reinvent themselves… As any good writer knows, the power is in the details; the abstract gets expressed through the concrete…. I don’t think it’s enough that the message connects with something that the target audience already self-identifies with — because then you’re just telling me something about myself that I already know. So what? Why would I need you? But if you make me part of a bigger story — a myth (like: I can overcome economic stress + come out ahead with the tenacity and determination of an Olympic level or NBA athlete once I tie on Nike shoes) — then we’re engaged in a dialogue that’s caught my imagination as well as my sense of who I want to be.

        • For the context of any given ad, you are right. My comments go more into the overall brand message which is intended to be enduring. Ads quickly wear out with use, but a brand hopefully does not. Yes it happens, but probably due company errors – such as failure to live up to a brand promise – rather than design.

          I don’t any of us ever need a brand. But once you decide you needs running shoes or a phone, then ceteris paribus, a brand that you identify with has an edge in the marketplace.

          I never really thought of Apple as being specifically about the male creative rebel. The lone rebel in the 1984 McInstosh commercial was a woman.

  12. Example 1 – By using “7 out of 11” instead of 70% or 7 out of 10 makes you stop and check out the numbers again and think about why 11? It catches your attention.
    By implying that “everyone” who is stylish, hip, current, etc.wants it, a desire is created to be one of those people.
    Example 2 – A beautiful woman, jewels and flowers create am atmosphere of wealth, she drinks Coka-Cola, so if I do, I could be like her. Again, create a desire to be like the photo.
    Example 3 – Again, the same basic principle of creating a desire to be like the guy in the picture, with a beautiful girl clearly attracted to him, sets the scene.
    The same principle is used over and over again in advertising today. A particular product will help make me better, richer, more popular, successful, etc. We all want something that we don’t have, advertising plays into that basic human need.

  13. Hi, Megan.

    #1 is simple yet conveys a lot. In this day of the long tail, some people who want to differentiate themselves may not go for the idea of having same product as others. But overall I think this approach of providing a solution to a problem is still effective.

    #2 is funny to me in the sense that Coke is seen as the choice of soda for young people and the brand image is tied with youthfulness, energy, casualness, connectedness, mobility, being global. Drink you can enjoy anywhere including outdoors and on the go. The ad depicts almost opposite: refined, well-mannered. It’s the drink you enjoy slowly in a quiet, sophisticated environment. On even special occasions like going out to the town on the trolley (OK, I’m not that old, this is just imagination!).

    The brand image changes according to societal and cultural changes. And as we all know Coke always excels at it.

    #3 — OK, my first thought is, “Today no men can pull it off wearing these pants except a very few who look like a model.” It would only appeal to skinny, fashion-conscious men who can actually wear them in order to result in actual purchase. It’s like watching old movies. You cannot help but notice how slim and well-dressed people back then were (of course, the latter being arranged to an extent).

    Ad strategies aside, the niche for this product still exists and probably more valuable now. These slim men usually go through much trouble finding good clothes in the midst of mainstream clothes in sizes way too large. Once they find a store or brand that can accommodate them, they’d become loyal audience.

    Going back to the long tail with the vast, endless choice we have this day, the strategies used in the ads are still valid and effective for their respective targeted audience. My impression is that modern ads are more sophisticated.

  14. I wrote my first ads in the 70s, so it was a huge blast from the past for me. In the 3rd ad, I’m sure that girl was chosen because of her resemblance to Goldie Hawn in her Laugh-In days.

    All 3 marketing styles are used very frequently today, just with updated people and products. (I could expand on that if anyone is interested)

    Funny thing about advertising/marketing is that many things have changed, but human nature hasn’t changed all that much. Same techniques still work, but with different faces/products/etc. All marketing/advertising starts with psychology. 🙂

  15. I like the bobbie pins ad, especially since I have a bob. Hairspray is a little less noticeable and keeps the hair tidy nowadays. But it’s an easy-to-read ad, draws you in because surely you’re “one of the seven,” and, if not, why not? The Coca-Cola one probably wouldn’t attract folks today, but their ads evolved, with the same message – you want to be like this, so you need to drink C-C. Human psychology hasn’t changed much.

  16. #1 Would totally work today. It did a great job creating and nitching it’s very own category in hair products, and today they are still called bobbie pins, though we don’t always use them for that.

    #2 Went about saying that if you drink coke you are royal and classy and by the way it is just 5cents to make yourself apart of the beautiful people. Today people are still looking for ways that tell them they are part of the beautiful crew

    #3 Is the most likely to move men to buying these new pants, with the same exact ad, It seemd that men are always looking for things that make them unque and fashionable. this was the first metrosexual ad…

    Thanks for your great research and information

  17. What interests me is how clear each visual evokes its time period. The coke ad, even if it was released in early 1900’s harkens back to a solid period 10 years earlier. She’s very sure who she is, looks at you straight on, centered in the frame. As if to say, “even if times are about to change, you can stick with cocacola and feel secure in your choice. The plaid pants ad – yes Amandah, I agree with you it looks 60’s, not 70’s – but if it was released in the 70’s its aimed at a customer who probably would buy these pants – a guy who still hasn’t caught up with the 70s and thinks plaid pants are cool (not) and its the way to pickup girls (reminds me of Steve Martin’s wild and crazy guys sendup). Very funny. My fav is the bobbypin – the style of the ad, its visuals, the font choice – all send a message but with the subliminal message of cool chicks in graphics. Very clean. I want some bobbypins.

  18. I enjoyed reading all the responses as well as the article. Let me add a few comments specific to the time periods.
    #3 As you know Coca Cola was originally a medicinal product and a fountain drink which makes me think the gal in the first ad was in a public place. Their market was older people originally and it wasn’t until they came up with bottling that the drink spread. http://inventors.about.com/od/cstartinventions/a/coca_cola.htm

    #3 Every guy I knew in the 70s had a pair of these pants, so their ads were surely effective. MALE is a brand name and they only made pants for men. If you enlarge the picture you will see the Register Mark next to the word. Read the type while you have it enlarged, it’s all about Sex appeal, too. These pants were so ugly yet prevalent, it makes me want to forget the 70s.

    #1 I had no idea why they were called Bobbie Pins; now it makes sense. I like that 7 out of 11 thing and will figure out how to use it, since 7 out of 11 statistics are made up on the spot anyway.

    My takeaway is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. That is, reaching a person’s heart (meeting their need) is what sells a product or idea.

  19. How fun! I love when “work” means getting to dabble in fun ideas and interesting research.

    I wanted to get my take on the ads down before reading all the other comments, so forgive me if I repeat what others have said:

    Example 1: This is definitely still used today! A company can talk all day long about how awesome they are, but consumers won’t trust their word as much as they will the actions of other people. If a majority of people choose your product over another, presumably at least some of them have tried out others and deemed yours the best. Therefore, the work of picking out the highest-quality option has been taken care of and a consumer figures can trust they’re going with the best choice.

    Example 2: Ah, the appeal of lifestyle. There are so many takes on this in modern ads, but the first one that came to my mind is Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World.” Wouldn’t you like to be more adventurous? Just drink a beer!

    The appeal of feeling connected to a high-class lifestyle is pretty much the fashion industry’s bread and butter. Have wealthy, beautiful, successful people wear your clothes, shoes, and bags and the paparazzi will take care of most of your marketing for you.

    Example 3: Another take on marketing to people’s desire for a certain lifestyle. This time it’s based less on class, and more on being cool and interesting (see: the aforementioned Dos Equis man). Of course, the picture taps into another of the most common advertising tropes: wear these to make yourself more attractive to women!

  20. Hi Megan,

    The first ad was my favorite of the three. With some modernizing I can see it working today somewhat.

    The second one was a little cluttered. I kept looking at the girl’s face instead of the coke ad. A little posh for today, as the style today is not to be all dressed up.

    The last one turns me off, but then that’s me.

  21. Simply grip the tack using a bobby pin until it’s steady in place. By holding the clip instead of the hook, you’ll lower the chances of catching your hands. Lifehacker has an awesome photo demonstrating just how to do this. You can also try placing a typical hair comb over the nail, which will also act as a safety net.

  22. The other thing I wanted to mention is that every consultant’s business model will be different. For instance, some may undercharge certain components in order to get business for their higher value-add services. Some may just want to workshops while others just want to do speaking. As you can see from the variety of service offerings each social media consultant has, no two social media consultants are alike.

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