Advertising in the 1950s and 1960s

by alden jewell

The 1951 Nash Ambassador Custom 4 door sedan

Recently I’ve been considering my media consumption habits. For example, I exclusively watch television content via Netflix now, and when I do catch an episode on a broadcasting channel the commercials annoy me to no end. Even when I pick up a magazine, I often find myself irritated by the plethora of ads I have to flip through until I get to what I want. The only time I stop to appreciate an advertisement is if it goes out of its way to appeal to me. Usually it’s a funny quip, a great tune, or intriguing graphics. This made me wonder – is the modern generation trickier for advertisers to reach than in retro times? There’s a forum on LinkedIn discussing this and the consensus is that today’s consumer is more distracted and that successful advertisements have to be multi-dimensional. A great print ad that mimics a television spot no longer works – people are craving engagement and interaction on a variety of platforms. That overall summary makes sense to me, but I thought I’d dive into the world of marketing in two of my favorite eras. Tag along for a peek into advertising in the 1950s and 1960s.

I always look this excited when I shop

A happy housewife with her Tetra Pak shopping net

It’s funny to me how these two time periods – a mere ten years apart – could be so different in approach. There are, obviously, some standard modes of practice that are tried and true. For example, as Evelyn Nesbit has shown us, supermodels are rock stars at selling products; everybody loves free stuff (if you collect carnival glass, that used to be promotional offerings at grocery stores); and having celebrity connections means more exposure and sales (Art Linkletter helped spearhead the new launch The Game of Life after all – and I’m so happy for his efforts on that quest!). But the 1950s went beyond that recipe trio and created something entirely new: the happy housewife. Now this gal would go on to redefine the advertising world for decades to come – and let’s be honest – she still is one influential chica.

The Canadian Broadcasting Company had a great feature called “The Age of Persuasion.” They argue that the housewife was a creation of the big ad firms in NYC (and they’re not alone in that thinking – in the least). The prosperity of a post-World War culture brought about a huge increase in consumer goods as people demanded the nicer things in life. Couple that with more people leaving the nature-centric life of the country for the shiny city lights, and you have a society primed for shopping. Families were settling as fast as they could in suburbia and everyone wanted the latest and greatest in appliances, electronics, automobiles, and other home goods.

Hohner's shout out to the Gemini mission

Love this ad from 1966

This was a time when women were leaving the factory floor for the linoleum and formica surfaces of their own kitchens. Advertisers wanted to make this transition as lucrative for themselves as possible. Thus the ideal woman was fashioned – the housewife. You know her, right? Never a hair out of place, always a kind word for her neighbors, a kiss on the cheek for her husband when he comes home, a pat on the head for her completely obedient and sweet kiddos, and an excellent cook. Just makes me think of the 30 Rock episode when Jenna explains to Liz that love is trying to hold up a veil of perfection (and part of the requirement is going somewhere else to poop). Let’s just take a moment to say – we’re all amazing in our own right – we don’t need to chase perfection. But the kicker to this entire oasis-like image of the pinnacle of womanhood: the housewife had to be competitive. Yep, that’s right, advertisers wanted ladies to “one up” their friends, neighbors, sisters-in-arms, at every moment. In summary: the happy housewife was who every gal wanted to be and who every gal tried to best. The only way to stay on top? Buy the latest thing of course!

By the mid-1950s an interesting bullet point was added to the housewife’s resume: sex symbol. After Alfred Kinsey’s 1953 publication entitled “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female,” advertisers realized that they could put a whole new spin on their existing run-away success story. So around this time you’ll see come hither looks, more exposed lingerie, etc. While people were initially pretty shocked to add a third category: wife, mother, sexual being??? to the list of “what a happy housewife is”, it paved the way perfectly for the liberating 1960s.

Love this ad - ha ha!

What’s going on on campus???

The 1960s remain one of the most interesting decades to me – so much happened. On the one hand there was an outpouring of optimism with the space race and technological advancements, but on the other so much outpouring of emotion with the death of JFK, social inequity, and racial tension. Advertisers worked hard to build trust with the new, more demanding youth culture. Keep in mind that by the 1960s about half the population was under 25 years of age (and they were rocking funky jewelry, clothes, and a new attitude). Marketing responded with advertisements that focused on research and facts, proving to the consumer that their product was worth the investment. Firms got more creative and tried to inject personality (even a taste of irony) into their offerings. This was the age of animated characters like Mr. Clean and the inclusion of Pop Art. Check out our Pinterest boards for more groovy graphic design inspiration.

I’d like to leave you with a great article that compares the advertisements proposed in Mad Men versus their real life counterparts. What do you think of the role of the housewife in advertising? Do you think women’s portrayals in advertising have improved or regressed? Let me know in the comments…

Cause A Frockus would like to thank the images posted in the public domain and the resources linked above. There’s so much great information and discussion out there about vintage advertising. Tell me if there’s more you want to see…

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