“Pert and perky is this wispy little ‘Perma-lift’ Pantie.” The merry-“No Bones About It, Stays Up Without Stays”- lilt of this line of 1950s ad copy for the Stitched Cup bra, is arguably one of the less predictable effects of the hell-bent McCarthyism that swept through the United States in the decades just after the war. Predictable or not, for the contemporary consumerist sophisticate, such screamingly unadulterated hucksterage will undoubtedly not fly. Ours is an age fully attuned to the manipulative and seductive ploys of advertisements. Or so, at least, we vehemently tell ourselves. According to Jim Heimann, editor of Taschen’s magisterial, politically charged, yet digitally retouched ode to the well-known props and visual idioms of a squeaky-clean post-war Americana–All-American Ads of the 50s–“The atomic bomb changed everything.” “Serious consumption was joined by whimsical buying in a move that seemed to counter the harsh realities of nuclear annihilation.” Suddenly, it seems, the Madison Avenue man in the grey flannel suit embraced the Capri pant, hula hoops, larger-than-life Cadillacs, Tupperware, purple people eaters, anything, in fact, that spoke of clouds with silver linings. In this quest to flood the market with ads that read, to us today, like pulp fiction, it is perhaps most interesting to note that nuclear subs and toothpaste, guided missiles and girders, space travel and pink lipstick, all of them shared the same insatiably capitalist stage. This stage, in turn, had a funny way of bringing together the seemingly irreconcilable. Examples are plentiful. One of my favourites: the Las Vegas hotel conglomerate that celebrated its proximity to various nuclear test sites much as a Turkish restaurateur might of his relative closeness to the Bosphorus. There’s always something going on in Las Vegas!” That’s correct: for instance, nuclear explosions.
Heimann has done a marvellous job of collecting ads that, more than anything else, portray a nation full of self-confidence. Possessed of a mercantile swagger. Western Electric’s banner ad of 1951 begins, “Something the Reds haven’t got”, and as it goes on to catalogue the glories, various and sundry, of America’s favourite telephone network, we are provided with what is clearly an express indication of the types of feelings, pride and security mainly, that many of the copywriters, illustrators, and art directors of this period took as their starting point. This was, after all, a society comfortable with babies that spoke of how “great” their mothers feel after smoking a Marlboro. Furthermore, in the days before ecowarriors and antiglobalists marched their green armies upon the streets of Seattle and, more recently, Milan, the Brand Names Foundation could, without shame or loss of appetite, proclaim in a full-page glossy magazine ad:
When a manufacturer proudly signs his name to his product, he knows he has to win your faith in that name.
Only through satisfying you, can he be sure that you will buy again–and again!
That’s the main reason why manufacturers of branded and advertised products carry on continuous programs of research and product improvement. That’s why winning your favor [sic] is the full time job of thousands of scientists and testing engineers, and the sole purpose of laboratories and experimental plants in every division of industry where trade-marketing is practiced [sic].
The whole Taschen team should be congratulated on this fine piece of cultural archaeology. And with All-American Ads of the 1930s and the 1960s promised in 2002, and of the 1920s and the 1970s planned for 2003, this should prove to be an informative, slightly kooky, but highly entertaining and important series.
Reviewed by Kim Hjelmgaard