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Duccio di Buoninsegna, Betrayal of Jesus. Detail from the back of the Maesta altarpiece. c. 1310.

A [very] concise history of advertising

Throughout history art has been used as an instructional tool. The best, lasting examples we have are often relgious in nature. From Europe to Asia, the Middle East, and nearly every continent not Antarctica, you can find examples of art being used to convey messages before you'll find art that exists for the sake of itself.

The first image on this page is Duccio di Buoninsegna's "Betrayal of Jesus". If you are familiar with the story of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane you might be able to identify individual events. Jesus is identified by Judas embracing him, Peter is resisting by striking priests servant in the ear with his sword, the apostles leave as they are commanded to. But in what order do these events happen? Are they happening at the same time? This was an age before comic books and sequential frames were not a developed idea. This image is dependent on verbal explanation but is a good example of how art can accentuate such a speech. It exists to help instruct as much as it did to be a work of art.

Because artistic patronage was so dependent (at least in Europe) on the religious foundations this was the primary use of instructional imagery (at least for public use) for many centures. The whole idea of using (high quality) imagery to entice a potential buyer of a commercial product was not only seen as an unnecessary luxury (for many people you bought what you needed, not what you wanted) but in some cultures as sacrilegious. For some, material objects should not be seen in the same medium as the religious.

It was really with the advent of machinery such as the printing press and mass printing (lithographs and block prints) that illustrations see wider use for the sake advertising. By the 19th century it was common to hire artists to design print ads but quite few remain as examples of fine art. But by the end of that century, and with greater advancements in print quality and color options, print ads began to expand upon the possibilities of actually being "art" for their own sake.

Alphonse Mucha is an artist who's art has endured from the 19th century. Though he is remembered primarily for his artistic ability in the modern era he was known just as much for being an ad man in his own age. Pictured to the right is a piece done for Moet & Chandon's White Star champagne from 1899. If it weren't for the actual word "champagne" you might not even realize it were an ad.

So from the time advertising became a viable profession (as opposed to being the responsibility of the business owner) until the 20th century ads were fairly straight forward. This means there was little to no humor, subversion, or requirement for the audience to interact with the art in any way.

Alphonse Mucha, Moet & Chandon's White Star . 1899.
The early 20th century brought a new wave of ads that were also shaped by the culture they were designed to be seen in.

And that age of advertisement makes prefect sense. Why not say whatever is needed to get people to buy your product? Cigarettes? Good for you. Beer? Have one more before you drive home. The more bullet points that can be listed the better. There was little to no government oversight and the entire idea of cultural examination as a popular passtime was not nearly prevalent as we see it today. There was no internet blogging, no twitter discussions, no broader (accessible) discussion. The periodicals you might find such criticism in were the same magazines profiting from the ads themselves.

There had always been some advertisers with a sense of humor but it wasn't until the mid twentieth century that the approach became a standard pillar.

Ad campaigns from companies like VW used humor and reverse psychology. By doing this they demand interaction from the audience. You have to stop and think about what you're looking at to understand it and by doing so give more of your attention to the product.

Consider the campaign developed in the late 60's by ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach.

For these particular images, all part of the same campaign, notice how there are two sizes of text used. From this distance only the header text is legible. Once you read it - does it actually seem relevent to the product of a automobile at first? Do all of the images themselves even relate to the product of an automobile?
This 1969 Volkswagen television ad shows not only how humor had worked its way into television as well as print, but how a "campaign" can and should stretch across multiple mediums.

From around this age on the predominant school of thought in advertising could focus on simplicity of message. Gone were the days of filling the ad space with as much information as possible. An image, a slogan or tag line, the company logo. This is the minimalist approach that a lot of advertising artists use as a template to this day.

The three ads below illustrate this shift.

From left to right;
A Marantz Stereo Reciever ad from 1974, Faberge Macho Musk Oil from 1978, and a Horst Salon ad from the 1980's.

Examine the 3 images above. Which is most effective? After giving it some thought it's not hard to surmise that the left is touting the durability of the product but by what means? The ad includes the text of a letter sent to the manufacturer describing how their product survived a house fire. While this does serve to invoke an emotional respone, everyone empathizes with enduring tragedy, it doesn't change how long it takes the viewer (or reader as it were) to take in the ad.

The second two ads, also from the late 70's / early 80's, trade being informative about the product for more immediate emotional reactions. This was not an uncommon, or uncalculated shift in attitudes. Throughout the industry the lesson of graphic design in the second half of the 20th century was one of brevity.

A clip of Graphic Designer Michael Bierut talking about the attraction of the "Helvetica" typeface from the docoumentary "Helvetica" (2007). The rise in popularity of a font popularized by its reputation for clarity mirrors the attitudes of the Graphic Design industry itself.

It's an approach which has endured to this day. If it weren't for the company name itself the below ads for LEGO toys by Blattner Brunner would even do away with words altogether. Instead they rely on stark, rich colors, and a little interaction from the viewer. In this case the viewer, after a quick inspection, realizes that the ad promotes the use of imagination to see the simple blocks as something more.

Humor of course changes via time and place and modern sensibilities are more irreverent.

Without the stepping stone of such basic dry humored ads, we wouldn't be able to enjoy such works of art as this...

2006 was an interesting time to be alive.

In recent decades the trend of "interactive" advertisements has been taken to even further extremes. To an extand whereby the effectiveness becomes almost debatable.

These days its not hard to find advertisements that force a viewer into thinking about them, almost like puzzles to be figured out, at the risk of their own message.

The image to the left is an advert for the International Society for Human Rights produced by Grabarz & Partner. The image is sparse on readable text and consists of a simple image of a wall with marks on it that obviously coorespond to the height of a growing child over time. But unlike what one would expect the child the marks indicate that child became shorter between the age of 7 and 8.

It's only when you read the finer text at the bottom of the image which reads "About 50 percent of landmine victims are children" that you might realize what story the image is trying to convery.

An ad like this can be seen as both intuitive and counter-intuitive at the same time.

  • The ad demands viewer attention by lacking an obvious narrative.
  • The ad risks not conveying the actual point to be made pushing the "key" (the factoid about land mines) to the bottom of the page as a kind of legend for the puzzle it presents.

In the end whether or not this approach is worth it is up to the producer and advertiser.

So as we can see the trends through the history of advertising have been many and diverse. But there has been a constant thread. There's been a part of the art that has always remained the same and that is when an advertiser asks the product creator; "who are you selling to?"

Considering demographics

The question of *how* you advertise your product is not entirely separated from *who* you are advertising to. Look at any ad, whether it be print or broadcast, and you'll see a trends amongst certain products. Notice how advertisements for medicines might feature middle aged to older actors enjoying activities that show how healthy they are (even if it's just walking outside). Ads for energy drinks might feature younger actors in the midst of vigroous activities, sports, recreation, etc. Notice how one might feature slower, calming music in the background while the other might feature more energetic, high-tempo music to coincide with the imagery. This of course isn't an accident.

Do users of heart disease medicines want humor from their ads?

Do buyers of first person shooter games want realistic depictions of collateral damge in their commercials?

For every ad you see ther was an advertiser who, at some point, posed a few questions to themselves.

  • Who buys this product?
  • What is the lifestyle of that group of people?
  • What trends, such as clothing, music, or artistic motifs, indicate a member of that lifestyle?

Sites that collect ads

For the sake of study I thought I would mention a site that collects advertisments and regards them as works within themselves. There's no shortage of them so don't be afraid to simply google ads as a subject if you are looking for inspiration.

adsoftheworld.com

"adsoftheworld" is notable for trying to keep track of not only what the ad is for but storing the credits for what agency and artists worked to make it happen.