Advertising 100 years ago

“Flacara” magazine is celebrating 100 years of existence, and they have graciously uploaded the first issue of the magazine as a testimony to what is a long and praiseworthy history. To us modern readers the magazine is charming, but quaint. Long, bulky text broken up by simple lines or squares challenge the contemporary bite-sized approach to  information. Black and white graphics illustrate the columns. The few headshots interspersed with text are not the angular shapes of modern day pictures, but the softer medallions that we now associate with lockets and cameos.

The advertising is just as different. Readers of Roland Marchand will know that the 1920s and 1930 were associated with a revolution in advertising in terms of both of messaging and design, bringing early 20th century ads closer to 21st century sensibilities, if not visually, then at least in terms of product presentation and placement. In fact, I’ve learned that in 1924 the concept of “celebrity endorsement” was pioneered by none other than Queen Maria of Romania, on behalf of Pond’s cold cream.

But this Flacara inaugural issues predates the reversal of advertising thinking that occurred just a decade later and presents us with advertising in its rawest form, painting a typical picture of what promotion was like 100 years ago.

Visually, it relies on typesetting (fonts, size) to draw attention to the message. There is very limited use of color, and whatever visuals are used are stylized drawings, acting as symbols, rather than photographs of the actual product or location. There is no evocation of visual style: one ad for a bank looks very much like the ad for a plank factory. Though functionally separate from the content of the magazine  (they appear on the last pages) ads are not necessarily visually separate, relying on the same type of frame and layout as the content itself. In a certain sense, our modern day adverting has a format that is quite similar in feel: the advertorial, that hybrid of pretend editorial coverage with unabashed self-promotion that takes on the look and feel of a genuine magazine page.

In the absence of visual cues, the ads of the last century are copy intensive, much like the above mentioned advertorial. Unlike it, the nature of the content is informative, descriptive rather than persuasive. Herein lies perhaps the biggest difference between the ads in Flacara and other publications of the era and modern day advertising: publicity focuses on the product, and its descriptors (types, modernity, quality, inventor) rather than the customer and what her or she can get from the product. There si a notable absence of slogans or calls to action (buy now!) in whose stead, we get descriptions of services available. A decade later, it is all about aspiration and status, and getting people to purchase, just like nowadays, but in the 1910s it’s still about function, with no overlays.

In one way, we are turning full circle. With the advent of Google AdWords words and contextual advertising words are reclaiming some of their original pull and value, with more sophistication, of course.

I have to confess, this article was written on demand, as part of a contest that Flacara, pranzuldincaserola and PortalHR have launched, and because I want to win a trip to Malta for my birthday, I took up the challenge. But i am glad I did it for its own sake, because it afforded me a fascinating glimpse into the history of my profession, here in Romania. For edification, I recommend that speakers of Romanian also read the following links:

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Filed under Communication, Media related, Personal

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