I was very grateful to receive a copy of “Ad Boy – Vintage Advertising With Character” by Warren Dotz and Masud Husain, as a christmas gift a few weeks ago.
It takes a look at examples of illustrations created for branding and advertising, mostly from the post-war United States, a period distinguished by bright cartoonish images and characters, many of which would achieve the status of pop culture icons in the years that followed. It’s a valuable reference book, both artistically and culturally.
I’ve been keen on researching these kinds of characters for some time. In a work capacity I’ve always favoured striking but simple hand-drawn, vector graphics over those of a more digitalized nature, and I sometimes reference vintage ads for inspiration when working with customer logos and designs. In terms of hand-painting, these examples are perfect as this style of character image can often be produced very effectively using simple, clean brush strokes in just one-colour, lending uncomplicated charm to an otherwise flat design.
The appeal of these post-war ad campaigns is not difficult to decipher, as the author explains in the book’s introduction: “Product characters were designed to comfort consumers, to reassure them that they were making the smartest, safest, best quality choices and thus were wise, secure, good people”. The rise of character and cartoon led campaigns is also explained: “It’s important to recall that prior to the 1950’s manufacturers didn’t market to children……But as baby boomers populated the burgeoning suburbs and television reached out for the hearts and minds of America’s offspring…..Advertisers took note and kids were targeted to sway their parents’ spending”.
It’s interesting to evaluate the appeal of these earlier forms in comparison with more modern forms of advertising, which can often appear crass in comparison despite the fact that vintage and modern advertising are still coming from the same place, and serving the same purpose. Let’s face it, the primary aim of these characters was never just to make us feel good, it was to sell product – leading me to feel slightly paradoxical at experiencing nostalgia for these images when I find most forms of advertising, whether it be on television or on billboards, to be intrusive and somewhat cynical (a strange feeling to have for someone in the sign trade, I know!). These days I walk down the cereal aisle quietly bemoaning the packaging that’s selling breakfast products loaded with sugar to a target audience with impressionable minds and vulnerable teeth. Yet, leafing through Ad Boy I get a sudden pang of nostalgia when confronted with an early image of Kelloggs’ Tony The Tiger.
It’s difficult not to see these characters as products of a more innocent time. I can’t imagine the same feelings being evoked in thirty years time, when we’re looking back at the advertising that we’re currently experiencing. Maybe because we’re saturated with it – ads pop up on our TV screens, on our computers, social media feeds, in the palm of our hands, and not forgetting the more traditional advertising mediums of magazines and newspapers, and on the daily commute plastered on the sides of buses and at train stations. This saturation has perhaps led to a sense of weariness about advertising. It works in the short term but are we going to be quite so eager to take it to our hearts?
But whether or not you agree with the practises and principles that led to the evolution of these forms of character-led branding, there’s little doubt that it’s a visually striking, psychologically perplexing, and often downright weird world to inhabit, providing a wealth of inspiration to draw from.
The anthropomorphisation in some of these designs, particularly in food advertising, is a particularly fascinating aspect and leads you to question both the thinking that goes into it and the effect it’s had upon our eating habits and philosophies – what’s the best way to advertise meat products? Of course, you produce a sweet cartoon image of a smiling pig or chicken about to happily tuck into a plate of bacon or chicken nuggets – self cannibalisation as a marketing tool! I’ve always been slightly perplexed by some of the UK high street mainstays too, the fish and chip shop with a smiling cod on the fascia, and the numerous fried chicken outlets selling their wares with the image of a happy hen! We live in a weird world, no?
Ad Boy – Vintage Advertising With Character : by Warren Dotz and Musad Husain.
Published by Ten Speed Press / Random House