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Why Advertising Will Never Be Golden Again


Remembering when product-pushing was entertaining and relevant.


Two factors combined to create the Golden Age of Advertising: The post-World War II boom and TV's invasion of the nation's living rooms. Both now seem as distant as the Peloponnesian War -- especially to advertising executives.

The Nielsen Company reports that US advertising expenditures declined 15.4%, or $10.3 billion to $56.9 billion, in the first half of 2009 compared with the same period a year ago.

Many of the nation's top executives will gather in New York next week for Advertising Week. The seminars will play out against declines in all advertising sectors except cable TV.

It's enough to make you long for the good old days before the Internet atomized the advertising market, slashed billings, and, in the view of some, gutted creativity. In the Golden Age, advertising was simple: Ballerinas danced in kitchens to sell appliances, cars were built in America, and cigarettes were pitched by babies.

The Internet didn't spark the effusive, golly-gee-wow fervor that commercial television did when it was new. It's easy to forget that TV was new and wondrous in the early 1950s, creating a sense of immediacy and intimacy that didn't exist in newspapers or radio. This observation sparked great fulminations in academia, most notably Marshall McLuhan's The Mechanical Bride in 1951, a critique of advertising and popular culture that culminated in his catchphrase, "The medium is the message."

Better yet, TV boosted advertising agency billings to $6 billion in 1960 from $1.3 billion in 1950, an increase of 361.5%.

Back then, ad writers controlled everyone's image but their own. In 1957, Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders, a best-seller that exposed what he saw as advertising's grand conspiracy against gullible consumers. Like most conspiracies, those pulling the strings are smart, ruthless, and have cornered the market on inside information. Madison Avenue created needs people didn't know they had and fulfilled those manufactured anxieties and longings with the product at hand.

With more platforms for advertising delivery today and shortened attention spans, the message is quite different.

George Logothetis, a New York-based freelance creative director with 20 years' experience in advertising, says:

"Today, persuasion has given way to mere interfacing with information through search optimization, key words and Google. Originality isn't so important anymore. Writers aren't nearly as valued as the coder who can build a website. All it takes now is a clever URL, a viral film, micro-site, or YouTube video and marketers can reach millions of consumers for next to nothing. This changes production budgets and agency fees -- everything."

Indeed, it's a world apart from advertising's Golden Age, which took place during the baby boom and is depicted in the hit drama Mad Men. By the 1950s, many people were euphoric about their prospects following the Great Depression and World War II. It was an optimistic time. Upbeat ads pitched progress, underscoring new wealth and stressing traditional values. Cute, happy kids were a fixture in ads of the day. Stuffed refrigerators and plates heaped with food symbolized wealth and stability.

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