Wednesday 14 May 2008

The End of a Perfect Day

The advertising of tobacco products in British periodicals in the inter-war years was, for the most part, especially formulaic, dull and unimaginative. I can’t bring myself to display examples of just how awful much of it could be. Suffice to say that appeals to patriotism, grizzled old mariners and scenes of medieval pageantry predominated. Just occasionally there would be a campaign or individual effort that stood out from the rest. Wills (later Players) Gold Flake is a now defunct brand but in its heyday its distinctive yellow pack made it very easy to spot on the shelves of your tobacconist. The examples above are from 1929-30 and promote the art of nocturnal smoking by associating it with, respectively, the air of excitement generated in busy neon-lit city centres and the quest for relaxation at the end of a demanding working day. Both employ uncredited artists with a flair for evoking the atmosphere of mystery inherent in the landscape at night and make a refreshing change from the more common advertising clichés.

Advertisers in Britain were extremely quick to reach for an equestrian image when imagination deserted them. The world of horse racing, selectively portrayed, could be depended on to suggest quality, discrimination and the social status of the landed gentry. The jockey’s companion wears an animal fur wrapped casually around her throat to confirm the link with wealth and good breeding. Other images of air travel and intimate dining out were pressed into service as indicators of sophistication. It’s a brave effort to market the product to the fashionable and high status consumer and to suggest to those of more modest status that there’s something in it for them. The visual convention is that of fashion illustration and the simple uncluttered monochrome backgrounds bled out to the edge of the page make a strong impression. The pack shot is another idle recourse and something done far better across the Atlantic where there are no inhibitions about employing vast inflated images to bully the consumer into submission. British advertisers, mindful of the need for understatement, prefer a more conventional still-life arrangement (as on the right below) with typically pompous prose or construct a minor pretext, in this instance recalling notice boards with moveable plastic letters of the type sometimes seen even today in more dilapidated, down-at-heel office foyers. Perhaps this was a more high-end association when the ad was originally conceived in the late 1940’s. If you still wish to sample the pleasure of smoking a Gold Flake cigarette, they remain on sale in India, where it is one of the leading brands.

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