Wednesday 25 March 2009

Watch America go buy!

Outdoor advertising, American style, is a guilty pleasure. It brings colour and form, on a vast scale, to the landscape. In Britain, it’s mainly confined to urban areas but in the USA it will pursue you along every freeway and highway, expanding in size to fill the vast open spaces. To those who place a high value on the unspoilt landscape, it’s an abomination and its suppression has been the object of many campaigning pressure groups. In its directness and simplicity it’s an expression of the confidence of capitalism – the almost messianic belief that all sales resistance can be overcome by unrelenting repetition of a clear message.

These images come from Fortune magazine in the 1940s and 1950s and show industry advertising its products to advertisers. It’s all about visibility and conquering the darkness so that the message can be absorbed at all hours of the day and night. Scotchlite Reflective Sheeting will double sales power. As they say in their ad, ordinary signs LOAF ALL NIGHT! , illuminated signs COST ALL NIGHT! , but reflectorized signs SELL ALL NIGHT on BORROWED LIGHT! Neon Products Inc fights back by invoking the science of increasing sales with illuminated signs at point of sale. The company is offering a complete dealer identification service with ... signs that make your other advertising dollars pay off better by blazing forth: “Here is where it’s sold!”

Despite the damage this activity does to the environment it has an insidious way of bypassing our reservations by the artful deployment of colour and light on an often overwhelming scale. There can be something of a vicious circle in operation when the landscape quality has been degraded by the proliferation of advertising, the only visual element left for our appreciation is the advertising itself. There are many fine examples to be admired at Visual Telling of Stories by following this link. A fascinating piece of period film from 1942 can be seen here, courtesy of the Prelinger Archive. It’s a blunt and uncompromising account of poster advertising in the city of Chicago narrated with an unnerving air of authority. Science is the key to advertising efficiency and the populace is considered exclusively as an audience for advertising. Buses, trolley cars and elevated trains become vehicles for manoeuvring the public to places where they’ll be exposed to the message.

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