Wednesday 27 November 2013

Republic Steel

Fortune magazine advertised itself to the trade in the 1930s as the premier medium for steel industry advertising, gathering testimonials from major producers including Republic Steel praising the efficacy of Fortune in an exercise of mutual back-slapping. These examples come from an extended advertising campaign that Republic Steel placed in Fortune magazine. They seem to be themed around weight and mass. A heavy style for a heavy product. It’s a bulk commodity so most readers will not be placing an order for a thousand tons of steel plate in the near future so the value lies in keeping the company name in the public eye. This was an era where weight really mattered – public opinion was easily impressed with heavy construction and engineering ingenuity was more widely admired than it is today when portability and weightlessness are the most desirable characteristics in a consumer product. Back in the Thirties, the image of the white hot crucible in a dark and cavernous industrial space still had the power to impress the audience. 

The message was reinforced by some muscular drawing and restrained use of high colour tones. Sploshy brushwork and vigorous scrubbed-on paint was the visual language of the mass-consumption conventional landscape where the intention was to catch the eye without opening any sort of dialogue with the viewer. These images strive for a romanticised industrial heroism – a sense of hard-won productivity in harsh, elemental conditions. The smell of hot oil and burning cinders and the thunderous noise of steel-hammers and forges are all invoked. 

Republic Steel at the time of this campaign was a newly-merged business struggling with the collapse of demand for steel in the Great Depression. It was not a great place to work being notorious for adversarial labour relations. A refusal to recognise unions at the Chicago plant provoked a strike in 1937 that culminated in the Memorial Day massacre when 10 unarmed demonstrators were shot dead by Chicago police. Republic was number three in the US (behind US Steel and Bethlehem Steel) and keenly felt the need to publicise itself. But while US Steel was busy attempting to humanise itself via Rockwell inspired scenarios Republic remained committed to a hard-line industrial aesthetic. By contrast, U S Steel would abandon its longstanding opposition to unions in the workplace in 1937 when it accepted collective bargaining. 

In later years Republic would become a voluble cheerleader for capitalism and free enterprise in the 1940s and a militant cold warrior in the post-war era. It was an age of high anxiety and Republic was not the only business to sense a responsibility for educating the public in the virtues of free-enterprise and the perils of socialism Demotic language and a matey directness was typical – the voice of good sense from a concerned neighbour. There was also an unrealistic expectation that consumers would happily settle down to a good long read, at the end of which collectivism would be permanently renounced. The real function of message-lead advertising was corporate self-flattery confirmed by the offer to supply reprints for circulation among friends and colleagues who may be showing signs of straying from the path of freedom. For a blood-curdling selection of these ads, please visit Chris Mullen’s Advertising Hall of Shame (The Visual Primer of Advertising Clichés). 

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