Much of this selection of advertising art from the 20s and 30s could be labelled Art Deco but the term is so elusive to define that it can be cheerfully applied to all sorts of unworthy imagery. If I must offer a definition I favour the claims of graphic art that exploits the decorative potential in Cubist and Futurist painting to command attention. Visually fragmented imagery, repetition of forms and smooth tonal transitions all offered novel ways in which products could be transformed in appearance and presented through a prism of modernity. The Goodyear ad employs a Cubist-inspired reorganization of pictorial space and scale to dramatise the perils of driving with inferior tyres. Sweeping streamline forms and dynamic representations of speed were rapidly absorbed by some advertisers and then just as quickly abandoned in favour of more conservative forms. Another strand that appears here descends from the fashion illustrations of Paul Iribe, Erté et al that inspired a multitude of insipid and mediocre imitations. Spidery drawings of limp female forms trapped in an infinity of serpentine but meaningless curves.
These examples come almost exclusively from mass-circulation mainstream magazines that rarely explored the frontiers of visual culture that might challenge their readers’ inbuilt caution. It appears that for a few years in the late 20s and early 30s sophisticated art editors with a liking for European Modernism experimented with public taste by introducing elements of Art Deco into mass-market advertising. Some of these pictorial devices such as the radiant light sunburst motif would have an extended life but for the most part the Deco influence was brief. The growing influence of market researchers and the impact of the Depression favoured less adventurous imagery. In a hardscrabble economy where consumers were struggling with falling incomes and mass unemployment advertisers reverted to more basic methods of grabbing attention – what Roland Marchand described as “Advertising in Overalls”.