February 20, 2013
Advertisers love to use futurism as a way to position their products as forward-thinking. Often, that connection to futurism comes with a healthy dose of humor — jokes that from the vantage point of the future look less ridiculous than they were probably intended.
In 1988, Samsung’s ad agency (Deutsch) produced a tongue-in-cheek magazine ad campaign to position their home electronics as the products you’ll be using long after Vanna White is replaced by a robot. Or long after shock jocks run for president.
The ad below ran in the October 1988 issue of Smithsonian magazine and featured Morton Downey, Jr. with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. (Downey died of lung cancer in 2001.) The “trash TV” pioneer appears in the ad as a presidential candidate in the year 2008 — a humorous idea in 1988, but perhaps less bizarre when you consider some recent presidential hopefuls. Below Downey’s photo, Samsung claims that they’ll be making the TV you watch his speeches on in that far off year.
Not unlike a joke in the 1973 Woody Allen film Sleeper, the ad below claims that by the year 2010 steak will be considered healthy. Of course, this is another joke that wasn’t too far of the mark, given the popularity of high-protein diets like the Atkins Diet and the Paleo Diet that are so fashionable today.
The ad insists that the microwave you’ll be be using to cook that 21st century steak will be made by Samsung. Now, I’ve never tried microwaving a steak, but I suspect that doing so wouldn’t sit well with Paleo Diet enthusiasts whose worldview leads them to romanticize the notion of eating like a caveman — or at least their modern conception of what a caveman ate.
In this last ad, we see allusions to the hit TV show “Wheel of Fortune” with a robot Vanna White. The ad claims that it will be the longest-running game show in the year 2012. Samsung insists that they’ll make the VCR you record it on.
Interestingly, this robot ad was the subject of some litigation after it ran in magazines. Vanna White sued Samsung for the ad, claiming that even though it depicts a robot, the company was capitalizing on her identity for promotional purposes without compensating her. White argued that there was a common law right to control how her likeness is used, even though Samsung doesn’t explicitly use her name or image. This “right to persona” argument was thrown out in a lower court, but in White v Samsung Electronics America it was ruled that White indeed had the right to control her persona under the Lanham Trademark Act and California common law.
December 18, 2012
This is the thirteenth in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The 13th episode of “The Jetsons” originally aired on December 16, 1962, and was titled “Elroy’s Pal.” The episode looks at Elroy’s obsession with the fictional TV show “Nimbus the Greatest,” about a heroic fighter of space pirates. The show is sponsored by Moonies breakfast cereal and Elroy enters a contest for the chance to meet Nimbus in person. As it turns out, Elroy wins the contest but the actor who plays Nimbus is ill and can’t visit Elroy at home. When George finds out that Nimbus won’t be coming he devises a plan to dress as Nimbus himself but the original Nimbus comes anyway and Elroy learns that even though he can be strict, his father loves him.
The 1950s was a time of rapid growth for the medium of television. American households with TVs went from just 9 percent in 1950 to about 87 percent by the end of the decade. Unlike the largely ad-agnostic programming that the networks produce today, many TV shows of the 1950s had a single sponsor. As production costs rose this single sponsor model became unsustainable and multiple sponsors in the form of 30- and 60-second commercials became the norm by the mid-1960s. As the Journal of Advertising noted in their Fall 1998 issue, “During the 1950s most children’s programs, and many adult shows, were controlled by the sponsor and its advertising agency, which often packaged the program, commercials and all.” This integration meant that you saw breakfast cereals that could sponsor contests fully integrated with the show. Cereal made up as much as 23 percent of ads on children’s TV in the 1950s and the emergence of the Space Age in the late 1950s meant that this was a perfect combination for “The Jetsons” to depict.
Lawrence R. Samuel notes in his essay ”The Sky Is The Limit: Advertising and Consumer Culture in Rocketman Television Series of the 1950s” that the lines between entertainment and advertising were often blurred in those days, leaving kids to digest the sales pitch as simply an integral part of the show. “Show-related merchandise was an essential element of sponsorships,” he writes, “used to raise brand awareness and, more importantly, as a sales incentive. A package box top or wrapper plus ten or twenty-five cents could reap any number of space-themed premiums, an almost sure way to keep young viewers tuned in and to make sure mom bought the right product at the grocery store.”
Elroy’s Nimbus costume and action figure show that he’s committed to the show, just as kids of the 1950s were buying all kinds of products to show their commitment to Captain Video, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, Captain Midnight, Space Patrol and Commando Cody. But the tail end of the Space Age would find spacemen less popular on American television, as Boomers grew up and kids like Elroy became less enamored with astronauts and the ray gun culture of their youth.
November 30, 2012
Today advertisers use futuristic tech like jetpacks and robots in their TV ads so that potential consumers think of their brand as forward thinking and innovative. In the 1920s, the cutting edge gadget that advertisers most wanted to associate themselves with was television. But, since the technology was still in its infancy, they faked it.
The August 1926 issue of Science and Invention magazine included two illustrations showing ways that businesses could create “fake” television demonstrations to lure customers inside their stores.
The illustration above depicts a bogus TV demo in a store window, divided by a wall. On the left side of the window display, people saw what was meant to look like a TV projector being sent a wireless signal by a woman sitting in the right side of the display. Instead the projection was just a movie made earlier with the same actress, who did her best to mimic the pre-recorded actions.
Another method of creating fake TV broadcasts was to use a series of mirrors. In the illustration below, unneeded wires give the impression that the TV signal is being sent between the two rooms. In reality, mirrors have been strategically set up so that the actress’s image appears on the fake TV set in the next room.
Businesses that couldn’t stage fake TV demonstrations still used television as a theme in their advertisements. The illustration below hung at Martin’s Lunch Room at 15 Wall Street in Norwalk, Connecticut around 1929. The poster’s message was that even though technology is developing at a rapid pace, you can still find great customer service with a human touch at their restaurant.
As we’ve looked at many times before, the idea of TV being a purely broadcast medium (rather than a point-to-point service which today we might call videophone) wasn’t yet a certainty until the late 1940s. In fact, TV had many false starts before it would become a practical reality in American homes after World War II. But fittingly enough, it would be TV itself — along with the dwindling influence of the downtown department store — that would cause advertisers to abandon storefronts, opting instead to promote their wares via commercials. Of course, what was promised in those commercials wasn’t always genuine… but that’s a story for another time.
October 29, 2012
This is the sixth in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
As a child, did you ever think that one day you might be able to vacation on the moon? You weren’t alone. A permanent settlement on the moon wasn’t some crackpot scheme only touted by fringe elements in the mad science community. Scientists, politicians, clergymen and journalists were all promising that once humans inevitably set foot on the moon, permanent settlements (and vacation resorts!) were sure to follow.
The sixth episode of “The Jetsons” revolved around this assumption that the moon would soon be the perfect destination for a Boy Scout-like camping trip. Titled “Good Little Scouts,” the episode originally aired on October 29, 1962 and was probably a pleasant distraction for U.S. viewers from the previous week’s headlines which were all about the Cuban missile crisis. We follow Elroy’s Space Cub troop and their new scout leader, George Jetson, to the moon. The only problem for George? His boss’s son Arthur is along for the ride and—when he goes off wandering the moon by himself—he causes George to get lost and look like a fool.
It’s not stated explicitly, but the sixth episode might provide the first look at a building on the earth’s surface — Grand Central Space-tion. Grand Central clearly takes its architectural cues from the Googie style — more specifically New York’s JFK airport TWA terminal, which was opened in 1962 (the same year as the Jetsons premiere) and designed by Eero Saarinen.
In this episode we learn that the moon is a bit like Yellowstone National Park — it has a hotel and some accommodations, but it’s largely unexplored and makes for a great camping trip. The moon has a Moonhattan Tilton Hotel, a play on the name Manhattan Hilton Hotel.
Fans of the AMC TV show “Mad Men” may recall a storyline wherein Conrad Hilton, the head of the Hilton hotel chain, wants an advertising campaign that includes a Hilton on the moon. This story arc wasn’t entirely fictional. The Hilton company (most especially Barron Hilton, one of Conrad’s sons) was known for their various promotions in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s that promised they would be the first hotel on the moon. They even had futuristic moon hotel keys made, which you can see over at BBC Future, where I’ve written about various visions the people at Hilton had for hotels on the moon.
Just as “The Jetsons” was inspired by futuristic ideas of the day and turned them even more fantastical, so too did Arthur Radebaugh‘s “Closer Than We Think” sift through the news stories of the late 1950s and early 1960s looking for predictions that could be heightened through fanciful illustration. As we looked at in February, the techno-utopians of the late 1950s were convinced that the Space Age would bring about a wondrous future of moon tourism. The June 1, 1958 edition of “Closer Than We Think” showed two couples dancing the night away in low gravity as they honeymoon on the moon; the earth sparkling in the distance.
Scenic spots on the moon, in years ahead, may become honeymoon havens, like Niagara Falls today. Newly wedded couples will be able to fly to a low-cost lunar holiday in a space craft propelled by thermo-nuclear energy. Space expert Wernher von Braun foresees pressurized, air-conditioned excursion hotels and small cottages on the moon. Couples could dance gaily there, whirling high in the air due to reduced gravity pull, and look out on a strange, spectacular scenery — part of which would be a spaceman’s view of the familiar outlines of the continents of the earth.
And it wasn’t just comic strip illustrators who saw humans living on the moon as a certainty. Insurance companies, banks and other financial institutions aren’t usually known for their exaggerated science fiction claims in advertising, but the early 1960s saw just that with a newspaper advertisement from 1962 for Michigan Mutual Liability. The ad imagined that by the year 2012 we’d be picnicking on Mars and have suburban-style homes on the moon.
This Jetsons episode is a perfect example of the Jetson formula that uses absurdist cartoon logic (complete with green, two-head Martians on the moon) but still manages to plant the seed of a wondrous future for 21st century humans in space. Recognizing how many kids were watching this episode on repeat throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, it’s easy to see why so many people continue to ask, where’s my vacation on the moon?
September 21, 2012
American advertisers made a great number of promises for the future during World War II. The American people were told that if they could just be patient with wartime rationing, or the number of resources being devoted to the war effort, we would all be assured better lives after the war.
The Association of American Railroads was no different, and in the March 18, 1944 issue of Collier’s magazine they ran an ad which promised great things in train travel after World War II was through. It’s interesting for those of us perched from the vantage point of the future to remember that other methods of transportation, such as commercial air travel and even automobiles, weren’t the established forms that they would later become. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 — which, at the time, was the largest public works project in American history and established our interstate highway system — was figuratively light years into the future compared to even the end of the war.
So what does the train of tomorrow look like? It has plush seating, fantastic views, good company and plenty of room to stretch your legs. You can even get some work done at a proper desk if you please. The ad feels like they’re promising you the poshest waiting room at the fanciest dentist in all of 1940s Denver. Or maybe that’s just what I see.
The text from the ad appears below and spells out the Association’s vision for railroads of the future, all the while apologizing for the stresses and inconveniences brought on by operating during wartime, with the movement of huge quantities of freight, civilians and troops across the United States. It’s understandable that they felt obliged to begin with an apology and a message of appreciation:
Some day this war will be won by America and her Allies.
Our first duty meanwhile is to meet the demands of the war. This we are doing.
The going hasn’t always been easy or comfortable. We believe you understand the reasons, and we appreciate your patience, your good-humored acceptance of inconvenience.
And we’d like you to know our ideas of comfort and style go far beyond what we’re able to offer today. That’s why we print the picture [above].
It will give you some idea of how we’d like to serve you — how we’re looking and planning ahead right now to make future railroad travel a thrillingly pleasant experience.
It can’t be done all at once. It will take money and time.
But you can be sure of one thing. Our goal is to give future America the finest transportation the world has ever seen.
As we’ve seen, there were skeptics in the popular press who warned that the American people shouldn’t get their hopes up too high about all the promises being made during the war. But I must admit that I’d love to see a train like this built today — vintage dentist office chic or otherwise.