Advertising: A Mad Man's World
Gordon Marsden, a former editor of History Today, reflects on the advertisements that helped to fund the first 20 years of this magazine’s publication and explores the wider messages they reveal about sexism, empire and swinging Britain during the 1950s and 1960s.
‘The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there.’ In the famous opening to L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, its narrator Leo looks back to his lost childhood in Edwardian England, trying to make sense of what happened. But how do we get back to that foreign country – to understand how different attitudes then and now can be?
Hartley ‘s novel was written in the year I was born – as a Coronation Year baby – and two years after History Today was launched on the back of the Financial Times by its mercurial chairman and close confidant of Winston Churchill, Brendan Bracken. Bracken brought his wartime researcher Alan Hodge and the essayist Peter Quennell in as the magazine’s founding editors, where they remained till the late 1970s.The first unvarnished draft of history can often be culled from diaries and magazines of the time and oral recollections – and of History Today’s beginnings I had glimpses while I was its editor both from encounters with Peter Quennell, who graced its 40th anniversary celebrations in 1991 and from Jackie Guy the magazine’s long-standing art editor who had joined him as a young picture researcher in the 1960s.
But to mark the end of History Today’s 60th anniversary year I thought it might prove interesting to explore systematically the advertising the magazine carried month by month throughout the 1950s and 1960s. These were the years it was published by the Financial Times, most of the time from Bracken House, its City HQ in London. What do these ads – and their advertisers – reveal about the society in which History Today came of age?
Bracken described his 1951 launch of History Today as ‘the FT’s contribution to culture’. It was certainly in the spirit of a postwar 1950s Britain, keen to celebrate its survival and history but also, Janus-like, in the year of the Festival of Britain, to peer sometimes anxiously into the future.Those hopes and fears are a recurring theme in both the copy and the ads History Today carried in its formative years. But Bracken’s launch of the magazine was also part of an overall strategy to broaden the image and appeal of the FT. As Robin Bruce Lockhart, who worked both as foreign and later promotions manager for the FT and as a general factotum to Bracken, recalled in HT’s 1991 anniversary issue ‘BB wished to turn the FT into more of a general business instead of being largely directed towards investors’. Lockhart’s initiatives included what were then in Britain novel marketing and PR techniques – readership surveys and news digests of specialist topics sent to other papers and magazines, which then attributed the quotes to Bracken’s still relatively new Financial Times.
This is of a piece with what David Kynaston says in his definitive history of the paper about the ambition of Bracken and his advertising manager Sidney Henschel to give the FT ‘an industrial vision’ as a publishing house and expand its advertising to bring in vital additional income in the cash-strapped and resource-restrained early 1950s. History Today got the benefit of this approach. As Lockhart explained:
In the process of spreading the gospel that the Financial Times was the businessman’s newspaper, a deal of goodwill was built up which stood History Today in good stead when it was launched. At the request of BB [Bracken] my little PR team was brought into play … extracts of articles were distributed under an appropriate blurb lauding the arrival of a new fascinating and popular magazine from the Financial Times stable.
That umbilical cord of support for History Today extended to the FT’s advertising side too. By combining a roving youthful ad team with old-style salesmen and the FT’s regional offices – and with the growing perception of the FT as a critical medium in which companies should advertise – both daily newspaper and monthly magazine benefited.
A central go-between in this area was Charles Moore (1910-89), later Lord Drogheda, the FT’s managing director from 1945 to 1970. His keen interest in the arts (he was chairman of the Royal Opera House from 1958-74) made him a champion of History Today as Jackie Guy recalled from her memories of him at Bracken House in the 1960s. History Today became an add-on to the advertising packages the FT sold – and Drogheda was quite prepared to act as he said as ‘a humble canvasser’ in this pursuit. Kynaston confirms this: ‘If the paper looked as if it was going to be short of advertising in coming weeks, he simply rang round a dozen or so company chairs he knew and literally never took no for an answer.’
The advertising was sometimes sold on the back of HT articles, as in a May 1951 Barclays’ advertisement featuring historic architecture in the Cape alongside an article on ‘The Great South African Trek’ – or the FT’s editorial surveys on anything from, as Kynaston says, ‘British plastics and British rubber’ to ‘narrow but not unprofitable areas such as office equipment, locomotive and carriage makers and even drop forgings’. This is doubtless how HT readers in May 1953, gripped by Coronation fever, would have come across a full-page advertisement from the carbon products manufacturer Powell Duffryn, promoting with emblematic 1950s design shapes in black, white and pale blue ‘chemical plant for corrosive conditions’ via offices listed from North America to South Africa.
The list of brands advertised in History Today in the 1950s and 1960s is a cross-section of the brightest and best of their time. Many of them are still with us today. On top of more obvious ads for history books, products and cruises, there is a roll-call of industrial companies – ICI, BP, Dunlop, Shell, Ford, Hoover, Fisons, Gillette, GEC, Unilever, Bovis and Ferranti – airlines – BOAC and BEA – alongside banks – Midland, Barclays Lloyds – consumer goods – Guinness and Whitbread, Players and Capstan cigarettes and tobacco, Macleans toothpaste – and upmarket publications – The Times, Spectator, Apollo, the TLS and, of course, the FT itself. This is what makes the desires and attitudes reflected in their ads so intriguing a historical source.
As the 1960s dawned this was a world which advertising increasingly mirrored and shaped, above all in the US. It is a world wonderfully and subtly recreated in the recent American TV drama series Mad Men, chronicling the life and times of a fictional New York advertising agency of the period. Its flawed hero figure, the creative director Don Draper, and the team at Sterling Cooper employ a mix of surveys, market research, role models and vox pops, often drawing on their own female office staff, stunts and hypnotic copy – all suffused with their fast-lane chaotic lifestyles. Mad Men takes some of its inspiration from the real-life but legendary David Ogilvy and his agency – his 1963 book Confessions of an Advertising Man reminds us that Brits at this time could succeed Stateside in the genre (as indeed a Mad Men subplot shows). Ogilvy’s mantra – ‘successful advertising for any product is based on information about the consumer’ and many of his techniques were practised, albeit more prosaically, by the FT’s ad teams.
New black arts
But where did information end and manipulation begin? The British journalist Henry Fairlie, writing an obituary piece on Nye Bevan for History Today in October 1960, comments caustically on the new black arts of ‘sociology, economics and most dangerous of all today, mass psychology’. Fairlie was echoing the excoriating attack launched on the ad industry by the American writer Vance Packard in his 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders. Packard did not mince his words in warning British readers in the preface to his UK edition what to expect:
What the probers are looking for are the whys of our behaviour … why we love those big fat cars … we move from the genial world of James Thurber into the chilling world of George Orwell and Big Brother with some of the extreme attempts now going on. The way the persuaders see us in the quiet of their interoffice memos and trade journals is as bundles of daydreams, misty hidden yearnings and guilt complexes.
Packard also talks about ‘the depth boys’ who use social science research to shape their ad campaigns – as the FT’s team did – and the new technique of ‘motivational research’ being used to power consumerism. Examining why people will pay ten times more for skin cream than soap, he comments ‘soap only promises to make them clean. The cream promises to make them beautiful … the difference between a topflight creative (ad) man and the hack is this ability to express powerful meanings indirectly’ (as Draper does in Mad Men).
With its debt to Freud in provocative chapter headings such as ‘Back to the Breast and Beyond’ (explaining Americans’ addiction to candy and cigarettes) and ‘The Psychoseduction of Children’ highlighting television ads (‘… where else on earth is brand consciousness fixed so firmly in the minds of four-year-old tots?’), Packard’s Hidden Persuaders offers a fascinating contemporary commentary to some of the brand advertising seen in History Today at this time, in pursuit of what he witheringly refers to as ‘the packaged soul’. In this he was arguably the first cuckoo for postmodernism, but most of History Today’s readers flicking through the ads were probably untouched by his jeremiad.
The styles of advertising on display in the magazine could be rich and varied. Striking abstractions featured strongly in the early years – enigmatic as in Tate & Lyle’s August 1951 graphic of Mr Cube peering out of the Festival of Britain’s Skylon; diagrammatic as in the Powell Duffryn ad already mentioned; powerfully dramatic as in Shell’s November 1954 ‘Oil Means People’ with abstract facial blocks in black and white representing ‘all races, creeds and colours’; or in April 1955 where the catch line ‘the Most Powerful petrol You Can Buy’ is set against an abstract gauze and wedge background incorporating the Shell logo.
Jokey sketches such as Gillette’s 1951-52 series incorporating ‘before and after’ shaves for Santa Claus, a Spaniard and an Arab were matched by more complex mixes of narrative and cartoon work as with ICI’s ‘The Things they Say…’ series in the mid-1950s promoting its corporate ethos. Testimonial advertising, often with head and shoulder photographs, was popular, too, in line with the techniques Ogilvy and others had advocated. It could include Second World War veterans extolling the virtues of Benzole fuel (May 1954) or letter extracts with the names and addresses of satisfied customers whose cars had survived the winter of 1955-56 thanks to BP’s ‘Energol Motor Oil’.
Schweppes were pioneers of spoof storylines with their ‘Schweppesshire’ adverts in the magazine in the late 1950s, culminating in their famous ‘Schh… you know who’ ads of the mid-sixties (which appeared in History Today in 1965 with the tagline ‘this whispering campaign is issued in the public interest’). This set the scene for increasingly surreal irreverence which saw Guinness offer HT readers a pen and ink sketch of a ‘groovy’ bibulous historian replete in Carnaby Street gear (February 1968), while Whitbread’s colour ad which adorned the back cover of the March issue featured an Eskimo, a husky and a fridge full of Whitbread’s Pale Ale.
Away from such irreverence what is striking especially in the 1950s is the mirror corporate advertising in HT holds up to contemporary disquiet about Britain and the outside world, with increasingly fraught debate about the end of empire post-Suez and a new relationship with Europe. This could manifest itself in mildly offensive jokey ads involving foreigners such as Midland Bank’s smug 1955 ‘a la carte’ guide to foreign travel or Gillette’s address to a bearded cartoon Arab …
No wonder dear sheik you look shaken
Since you’ve been for a camel mistaken
You should use Blue Gillette
And I’m willing to bet
That by ladies you won’t be forsaken.
However much of the message of the early ads remains imperiously focused on the White Man’s Burden. BP’s powerful but disturbing ‘The Jungle and the Jet’ (February 1953) casts the British oilman as a muscular force of nature, while loinclothed natives sweat to transport its treasures. A year earlier Dunlop outlined their sense of noblesse oblige in an ad entitled ‘suburbia to South East Asia’ and copy that extolled the employment for ‘nearly 20,000 Asiatics who live in specially-built villages complete with temples, hospitals, schools and shopping centres’. Shell perpetuates this theme in its ‘Oil Means People’ ad of November 1954: ‘Refining oil in a hitherto uninhabited region can involve the creation of whole new communities with schools, churches, hospitals … these social costs may add greatly to operating costs, but that is welfare.’
By the 1960s with the wind of change Macmillan spoke of turning the British Empire into the Commonwealth and as Britain’s first bid to join the Common Market failed, the tone begins to alter. There is still room for some colonial banter in September 1959, where ‘…beyond the awning of the staff club where the banner of refinery smoke drifts with the trade wind, sipping his cool drink the young oil technologist opens the Times Weekly Review’. But Europe comes more to the fore. In May 1960 Bowater’s ad headed ‘New packs for Jacques (and Giovanni)’ announced they were ‘already in the Common Market’ with packing outlets in ‘Rheims, Genoa and Ghent’. The FT’s arresting graphic ad of 1962 at the height of the first Common Market negotiations asks ‘Which way will the Ball roll?’ of History Today readers and later in the March 1967 issue has a talking head interview with ‘Tony Lomas of Decca Records … we have to sell to the Common Market with a changing Europe’. Dodgy ad copy about foreigners remains in History Today, such as for the Times Literary Supplement of February 1968: ‘Someone sent the Editor … a samurai sword … it could have been much worse … we believe we still have readers in Peking’ or Lloyds Bank’s witless offering in August 1969 promoting their new ‘Travellers’ Cheques with a cartoon showing Franco-era Spanish officials at ‘El Customs’ mistaking a hapless cash-rich Brit for a Great Train Robber. But imperial condescension has largely evaporated.
Closely linked in subject matter are two other themes of the period – how to acknowledge tradition while embracing modernity and naive trust in a technological future, a zeitgeist which helped Labour’s Harold Wilson into power in the 1964 General Election. Some of History Today’s early advertisers strained to make connections between their products and the journal in which they appeared – as in Formica’s pairings in 1957 and 1959 of their laminated plastic with the mosaics of ancient Rome and Renaissance tapestries, fondly imagining that their predecessors would have approved of Formica’s ‘wide range of permanent gay colouring’. Blue Circle Cement went for a racier ‘then and now’ approach in their 1965 series. ‘Friday Night in Tiberias’ links Roman mortar and modern cement with a saucy frieze less reminiscent of a museum and more of Frankie Howerd’s Up Pompeii and the Carry On film comedies of the period.
Away from 1960s jokiness, the tensions remain. ICI’s August 1956 ‘Things they say…’ balances praise for the company’s new synthetic fibres such as Terylene with stressing the continued role for cotton and wool. Lloyds Bank’s February 1967 ad screams: ‘We’re doing away with it’ over a coin symbol as part of its promotion of ‘the new signature payments which we call “cheques”’, hastily adding ‘we’re not actually doing away with money’.
Faith in the scientific future gets no such calibration from the ad men. Blue Circle’s modernist images of travel in its September 1953 advert is a paean of praise for the ‘concrete which gives confidence to the traveller’. BP’s ‘Portrait of a Prospector’ (January 1954) juxtaposes an image of the white-coated lab scientist with one of a grateful housewife on washday. By October 1959 their senior analyst in front of his test tubes is a wonderworker: ‘When your car starts like magic, he’s the magician’. January 1960 sees ICI in triumphalist mood. Under the tag line ‘Life’s on the March’ it shows a small boy with a Scottie dog on the beach and the copylines ‘the atom has been harnessed, manned spaceflights are just around the corner … new techniques need new materials’.
How did the managements of these corporate advertisers project themselves as they hymned their changing world? Some of their 1950s’ manifestos seem pompous and ludicrous to our world weary eyes. High on that list is Reed Paper Group’s 1956 ad with a bust of Alexander the Great above the less than immortal words ‘Enterprise has sometimes worn a braggadocio air. But today industry thinks in terms not merely of adventure but of creative adaptability and true far-sightedness’. Shell is more modest. Its 1954 ‘Oil Means Brainwork’ merely lauds its research as one of the ‘big brain-trusts of the world where petroleum chemicals are helping to feed and clothe the world and to cure its sick.’ ICI however uses its ad of September 1957 ‘The Things They Say’ to tackle head on the image of faceless industry:
In these ICI factories there’s plenty of chances for a man to make himself heard. He can see his foreman or manager at any time and can call on his shop steward if he wants help to put his case.
Increasingly in the modernising 1960s it is human capital the ad men are keen to emphasise. The FT ran a trio of full page colour ads in spring 1966 in History Today. Headed ‘Who are the Decision Makers?’ they depict an archetypal modern business exec reading his FT en route from Continental airports ‘… above all, informed man … nourished on facts, stimulated by comment, made confident by knowledge. Daily. The Financial Times’.
Lovely to look at, lively to drive
Even allowing for the particular demographic to which History Today and Financial Times advertisers were appealing, described in an in-house survey at the end of the 1960s as 75 per cent male, younger-than-average but strong professional and managerial bias, the absence of women from most of these images of authority is striking. However changing attitudes to the position of women in British society can be vividly charted in History Today’s ads between 1951 and 1970. We begin with an extraordinary pair of ads from Hoover of 1951 and 1952. Here the housewife militant is praised as ‘a unit in Britain’s most important industry – 13 million providing the essential services without which the nation cannot survive’. The would-be Hooverer is characterised as ‘The Very Great Woman. She may not be exceptionally beautiful or clever but she has an inexhaustible fund of common sense, a husband and two young children’. The copy concludes with a martial flourish worthy of a wartime Pathe News – ‘only one of millions – gallant housewives of Britain – an unsung army of heroines’.
Other classics of this genre include the May 1953 ad for Union Castle cruises to South Africa (which manages to combine smoking, sexism, smugness and snobbery all in one) and Bowater’s promotion of its hardboard via the wise old workman reassuring the harassed housewife (October 1956): ‘Fear not dear lady … one day soon, glue pot, sawdust and long-suffering joiner gone, you will find the architect was right after all – it will be a dream kitchen.’
Britain’s postwar women – if not their dress sense – fared slightly better at the hands of the car manufacturers. Humber’s October 1955 ad shows a hatted and be-gloved lady at the wheel with the caption ‘Fashion Flair … Power to Spare’. Sadly a Wolseley car ad (March 1960) reverts to a ‘little woman’ stereotype – her head nestles by the caption ‘Lovely to Look At’ while his adjoins the words ‘Lively to Drive’.
Other advertisers however, perhaps more mindful of the series of ‘battle of the sexes’ comedies emanating from Hollywood with stars like Rock Hudson, Doris Day and Cary Grant and on TV’s I Love Lucy show, are keen to project domestic harmony via their products. Pye’s March 1957 ad shows a surreally positioned man and woman seeing ‘eye to eye about Unit Hi Fi’, while a Doris Day lookalike grins with delight alongside her happy hubby as they gaze on Standard’s new Pennant car (‘price £728. 17s – tax paid’) in History Today’s January 1959 issue.
Advertisements in the 1960s begin to reflect some new images and realities. National Provincial in May 1960 shows a posh but pert new woman account holder in hat and gloves with the caption ‘she likes being independent’. A Times ad from November 1961 takes a similar approach – but this time the photo is of a stern young lady barrister engrossed in the paper above the caption ‘Not All Who Read The Times are Gentlemen’. Cosmopolitan assertiveness is the theme in an August 1963 BP holiday motoring ad – with a Jackie Kennedy lookalike proclaiming ‘Touring Abroad and Just Look At That Sky’. The influence of the James Bond films with the sixties in full swing promotes a more dubious emancipation in Schweppes full colour ad for May 1966 – female cleavage in a low-cut dress with a pink- nailed hand clutching a gin and tonic. That these messages remain mixed is confirmed in Lloyds’ ad the following May promoting cheque use. Diamonds are trumped by the cheque book in the image for ‘A Girl’s Best Friend … with it she can pay the cleaner, the grocer, the chemist, the hairdresser – all without a penny in her handbag’. And one of the most arresting female images from that decade’s ads remains that in the October 1962 issue of an adoring but airhead secretary contentedly putting through to her boss his important call from Blue Circle Cement.
What of the images of the male sex promoted to History Today’s largely male readership? There are traditional manly pipe smokers in ads for Craven and Capstan tobaccos of 1952, along with a winsome tribute to winter male bonding in a December 1955 promo for ‘Chilprufe’ underwear. Late 1950s’ images of Simpson’s the outfitter’s man, ‘comfortable and correct’ in smart casual, give way to the racy family man having his cake and eating it in MG’s motoring ad from March 1966:
You sly old fox you … enjoy the most exciting thing that ever happened to family motoring and yet be dashingly different. All right, be smug … you’ve got everything! Bully for sporty, comfort-loving nonconformist You.
The decade closes with a sighting of laddish Man – with Whitbread’s full colour back page from August 1969 showing a dressing-gowned fellow pouring a midnight beer from ‘a fridge of your very own’ – and keeping his marriage intact.
History Today’s advertisements from the 1950s and 1960s are indeed a foreign country. They certainly did do things differently there. But they also shine a bright light on their times. As such they deserve to be explored alongside the articles whose publication they helped to fund.