UK: FROM SOFT PORN TO HARD SELL.

UK: FROM SOFT PORN TO HARD SELL. - To the modern reader, it is the sexism of MT's early ads that catches the eye. But how will the 'caring '90s' look in 2026?

by Rhymer Rigby.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

To the modern reader, it is the sexism of MT's early ads that catches the eye. But how will the 'caring '90s' look in 2026?

Dictaphone: 'Thoughts come quicker than your secretary'. Innuendo aside, here is an advertising slogan that makes few concessions to modern correctness. 'Where would we be without asbestos?' Doubtless a question many Lloyd's Names are asking themselves. 'Bring back slavery.' This particular suggestion was intended to sell diaries, aided and abetted by a salacious photo which, let's face it, was more Men Only than MT.

All these are catchlines for adverts from Management Today's youth in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Of course, not everything that appeared in this magazine was sniggeringly sexist or retrospectively ridiculous.

But the ads which do not stand out for these reasons do so for another: an almost baffling honesty. The messages they had to impart were often along the lines of 'Buy our product - it's good'. Read it again - there's no catch. Which looks pretty strange from a sophisticated, media-savvy, 1990s viewpoint. Nowadays we like our adverts to be clever or funny or kooky. If they really must be straightforward, they'd better have the kind of production values which make Waterworld look like a drop in the ocean. The claim can hardly be made for the late '60s, a period whose publicity material, like much from the not-so-distant past, is dated, but nowhere near dated enough to look cute on the wall of a Surrey kitchen. It is something we'd prefer to forget - well, for the next 20 years anyway.

What really catches even the most unreconstructed modern reader's eye is the sexism of the era. MT advertisements from the '60s contained the kind of copy which would give any modern girl - sorry, woman - with the mildest of feminist leanings apoplexy. It goes without saying that these were aimed at men: when women were portrayed, they were shown in as menial a capacity as possible and were inevitably pretty but very stupid. Young girls of the day even had their futures clearly mapped out for them. Typical was Jill, the six-or seven-year-old star of an ad for electricity generation: she is complete with doll, doll's clothes and junior steam iron. The copy points out that, 'You can tell by the businesslike way she tackles her chores that Jill will want a pretty wide selection of electrical equipment in her kitchen of the future'. A month earlier, Jill's predecessor, Mary, had been looking pretty industrious with the biscuit dough, her angelic head filled with dreams of her first cooker.

Much of the rest of this era's advertising is remarkable only in that it is so unremarkable. Many ads were black and white and made use of low-quality line drawings and/or reams of text. Little thought appears to have gone into the design or layout: with '90s hindsight, the ads look like they belong in a parish newsletter. And then, as now, there are those that stick in the memory simply as being weird. Hawker Siddeley, for example, seemed convinced that the best way to sell aluminium to a sceptical business public was to cast objects such as carrots, loaves and even roses in the lightweight silvery metal. Did it work? Who knows?

But the advertising campaign certainly ran for a long time and Hawker Siddeley's aluminisation team probably had a lot of fun in the process.

By 1971, things were changing slightly. The ads looked a little better, with improved design and use of colour. And a few more modern sales techniques were in evidence: Rover was selling the shark-like 2000 model on its safety features, and there was increasing use of humour, albeit of the rather lame kind found in pre-Monty Python sit-coms. But, come the long hot summer of 1976, change was in the air. Appearing for the first time were computer adverts, for machines that today's pocket calculators could run rings around. And, evidence of an increasing sophistication was to be found: the Radio Times billed itself as a 'women's magazine', justifying this label by pointing out that it ran features on suffragettes along-side those on royal weddings. It was certainly trying, but it fell somewhat short of the truly right-on mark by running glossy pictures of Princess Anne's engagement ring (a traditional three-stone number if you're interested) and captioning a picture of Ariana Stassinopoulos, 'She's beautiful. And she's not a libber'.

By 1980, with Britain and the rest of the world on the brink of a recession, the ads in Management Today were on the brink of what may be considered their modern era. The use of gorgeous gals as a selling point was well into a terminal decline and recognisably current trends were starting to emerge. Barclays made early use of shock tactics, with a sawn-off shotgun-toting thug pressed into service to sell the virtues of cashless wage payment; Rover meanwhile was keen to stress that its cars were frugal with fuel as well as fast; and Shell - in those halcyon pre-Brent Spar days - was touting its environmental credentials.

Throughout the 1980s advertising continued to grow and mature, reaching its zenith in the decade's closing years. This was the industry's golden age. Everybody, even those who had never really considered advertising before, suddenly decided that retaining an agency was a top corporate priority. Though the ads in MT do not quite hit the vainglorious peaks that some scaled, they nonetheless reflect the bright, confident, can-do attitude of the mid-to late-'80s. Other concerns are also evident: 1988 saw a Health Education Authority ad for AIDS, featuring Robert, the businessman who'd had a girl in every port of call, until he contracted HIV.

The 1980s affair with the advertising industry, like the boom that begat it, ended with the recession of the early 1990s. By 1992, things were certainly a lot quieter and advertising had adopted a more sober tone.

This recession-related evolution is well illustrated by the following.

In 1989 Jaguar kicked off an ad by chronicling its car's race-winning pedigree, moving on to how fast the car was, then how flash it was, saving the bottom line for, well, the bottom line. A mere three years later and Jaguar was extolling first the value for money its vehicle represented, then the availability of attractive finance packages, and only then describing what a fine motor car it was.

After the troubled early 1990s advertising recovered slowly, and, as elsewhere, the adverts in MT retained the sophistication of the '80s, but lost much of the arrogance. Which brings us neatly up to date in 1996, where the spotlight is on ads which reflect the latest topical concerns. The 1996 Rover ad, for instance, promotes the 800 model, complete with beautiful walnut interior, only now the company stresses that every walnut tree it chops down is replaced by a new walnut sapling. Companies are keen to emphasise customer care, employee happiness and other 'caring '90s' facets of their organisations. And, of course, as the Internet worms its way ever deeper into society, we see an increasing incidence of those irritatingly complex Web addresses at the bottom of the page.

So, what are the prospects for MT's commercial backbone in the next millennium?

There are those who predict the imminent demise of the printed page. As any empiricist can tell you, such doomsayers are almost certainly wrong.

Reading a computer on the Tube is likely to remain an impractical proposition for some time yet, although technological change will doubtless make itself felt, as will political, social and cultural developments. Though it is possible to advance endless theories on what these changes may be, there is little point. One thing of which we can be confident is that come 2026, current ads will look as otherworldly as those from 1966 do now.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime