Advertisements of the 1920’s, 1940’s, 1960’s, and 1980’s


Throughout the years, companies have used advertising as an outlet for selling their products. Though the campaigns, audiences, and messages behind the advertisements may have changed over time, the ultimate message has not, and that is generally great value for a low cost. The companies that design the ads have one interest in mind, and that is to target their audience and make them want to buy the product. Corporations such as Coca-Cola and Marlboro have been successful at finding an audience in which to target and then directing their ads toward the people while making a fairly large profit. Many industries, including the soft drink, beer/alcohol, tobacco, and the automobile industries have done so as well with positive results. However, since the automobile has increasingly become such a part of our everyday lives over the years, the depictions in the industry’s advertisements show more than a campaign or a message, they depict the society and the style of their respective time periods.

The 1920’s were a time when the level of discrimination against women was at a minimum. Many automobile companies, such as Cadillac and Chevrolet even mentioned women’s autonomy in their advertisements. According to Chevrolet, their product “has that elusive something that women of discrimination have been demanding for years.” In addition, the ad in general is aimed at women, as its main theme is “The most beautiful Chevrolet in history” and depicts a peacock with blue, green, white, and orange feathers. The words “beautiful Chevrolet in history” also happen to be overlapping the colorful feathers. Moreover, there are no men depicted in the ad. Instead, there are two women in the car. The secondary theme in the ad is “Quality at low cost”, as “Chevrolet discloses that individuality and perfection of silhouette that you would expect to find in the costliest of custom-built creations.” The automobile in the ad happens to look like a silhouette when compared to the bright white background, as the car is dark gray in color.

Compositionally, the advertisement is balanced, as most of the words are placed in two columns in the center with one image above and another one below. Though the car, on the bottom, is dark and fairly large, there is a sense of balance between the two images due to the texture in the peacock’s feathers. In addition, the heading of the ad is in large serif letters overlapping the feathers, some of which are italicized. There are four separate fonts of various sizes used in the heading alone, and two others are used throughout the ad.

After the depression of the 1930’s, the main focus of the 1940’s became appearance and also asked the question, “What car company has the best quality and gives it to you for the smallest price?” This is also when competition among carmakers began heating up and manufacturers began targeting different audiences. For example, Chevrolet would publish an ad that read, “You’ll look a long, long time without finding any real equal to this car at any price”, while De Soto would counter by saying, “Success proves De Soto the smartest buy” and “…De Soto’s the car for anybody’s money.” Most automobile manufacturers aimed their advertisements toward the average American family, who had managed to survive through the depression during the previous years. De Soto depicted a family of three sitting in a car as they drove to a fair. Moreover, the family is buying cotton candy, while an onlooker tells the driver, “You must be mighty proud of that De Soto.” These are strong visuals, as it shows that the average family can have an attractive car and still have enough money to go out together and have fun. The font is fairly plain, as the header is sans serif, and the rest of the ad is serif. The only script in the ad is the slogan, “America’s smartest low-priced car.”

On the other hand, Chevrolet depicts its cars as classy and elegant, yet extremely affordable. Their black and white ad shows that colors are not what make a car elegant; rather, it is the overall design. Moreover, an elegant young lady stands in the foreground, which tells the viewer that if the average female were to buy the car depicted, they too would feel elegant and a part of upper-class society. After all, the ad’s header reads, “Meet the beauty leader – Bar none” in script. All of the other “advantages” and features are written in two columns below the picture using serif font.

With the 1960’s came giant Cadillacs and Buicks. Cars seemed to be getting bigger with each one built. This presented a problem, however. Their large size contributed to low fuel mileage, and thus, people had to pay more for gas and general maintenance than they should have. This sparked an interest in small, affordable economy cars. Volkswagen led the way with its Beetle. Many thought it was strange and a “novelty” when it first came out, but in 1962, the company published a simple advertisement encouraging people to “think small.” The ad incorporates the corner view of a small, black off-centered VW Beetle with a white background. There is nothing more, except for three columns of small text using sans serif font at the bottom. This basic ad is aimed at those of any age who have previously poked fun at the car and for those who are used to driving large cars and paying more for gas and service. The car is depicted as being virtually worry-free, as those who buy it don’t have to think about it’s excellent gas mileage or using “5 pints of oil instead of 5 quarts.” The only time its owner has to think about the car is when they “want to trade in their old VW for a new one.” Another company that has followed suit is Ford and its 1969 Cortina. The ad sparks similar emotions to the Volkswagen ad in that it reminds the viewer to “think over” buying an economy car over a larger car. In addition, it is another fairly simple ad that shows a window sticker with a list of options, including a parcel shelf and front disc brakes, all of which have “no charge” written next to them. Unlike the Volkswagen ad, which was aimed at a wide audience, this ad is aimed at females who know enough not to pay for extra features that are included at no charge by the Ford Motor Company, as the woman slightly smiling on the right seems to allude. The main visual is not that bold, as it is just sans serif font on a window sticker.

The use of modern technology in building cars had become popular by the 1980’s. Carmakers such as General Motors and Nissan promoted their products by attempting to offer more “electronics packages” than other companies. Since manufacturers saw the success of economy cars during the 1960s and 1970s, they implemented the technology in most makes and models, not just expensive luxury cars.


In 1981, General Motors proclaimed that technology had arrived and that they were the future of the automobile industry by depicting their product going through a wind tunnel not once, but twice in order to achieve perfection. Moreover, the car appears to be a computer-generated image that is fresh off of the drawing board. The black and white visual, itself, is fairly weak, but for its time period, it delivers a strong message, in that aerodynamics and technology within the automobile industry were rather new. The message is also repeated in the description of the ad below the image. The left and right margins of the text are also on an angle, adding some interest to the ad. Because the technology was new, General Motors marketed this ad toward younger people who had a better understanding of aerodynamics and power features than those who were older did.

A 1984 advertisement for Nissan depicted their car as “a world class sedan that doesn’t cost the world,” meaning that people didn’t have to pay extra for the power options and the implementation of modern technology, such as a keyless entry system. Like General Motors, Nissan is aiming its ad toward a younger audience and states that the Maxima’s engine “generates more horsepower than BMW, Audi, or a Porche 944.” In addition, the “standard power windows, cruise control, and stereo with cassette” appeal to younger audiences. But most importantly though, they “add up to one of the world’s most sophisticated sedans at any price.”

The pictured sedan toward the top of the page is on a gridded plane, making the car appear to be fresh off the drawing board. The italicized sans serif text is the only element that depicts motion, and the image between the two columns of text on the bottom of the ad shows the inside of the car and how plush and roomy it is. Overall, the advertisement works in that the viewers get an idea of what they are missing if they don’t already own “the most sophisticated sedan” with the best “technology”, “quality”, and “service plan”.

In conclusion, since the automobile has increasingly become such a part of our everyday lives over the years, the depictions in the industry’s advertisements show more than a campaign or a message, they depict the society and the style of art of their respective time periods. The 1920s were a time when advertisements were starting to target women, since only men had previously owned vehicles. Advertisers also stressed the car’s beauty, which was also apparent in the 1940s, after the depression. Those who couldn’t afford to own vehicles in the 1930s now could, and many families began buying them for road trips or drives down to the local fairgrounds. However, in the 1960s, quality and cost became a bigger factor than the car’s appearance, and economy cars became popular. The advertisements became more simplistic, as did the cars they were depicting. Viewers were also encouraged to “think small,” and this appealed to younger audiences, since drivers became younger. But as the 1980s rolled around, technology began being implemented in the construction and mechanisms of the automobiles. Like the 1960s, manufacturers depicted their cars as having better quality and reliability, but at a lower cost than most luxury cars. Some were even depicted as having smarter technology than luxury cars.

Today, people know about the quality and reliability, as well as the technology of automobiles. Most ads depict people having fun with their vehicles, such as a SUV driving over the Rocky Mountains or a person getting everything they want, including a fun Toyota sports car. The campaigns, audiences, and messages behind the advertisements may have changed over time, but the ultimate message has not. And that is generally great value and reliability for a low cost.  However, it is apparent now more than ever, with corporations marketing to younger audiences who generally wouldn’t have as much money as a middle-aged family man in the 1940s or 1960s.


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