The more we know, the more we see : context & culture in 1920s print advertising

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Paul, Kimberly Ann

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Those who survey advertising scholarship will be struck by how few studies document the history of the field. Though the number of publications in this area has increased over the last two decades, in comparison to other institutions, the figure is quite modest. More surprising still, considering advertising’s reliance upon images, is the dearth of studies focusing on visual elements. Instead, here, one chiefly finds an assortment of coffee-table books content to reproduce—and glorify—the art of advertising. With few exceptions, even those scholars who’ve studied the visual elements have generally neglected to do so in situ, with full respect for the ad’s contemporary context. Equally absent, is research that explains how an ad means what it means within its historical context. Perhaps it wittily exploits some current event. Or it might draw on some catchphrase of the day. Or it might actually appropriate or echo some style of painting. Knowing their contextual characteristics is crucial to understanding the ad. This dissertation approaches the topic of historical contextual visual analysis from two view points—macro and micro—and sets out to apply an historical multicontextual methodological frame to the study of advertisements in the 1920s. First, the macro view documents how American advertising in the 1920s gradually absorbed the imagery of the contemporary modern art movement. By studying and cataloging the 2,806 pieces of advertising art published in the Annuals between 1921 and 1931, it was possible to construct a trend-adoption curve for the decade. In addition, reviews from every Annual Exhibition of Advertising Art sponsored by the Art Directors Club published in both the trade and popular press were collected and studied along with all articles mentioning the use of modern art—both celebratory and critical. The micro analysis consists of a close reading of one major national advertising campaign which ran throughout 1929. This analysis is supplemented by a rich set of documents from the Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn advertising agency’s archive—creative briefs, meeting notes, and miscellaneous ephemera—relevant to the campaign. The microscopic critique follows a three-step process: • First, it frames a discussion of external factors influential to the campaign; • Second, it identifies the specific goals of the campaign through historical documentation; • Third, it examines the symbolic meaning, both visually and textually, of the individual ads within the campaign. The goal of this dissertation is to study advertisements from the point of view of the creator. The method of discussing a campaign or individual advertisements within an historical multicontextual frame stresses the importance of situating an ad within its historical setting. Within this context, authorial intent and meaning can be studied, offering multi-layered and robust interpretations.





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