from the archives

Advertising’s Secret Messages

Do advertisers really know what they’re saying?

Photo: New York Magazine
Photo: New York Magazine

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the July 17, 1972, issue of New York. We’re republishing it here, along with most of Tom Wolfe’s writing for the magazine, to accompany the September 2023 release of Richard Dewey’s documentary Radical Wolfe. Read our essay about the film and Wolfe’s time at New York here, and Wolfe’s own memoir of the magazine’s early years here..

The Communication Graphics show of the American Institute of Graphic Arts is usually put together and judged by professional designers who look for aesthetic and technical compe­tence in the entries. But for its most recent show the Institute wanted a juror who would look at the content — even the (gasp!) hidden meaning — of the stuff. The author obliged. 

Poster designed for WABC-TV by James Perretti, Mary Ann Onorato and Charles White III.

As one who worked for four years in the 1940s as a Sho-Card letterer for a com­mercial artist, I can’t resist this poster. What you see here is the 1942 Speed­ball Lettering Textbook entering Air­brush Heaven. The whole thing is frankly nostalgic in style — or, to put it another way, it parodies an outmoded style. I wonder how many artists, de­signers and art directors are conscious of their own motivation when they take this route. Their real strategy, usually hidden even to themselves, is this: in using an obviously dated style, one is being ironic or, at worst, camp. There­fore, through such a style one can ex­press a sentimental, simple-minded or otherwise unfashionable emotion (such as “Gee! Let’s have some fun!”) with­out appearing naïve. The underlying statement is: “See? I’m not being corny — I’m being camp.”

Many people in the media now feel an urge to project happiness in the face of all of the troubles of the times — with­out sacrificing hipness. For example, women buy Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar for two reasons: (1) the clothes; (2) the happiness. Everything remains very happy in these magazines, full of fun; no long faces. As the times got worse in the late ’60s and in 1970, these magazines responded by having the models smile more and kick up their heels. Literally. There is so much incredible grinning, laughing, screaming, kicking, jumping, skipping and hopping in the pictures in these magazines, there is no way to tell the actual shape of the dresses. But this has been a subconscious strategy among all concerned. Consciously, the editors keep telling themselves and their staffs: “This year we’re going to get serious. We’re going to put some teeth in this book!” And so on.

Poster designed for John Dugdale of British Leyland Motors, Inc., by Barry Zaid.

The graphics here solve a subtle prob­lem: How to be snobbish — but still hip. Blatant snob appeal, as in the Cadillac ads of the 1950s, runs very much against the grain of contempo­rary hipness. The solution? The artist here revives, and parodies, an early 1900s modification of the influences (Oriental and otherwise) that show up in the work of Beardsley, Mucha, Tou­louse-Lautrec, Art Nouveau generally and the Die Jugend and Simplicissimus school of caricature. In the hands of a man like Olaf Gulbransson, for exam­ple, the style eventually took on a slightly severe elegance (through the use of perpendiculars, etc.). The artist parodies this bygone version of ele­gance … and potential Rover lovers, who are presumably hip, get the full voltage of the snob’s love of such a car … but with the curse removed. (“See? This isn’t snobbery. We’re just having fun.”)

Poster designed for Columbia Records by John Berg and Hom/Griner.

This is a nicely designed photograph; also groovy-looking; which raises the same problem. This is designed as an antiwar poster … but it looks like an ad for a rock group in Rolling Stone. The crosses, presumably, symbolize death in war, but they’re really quite lovely, seen in that perspective. The message in the lower left-hand corner doesn’t intrude in the slightest. The over-all effect is to make the antiwar movement seem like a rather pleasant diversion.

Zodiac Calendar designed for Davis­Delaney-Arrow, Inc., by Roger Zimmer­man and Emanuel Schongut.

I regard this as an almost flawless piece of Modem Astrology art, because the nostalgic style recalls the Charles Kings­ley Water Babies school of illustration. Perfect … modern astrology (unlike ancient astrology) is a big soft-hearted mommy who always sends you Valen­tines. When she’s mad, she’s obviously only pretending. The whole vogue of astrology is, of course, a piece of nos­talgia in itself, a homesickness for a magical childhood past. Here the parody element in the illustration en­ables the viewer to tell himself: “I don’t really believe in all this stuff [equals ‘I’m hip’], but nevertheless I like it, it makes me feel good.”

Exhibition Announcement Poster de­signed by and for Miho, Inc.

As I recall, all the judges were immedi­ately attracted to this poster, and I think the appeal went beyond the tac­tile fun of the poster’s shreds. I think what we are looking at here is an un­conscious rebellion against the (by now) suffocating influence of Bauhaus graphics. Forty years ago Bauhaus graphics were fresh and exhilarating, because they seemed to remove all the clutter. Today Bauhaus graphic design, like Bauhaus architecture, is worse than overused … it has become a pall, a monumental tedium, bad as a whole town full of Victorian gingerbread. It’s everywhere, it’s on the men’s room door. I think that what happened with this entry was that the artist executed a classic Bauhaus poster — and was sud­denly overcome by a marvelous im­pulse: “I’ll give the damned thing a grass skirt!” There are, of course, no design motifs more antithetical than Mondrian/Gropius/Bauhaus on the one hand — and the hula on the other. To clinch the point, the artist originated the grass skirt right in the middle of MIHO itself. (Rolls-Royce was over­come by the same impulse in 1911; they had an artist add that marvelously loony woman as a radiator cap … Those aren’t wings you see on her, they’re flowing robes … a pure piece of Art Nouveau fantasy … They had finally had it up to here with that god­damned unyielding Greek Temple that the radiator grille is modeled after. They put Wild Minnie up on top to try to get something going.)

Booklet designed for anti-high-rise building campaign by Robert Pease.

It’s hard to say No with a picture. This coloring book is the work of sixteen artists, and I like what they’ve done. (I haven’t written home about it, you understand, but I like it.) But I also like it for what it illustrates about the problems of social protest graphics. A high percentage of the entries for the show fell in that category, and almost all of them show the artist’s natural in­stincts (Me!) working at cross purposes with the cause he is lending his talent to. This coloring book was created in support of Alvin Duskin’s campaign to stop the spread of high-rise building in San Francisco (“ecology”) … But most of the artists were obviously far more intrigued by the graphic possibili­ties of skyscrapers and Heartless Ty­coons than of low-rise buildings and the common man. I’m sure that all chil­dren who actually used this book learned to love skyscrapers and were filled with the ambition to build one, or at least go see a few. It may be that there is no way an artist can, with a picture, make a negative statement. But I don’t think most of these artists even tried not to like skyscraper forms. They may not like the phenomenon, but they love the forms. Even the placing of Coit Tower on the cover (I think that’s Coit Tower) is a species of glorification of the high-rise structure. In much, per­haps most, social protest art you find the artist (unconsciously) co-opting the cause or movement as a piece of con­tent — and going right ahead with what­ever suits the development or demon­stration of his own talent. The Ego naturally takes precedence over the Cause — a recurring problem in social protest art and one that used to (maybe still does) infuriate authorities in the Soviet Union. (“Goddamn it,” said Stalin, ”you bourgeois egotists are sup­posed to be engineers of the soul!”)

Logo designed for Entertainment Indus­try for Peace and Freedom by Don Weller, Norman Gollin, Dennis Juett and Jim Van Noy.

I think we should all be grateful to Don Weller for providing this spoof of the creamiest piece of pie-in-the-sky that American graphic arts have ever sold to American business: the ab­stract total-design logo. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, these abstract logos, which a company (Chase Man­hattan, Pan Am, Winston Sprocket, Kor-Ban Chemical) is supposed to put on everything from memo pads to the side of its 50-story building, make ab­solutely no impact — conscious or un­conscious — upon its customers or the general public, except insofar as they create a feeling of vagueness or confu­sion. I’m talking about the prevailing mode of abstract logos. Pictorial logos or written logos are a different story. Random House (the little house), Al­fred Knopf (the borzoi dog) , the old Socony-Vacuum flying red horse, or the written logos of Coca-Cola or Hertz — they stick in the mind and create the desired effect of instant recognition (“identity”). Abstract logos are a dead loss in that respect, and yet millions continue to be poured into the design of them. Why? Because the conversion to a total-design abstract logo format somehow makes it possible for the head of the corporation to tell himself: “I’m modern, up-to-date, with-it, a man of the future. I’ve streamlined this old baby.” Why else would they have their companies pour $30,000, $50,000, $100,000, into the concoction of sym­bols that any student at Pratt could and would gladly give him for $125 plus a couple of lunches at the Trat­toria, or even the Zum-Zum? The an­swer: if the fee doesn’t run into five figures, he doesn’t feel streamlined. Lo­gos are strictly a vanity industry, and all who enter the field should be merci­less cynics if they wish to guarantee satisfaction.

Brochure designed for Eaton Labora­tories by Frank O’Blak Jr. and Caroline Waloski.

Cynicism is a very tricky device to use in graphics, but I think it works, and is justified, here … a situation that cries out for desperate remedies … Here you have a company flogging pills for people in the unfortunate position of having pus oozing from their ure­thras. How do you deal with this cheery data? The solution: the artist uses a nostalgic style, but not with an eye toward expressing a soft-hearted emotion while remaining hip (which is the usual strategy). His hipness is al­ready assured, because he is being cyni­cal. He designs a knockoff of the sort of patriotic primer boys used to be given at the time of World War I. But where the original might have had an ornate chapter heading reading “The Battle of Verdun,” this one says, “His Cardiac Neurosis.” The secret message is: “Well, what in the name of God do you want me to show you, the ure­thritic ooze?”

Poster designed for Meyer & Rosenthal Inc., by Arnold H. Rosenthal and Steph Leinwohl.

This is a social protest poster that at­tempts to meet its subject head-on by appealing directly to the emotions of shock, horror, disgust, resentment. A strong photo, with a terrific feeling of movement and force. Even here, how­ever, irony is used in the caption. Secret message: “I don’t just protest — I’m also hip.” In fact, the caption may have a double irony for photographers and art directors. Why is it that in al­most all good action photos of a riot we see the bulging backs of policemen who are committing mayhem? This is a multiple-choice question (check one):

a. Cops are brutal.
b. In riot situations virtually all pho­tographers, whether New Left, Old Hearst or apolitical, huddle behind the cops and, once the action starts, rarely experience any overpower­ing curiosity about other camera angles.

Poster designed for Phillip Leonian by Tony Russell.

A nice lush photo that co-opts a move­ment — women’s lib — without even pre­tending to be serious about it … Social Protest Camp … therefore more hon­est, in a curious way … The graphics say: “Hi, I’m hitching a ride (on the Cause) and having fun.” Most social-protest art does the same, but without owning up.

Advertisement designed for Container Corporation of America by Bill Bonnell and John Massey.

Here’s our old friend, the Great Ideas of Western Man series. I hadn’t come across it since it used to run in the magazines. At the top of the page you’d see a quotation — such as:

“Hitch your wagon to a star.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

And under it would be a painting of a cubistic horse strangling on a banana. I often wondered if the artists were given explicit instructions never to let the artwork have anything to do with the quotation, because they never did. If this was actually a policy, it was a brilliant stroke; because the ads were supposed to have nothing whatsoever to do with what the company actually did. I used to think the company was called the Transcendental Can Corpo­ration, but I see by this entry that I was mistaken about that. Like all insti­tutional ads, the ads in this series con­vey the message: “We really don’t do what we really do (e.g., make tin cans). What we manufacture is dignity.”

Tom Wolfe on Advertising’s Secret Messages