A Look Back to When Advertising Hit the Roadways.
My favorite part in the movie Back to the Future is when Marty McFly––after time traveling back to the early 1950s––figures he needs to be a little discreet and hides his DeLorean behind a period replica of a billboard. Director Steven Spielberg creates a perfect retro environment that was both believable and amusing for its quaint appeal, as he sets up this time period using the popular gasoline billboards of the day.
How did these outdoor cathedrals of advertising become a part of the American way?
In the 1930s, as a part of the national recovery act, the federal government's make–work programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) federally funded a plethora of projects that opened up work for artists. Automobiles and roads for their use were developed simultaneously, and the marketing potential for roadside advertisements grew almost overnight.
Parkways were created for leisure driving, and this led to a paved road system. For a long time, the poster was the effective outdoor advertising to pedestrians, but now the motorway billboards were the new rave in the marketing of open spaces. These new marketing monuments showed up in urban, suburban, and even rural areas, providing work for artists to specialize in commercial billboard designs. Painters were now confronted with much larger areas and the simpler the approach the better. Solid color and simplified shapes were commonplace, as the more detailed paintings were far too labor-intensive to produce.
In the 1930s, Americans learned about modern design through advertising. The American Streamline movement was the birth child of European simplicity in design. Their unadorned Modernist applications to industry had been practiced for well over a decade, and completely ignored in America. But the Great Depression changed all that, and the America's mindset was drastically altered by the results of the destitute situation they had been handed. Change became a necessity, and affected all of commercial art––specifically advertising and graphic design. European modernist movements such as Futurism, Constructivism, and the Bauhaus school, were brought to America in books and manuals by the many members who moved to New York and Chicago as a result of very troubling times abroad.
As these movements made their way to American soil, the Streamlined decade began producing a new profession of industrial designers. With this new vision to redesign anything from staplers to airplanes, nothing was left untouched by this modern ethic. It was an ethic modeled after the Bauhaus movement to increase efficiency in all that was antiquated in products broadly ranging from furniture to fashion.
Take a close look at these modern billboards in the 1930s and you can see symbolism of an age of speed and great optimism. The designers of the 1930s cultivated this symbolism with the use of teardrop graphics implying tremendous speed. Advertising agencies describing newly designed automobiles used names symbolizing dynamic power––like the Zephyr, or the Airflow. The Streamline symbols of speed were sharp geometric motion lines and drop shadows. Just as we have witnessed the Star Trek communication device become the precursor to the cell phone in our day, in the 1930s the popular comic book character Flash Gordon spread his heroics using machinery that was also now becoming somewhat of a reality in their modern world.
My wife's mother owned this incredible fan that was handed down from her grandmother. Obviously made in the American Streamline era, it's one that I cherish, for it still works, and is beautifully designed––a functional metal masterpiece. I suggest you keep your eyes open for such treasures in your own great-grandfather's closet. The billboards are gone, but the evidence of the American Streamline movement still remains.
Discussion:Can you think of other outdoor marketing devices (new or old) that creatively communicates an advertising message to the consumer?