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March 2, 2012
The first daffodil has bloomed and that’s how I know it’s almost yard sale season. I have a yard sale every year. Every year I sell a lot of stuff and throw a lot of stuff out. Somehow I still have the same amount of stuff afterwards, and need to have yet another yard sale. So I’ve come to the conclusion that my possessions are biblical. That is, my Stuff Begets Stuff. I have no idea how that happens!

This is the year that I transfer all of the VHS tapes into DVDs, the vinyl into CDs, and the books…well, I am not so sure what to do about all of my books. I began separating the keepers from the get-rid-ofs when I ran across a pile of trade books from the 80s. I found three Art Directors Annuals, a Creative Black Book — a phone book for just about everything you needed to do in advertising back then — and The Ninth Graphic Arts Production Yearbook from 1950. Putting aside the sheer joy I experienced when I discovered that there is something in this house older than I am (YAY!), I picked up one of the weighty, oversized Annuals and started perusing.

Cue Streisand’s “Memories.”

I remember impatiently waiting for the release of these books, and then sitting around with the other artists in the shop oohing and ahhing over every page. I once worked for an art director who used to run into the production area shouting, “Look! Look!” every time he found something in the book that he loved. And for many years these books were my Bible, opened often when I needed inspiration for my work.

Misty watercolor memories of the way advertising used to be? It was all still there; the breathtaking illustrations and photographs, the impeccable, tight designs, the elegant typography (that’s what we used to call “fonts”), and the clever headlines that were so very engaging at least in part because they were so very politically incorrect. Not mean, mind you, just wicked smart. And this was all achieved before Photoshop was widely used and before desktop publishing software put all the outside typographers and pre-press production folks out of business.

What happened? Is anyone today creating the stunning advertising of yesterday? Back in the ‘90s when you checked the want ads (that’s what we used to call “job listings” in newspapers) the ones for designers all expected knowledge of certain software and operating systems, with no mention of a quality portfolio.  That was the beginning of the end, in my opinion.

But, hey. I am an old fuddyduddy. What do I know? I asked my daughter to take a look at these books with me. She was suitably impressed. I asked, “Do you see this kind of work out there?” She told me that she has seen the same kind of quality art and graphics on the web but they’re not used commercially, just as works of art. And the wicked smart advertising copy? The Dumbing Down of America has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, she asserted. Very few of her peers would understand most of these ads.

Ah, to be 23 again and have all the answers!

Unlike my daughter, I am not a sociologist. Years ago I was asked by a friend who taught art history at a local college to come speak to her class. My basic theme was that really good advertising provided “art for the masses.” For people who never set foot in an art museum, the graphics exposed them to quality visuals which, when done right, communicated in much the same way highbrow art can. I got plenty of arguments from the students, of course, but I truly believed that back then. Not anymore. So maybe my kid is indeed correct when she blames a cultural shift on the differences between advertising then and now. In any case, I find it exceedingly sad.

You can find many old Advertising Annuals for sale on eBay and other used book sites; some are quite cheap. But you won’t find my copies for sale anywhere. I don’t think I could put a price on that kind of inspiration.

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Rhonda Wenner is a Very Old Advertising Person who has been there, done that, and seen quite a bit.
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