October 19, 2009
It’s hard to imagine the position once held by LIFE magazine. From the 1930s through the 1950s, it was possibly the single most important and influential advertising medium in the world.
Even when I was a kid in the ’60s, when TV advertising had really begun to eat LIFE’s lunch, the weekly arrival of the magazine was always a powerful experience. It was the era of psychedelia, social unrest, cultural upheaval — and LIFE chronicled it all, oversize and in color. And the magazine was still a powerful ad medium — even though, as a kid, it never struck me as odd that an ad for Canadian Club whiskey might be next to a photo of some hippie protester getting his head bashed by a nightstick.
When I was in college, I used to go down into the library stacks and read old LIFE magazines from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. And I read them not for the articles, but for the ads. There was something very powerful about seeing those commercial messages and knowing that millions of people across the nation had read them in the day. LIFE was where the biggest companies in the biggest consumer categories advertised: food, liquor, cars, cigarettes, household goods. LIFE ads had the most sumptuous art, the crispest copy, the best production values. A LIFE ad was where the big New York agencies pulled out all the stops.
LIFE gave way to the dominance of TV. Now, of course, the Internet is snatching away the eyeballs that TV once snatched away from print.
You can go to the Web now and find damn near anything you want to. It’s a great thing for someone like me, who enjoys seeking out oddities and obscurities. (For example, check out this helpful instructional film, “What To Do On A Date.”)
But I also miss the sense of having a shared experience. Today, those shared experiences come less often than they used to. We’ve still got the Super Bowl, and the Balloon Boy, and Susan Boyle. But the everyday feeling that your neighbor read the same magazines and shared the same cultural touchstones is changing. It’s not a bad thing — just different. More than ever, our popular culture is a work in progress.