Duke University's Vintage Ad Database

Duke University’s Vintage Ad Database

Posted by on December 1st, 2010

One of the most interesting branding, marketing and advertising resources I’ve come across lately is the Duke University library of vintage ads. The library contains images and database information on more than 7000 vintage advertisements printed in the US and Canada from 1911 through 1955.

First of all, the sheer volume is awesome and the database is searchable by category, year, and brand. The ads themselves are often beautiful, with a rare attention to craft and artistry in the illustrations, and an erudition to the copy that, for better or for worse (more often worse than I think I expected going in), you don’t see very often today.

Vintage ads: a Delorean joyride to a pre-feminist Lost World

The ads are illustrative of the social changes we’ve seen over the last 100 years or so, especially in gender relations. The images and copy, especially for makeup, soap and the like, are often sexist:

Palmolive ad from the 20s

Palmolive ad from the 20s reminds you that your young-looking skin is “more precious,” than your personality to “most men.”

Creepy Palmolive ad advises women to "first hold their good looks," in order to "hold their husbands."

Creepy Palmolive ad advises women to “first hold their good looks,” in order to “hold their husbands.”

Many times hilariously so:

United's "for men only," nonstop to Chicago

United’s “for men only,” nonstop to Chicago – cigar and pipe smoking? Permitted! Women? Well, if they’re bringing you a pipe or a cigar…

We’ve come a long way, baby.

Basic rules of effective copy unchanged

But I was also struck by how some of the tactics, especially regarding the presentation of copy still hold true today. And it was heartening to see that copywriters of yesteryear fell prey to the same foibles that we fall prey to today, especially in the “features vs. benefits,” arena. For the electronics ads especially, the early 20th century, engineering-focused jargon is thick on the ground.

Tungsten wires and grounded rods reverse the polarity of air-borne particles and make readers' eyes glaze over.

Tungsten wires and grounded rods reverse the polarity of air-borne particles and make readers’ eyes glaze over.

The structure of the copy in the most effective ads hasn’t really changed all that much – branded headlines:

Philco TV ad effectively uses branded headlines

Drive-UR-Self System! Awesome branded headline

Benifits-focused subheads:

benefits based subheadings

Benefits based subheading promotes your Hi-Fi Life!

And skimmable, often bulleted body copy:

Bulleted body text makes for easy reading

Bulleted body text makes for easy reading

TWA's bulleted body copy touts romantic, exotic destinations for your... cargo(?).

TWA’s bulleted body copy touts romantic, exotic destinations for your… cargo(?).

The takeaway: no matter how our mores, technology, and products change, good copy is still good copy

  • Focus on and speak to your customer’s or client’s needs
  • Remember to sell the benefits, not the features
  • Make an emotional connection (branding!)
  • Make your copy skimmable and conversational

Designers, illustrators, copywriters, marketing and branding consultants, and anyone interested in the way branding, advertising and marketing reflect and affect our culture should check out the database; it’s a great resource.

Questions or Comments? Leave a reply, we would love to hear from you.


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