Boomers Witnessed the Explosion of Color Photography Advertising

Boomers bore witness to modern marvels — inventions and advancements great and small that altered the course of history and changed the way people lived, worked and felt about their lives. One such advancement was in the technologies necessary to produce full-color photography in advertising.

Photos had been used in advertising, such as in newspapers, as far back as 1850. For the most part, the photo image in an ad was of a product, often a bottle or box, and pictured in black and white. By the 1920s, photography was the dominant form of imagery in advertising. After World War II, printing equipment and methods were being developed that would change the way newspapers and magazines were printed for public consumption, and the ability to print photographs in life-like color became a reality.

The ability to print color photographs had been available by various methods for decades, but those methods were time-consuming, costly and required a great deal of skill on the part of the printer. Consequently, the process was reserved for posters and high-quality books as opposed to disposable newspapers and magazines. Things began to change in earnest in 1957, when the first 4-color automatic offset printing press was introduced. Offset printing came into its own after the War. This method transferred ink from a printing plate to a rubber blanket, and from there on to a paper printing surface. The 4-color printing process is the breakdown of reflective color to cyan, magenta, yellow and black. The printing method translated photos into a series of dots that overlapped to produce all possible colors by the various combinations of those four colors, and produced the highly saturated, jewel-tone colors we now associate with the era.

TV may have been broadcast in black and white, but that didn’t stop TV celebrities from appearing in color print advertising. This Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes ad appeared in 1955.

The advancement in printing press technology meant paper went in one end and a finished print came out the other. Without this technology, magazines that featured a lot of photographic advertising, such as Life, Look, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping and even the new men’s magazine, Playboy, may not have reached the high levels of popularity they did in the 1950s and ’60s.

This Prell shampoo ad dates from 1955. Notice that illustrations are combined with the photo.

By the mid-1960s there were printing press setups for up to five colors, along with automatic binding for books and magazines. So why, in what many have called the golden age of advertising illustration, would photography garner such a high percentage of advertising imagery? It’s Mister Boomer’s conjecture that the confluence of several things led to the explosion of color photographs in the 1950s and ’60s: technology, the growing popularity of television, and the desire for an optimistic public to see themselves pictured as modern individuals enjoying life and the fruits of their labor. The burgeoning television market produced new pitch celebrities whose images could hawk products in print as well as on TV. The growing middle class had more spendable income and leisure time than at any point in history, so the pieces were in place for advertising to mirror the life Americans had envisioned. This is exemplified, in Mister B’s estimation, by the proliferation of food and recipe photographs, as well as people enjoying backyard cookouts and family dinners that fill “women’s” magazines of the time; fashion photography in magazines such as Vogue; and the ubiquitous picturing of cars, most often with a woman riding inside or posing on the outside of the vehicle, in all types of magazines.

Paul Anka appeared in this Halo shampoo ad from 1960.

The colors were unmistakable, and the images defined the times. Are there any ads using photographs from the era that flashback in your memory, boomers?