TV commercials in the 50s and 60s

The Origins of Advertising

Advertising has been around since there have been goods to sell and ways to promote them. Its real break through, however, was only possible with the industrial revolution and the creation of the first newspapers and magazines in the 17th century.  By the mid-19th century most companies were advertising their products with the help of the printing press. The accessibility and affordability of newspapers and magazines led to a huge increase of people reading mass-circulation press. First, advertisement was just published by magazines and placed by journalists rather than private advertisers. But soon people started to grasp the importance of advertising. Due to the mass production of goods in all shapes and colours, the competition between producers selling similar articles steadily increased. Therefore one had to come up with new ideas to catch the consumers interest.

According to Tungate’s Adland: a global history of advertising, the first advertising agency in the United States launched in 1842. In London one of the first advertising agents was William Taylor, who used to work for a newspaper before. Many journalists became freelance copywriters and the creative people of advertising agencies. Influenced by lithography – the printing of large and colourful posters – and the Art Nouveau movement in Europe, the focus of advertising were aesthetic and uniqueness of the product (Tungate, 2007, p.13).

‘La Goulue’ at the Moulin Rouge, Paris (colour litho) by Toulouse-Lautrec 

By the 1920’s and 30’s the number of advertising agencies in Europe and the U.S. had expanded dramatically and led the way to modern advertising. The predominant attention was now paid to the consumer rather than product. Agencies started focussing on the needs of the people buying their articles and using them to promote their products. Packaging and designing posters, as well as Television commercial were useful visual media to advertise. Advertisers often tried to win consumers by offering solutions to relatable social and individual problems, or simply relating their products to experiences and nostalgic feelings. David Ogilvy was one of the famous advertisers, who attributed the success of his campaigns to the research he did into consumer habits. With this shift from product to consumer, the era of modern advertising began.


Method – Representation of Social Actors

In Introduction to Multimodal Analysis (2007), David Machin explains the semiotic approach as a method to analyse visual media compositions, such as photographs, newspapers, and advertisements. Chapter 6 of his textbook particularly focusses on the way social actors are represented in visual communication. His analysis first positions the viewer in relation to people inside the image, then focuses on the categorisation of visually participants, and finally looks at agency and action. Machin’s semiotic approach will be the method I use to analyse a television commercial from the early 1950s that was launched in the United States. The one-minute video promotes smoking Camel cigarettes, by depicting doctors describing the good quality and agreeability of the brand.

Analysis – Camel Cigarette Commercial

The first step in Machin’s semiotic approach is to position the viewer in relation to the people represented in the image or TV spot. The gaze describes to what extend we as viewers are encouraged to engage with the participants shown. In the commercial of Camel cigarettes we are invited by the smiling woman that appears right at the beginning of the film. As she is looking at the camera, the viewer feels in contact with her. The male voice that offers, or rather demands the public to smoke Camels talks to the viewer directly by using phrases such as “what do you smoke” or “see for yourself”. The angle of interaction can create power relations. The horizontal angle suggests involvement and equalisation of viewer and participant. Especially the two women are filmed frontal and from a close shot. Distance can be compared to social distance, where keeping distance to people suggests anonymity and remoteness while getting closer shows intimacy and individuality. The doctor in this case are shown from further away, which emphasises on their superior and authoritarian role in society. If doctors commit to smoking Camels, the public should be convinced that it is indeed the best cigarette brand.

The second step of the analysis looks at the kinds of participants shown in the ad. The focus lays clearly on the doctors and the two women appearing at the beginning and end of the spot. There is both individualisation, in form of the one doctor and a blond and brunette woman, and collectivisation, since many doctors were consulted in a survey. However, the commercial emphasises that the majority of doctors smoke Camels, which suggests a huge group distinguishing itself from other brands. The categorisation of participants can be cultural, i.e. appearance and social class, as well as biological, i.e. gender and race. All people shown in the ad are well dressed and part of the middle class. Although women are not excluded, they do not appear as doctors but rather as sex- symbols and identification of a  glamorous woman smoking Camels. However, a print from the same Camel campaign shows a female doctor (see picture). Not surprising for commercials in the 1950s there are no coloured people or any other minorities.


The last point of Machin’s method is agency and action. The doctors in the commercial are without doubt the actors in the scene. One doctor is shown at his desk working with his secretary in the background, another one offers an ordinary man a cigarette. By showing role models and health experts smoking Camel cigarettes, the campaign tries to persuade the whole nation that their brand is best for one’s health. However, Camel was not the only company using scientists, physicists, and doctors of all branches to promote their brand (see pictures above). Nowadays every child knows that any kind of tobacco is bad for you, which makes cigarette advertisement from the 1950s and 1960s look even more ridiculous.


Machin, D. (2007). Introduction to multimodal analysis. London: Hodder Arnold.

Tungate, M. (2007). Adland: a global history of advertising. London and Philadelphia: Kogan Page Publishers.



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