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Print ads through the decades – part one

Every day we encounter hundreds – thousands – of advertisements. Each one is a product of the business, product, brief and advertiser’s creativity, but in many ways, wider cultural and societal trends exert an even greater effect on ads, giving each decade’s crop a distinct feel.

It’s time to geek out on ad creative. Here are the last ten decades in ads – how they looked, read, and what they represented.


In an age where consumerism was a fresh concept, brands weren’t established and companies needed to put across product benefits to rapidly growing customer bases, copy was king. Heaps of text was the norm, with companies using protracted passages to explicitly espouse the superiority of their products and going to great lengths to make sales arguments… literally and figuratively.

Visually, ads relied on plenty of hand-drawn images, colour was used sparingly (but boy, does the yellow pop in the Sunkist ad above), and busy layouts meant that customers had to commit to the jumbled pages of images and text passages to get the message. Since ads were still a novelty, attention spans were longer and there was much less cynicism surrounding ads in general, meaning these layouts didn’t detract from ad consumption and allowed for the explosion in advertising seen in the following decades.


With a booming economy, ever-expanding middle class and maturing mass market, the 1920s saw an surge in print advertising. Like those from the previous decade, print ads in the 20s utilised plenty of text, using short stories to convey product benefits in terms readers could relate to, thereby encouraging conspicuous consumption through their messaging. All this was often backed by science – often of the pseudo variety.

Colour ads became more common during this decade, layouts became more defined and easier to navigate, and hand-drawn images loaded with art nouveau and art deco themes appeared. Ballooning ad budgets allowed designers to flex their creative muscles, inevitably leading to the popular artistic styles of the time entering the ad space.


Throughout the 30s, ads were slowly shedding word counts, with artwork picking up the slack. Granted, large paragraphs of text were still employed to convey product benefits and info, but large splashes of design were increasingly being used to spark emotion, particularly for adverts that relied on igniting aspirational feelings.

Nevertheless, economic woes led to depressed sales, restrained palettes and a refocusing of adverts away from relying on simple product benefits to bigger ideas such as gender roles – a growing trend through the subsequent decades.

Technological advancement led to photography finding its way into ad creative, allowing emotional messaging and the authenticity of products to be portrayed more effectively than ever before, and futurist illustrations captured the rapid pace of progress occurring across society.


Despite ad spend declining drastically during World War 2, huge stylistic changes took place. Propaganda designed to motivate the population took the form of bright, realist prints with large images and succinct, powerful messaging. Consumer ads mirrored this, featuring plenty of references to the war, along with short, punchy headlines, though rationing meant black and white designs and simple comic characters sometimes took the place of full-colour art and photography.

After the war, modernist design began replacing brash realism, with plenty of abstract imagery and layouts, and shirking the subdued designs of wartime, ads became awash with colour, humour and positivity. Celebrities also began to play a larger role in ads too, especially in beauty advertising.


The positivity and economic prosperity of the 1950s shone through the era’s print ads. Consumer spending was skyrocketing, driven by the spread of innovations like appliances, cars and electronics, many of which had roots in wartime R&D. The result was brilliantly bright, futuristic ads that screamed excitement – it’s no wonder 50s ad tropes are still so popular.

The baby boom meant family ideals were reflected across the ad spectrum, alongside a focus on technology and upward mobility. Ads became more abstract and conceptual too, as revenues boomed and advertisers were given more creative scope.

That’s it for part one – keep an eye out for part two soon, where we’ll chart developments through the sixties until the noughties.

At Fox Agency, ads are in our DNA. Contact our team to find out about how we can help you reach your audience or learn more about our approach to integrated campaigns.