Advertising Then and Now: How Sales Rhetoric Has Changed in 50 Years of Media

Updated: February 20, 2024

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If you haven’t seen them, fire up your Google machine and have a look at the ad spots that used to appear on the Red Skelton show. What you’ll see is a form of advertising that appears steeped in innocence. There is a noticeable absence of guile and subterfuge. Sure, Red would use some of his most popular comedic caricatures to give commentary on the product at hand. But you did not get the feeling that you were being plied via group identity or appeal to authority or any other psychological ploy that ads are rife with today.

It could be said that these early ads were more innocent simply because the industry hadn’t yet built up its toolkit. There’s likely to be some truth in that. But let’s give the mad men of Skelton’s time more credit. Let’s assume that they were not as innocent as their ad copy seems to us today. The Red Skelton show ran for more than 40 years and it was a hit from cradle to grave. So it’s safe to say that they were not whistling in the dark.

Ads, Then & New: It’s the Difference Maker

So how have ads changed? Well, time for full disclosure. I do not have a television. I do not watch TV. I get my news online and I have not seen a traditional TV ad that I can easily remember in years–with the obvious exception of the Red Skelton ones. I am a creature of the Internet. So in order to perform my due diligence, I had to look at some modern televised ads. Naturally, I performed a search for 2018 Super Bowl ads.

What I saw, made me so ill, so shocked, abdominally taut and unwell that I nearly missed the deadline for this article. The advertisements I saw were so schizophrenic, manipulative, emotionally dystopian, snide, and lukewarm-blooded that I have turned my ad blocker software up to 11 as a precaution against further ocular contamination.

Alright, so what’s so bad about them really?

Why Modern TV Ads are Brutally Sinister

For one thing, they are heavily and yet disguisedly political. That is to say, major TV ad spots exude the polar ideals of reigning political parties and the consumer demographics associated with them–yet they do not say so. That is ugly and it insults the audience.

Next, the ads are so heavily edited, so full of jump cuts, over the top CGI, and focus-group produced eye-poppers that anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of the biology of the brain knows they are attempting to bypass the faculties of higher reasoning. This too is ugly and insults the audience.

Finally, they are self-loathing. It was interesting to note that last year’s Super Bowl ads were heavily cross-referential. That is to say, different ads made reference to the ads of other companies during commercial breaks. Most notably of these was the Tide ad, which went through an exhaustive series of motifs reflecting the standard motifs of other advertisers. In each segment, the ad relied on its main character to tell the audience that this was not a deodorant ad or a beer ad- but that it was, in fact, a Tide ad.

You might remember, there was a brief fad in which teens were eating Tide pods on YouTube videos. You’ll forgive me for waxing conspiratorial, but there appears to be a contagion of dumbness at work here–and Tide is tangentially connected. So, in review, the difference between the ads of yesteryear and those of today are the difference between low-sophistry/high-respect for the audience and high-sophistry/low-respect for the audience.

What’s the Diff, DL?

We could distill these differences down to simple familiarity, in the sense of being familial. Older ads were more familial. Newer ads are less so. Today’s ads make appeals to groups through their popular culture connections. Older ads appealed based on brand superiority and the senses. The Red Skelton House of Windsor ad argues that House of Windsor cigars are made from the finest tobaccos and that they are satisfying. It also appeals according to the personalities of popular caricatures, but this is done for comedic purposes–it does not lull or prod the audience into any particular group identity.

Modern ads despise their audiences and they despise themselves. They seek to manipulate through the appeal of trends and electric perception. They contain small doses of venom that only the inoculated can perceive. I am taking this time to warn you off of them in the sternest possible terms.

My Prescription: Pull the Plug

Alright so, content marketing professionals are not concerned about TV ads. We are concerned mostly with web copy–mostly text and image. We do not suffer to any great extent from the sickening sophistry that we see on television. (I’m now crossing myself every time I type that word.) But the warning to the mad men of the web still has pith. We MUST (yes, that was shouting) not lose respect for our audience.

The Internet has given people a way to learn and make connections that Top-Down TV media has forbidden for decades. If we do not treat our audiences with respect- they will see through us- and they will take their well-earned bitcoins elsewhere.

So in conclusion, I offer you one patrician piece of advice: Uninoculate yourself from television advertising. You can do it. Pull the plug on that cable and swear off it in total for at least six months. Then come back. You’ll see what I’m talking about and my warning will grab you by the limbic system.

And when you’ve done that, drop me a note. We can talk about ways to make respectful and familial appeals to your audiences, and sell them things that their forebrains want as much as their reptilian hindbrains do.


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