A spotlight on society: Nga Taonga Sound & Vision’s advertising exhibition gives an insight into how far New Zealand’s come

As products come and go, and brands change direction, advertising does the same. But what becomes of those pieces of work that are often the result of huge investment and production? Nga Taonga Sound & Vision, New Zealand’s moving image and sound archive, wants to make sure they don’t disappear, so it’s launched an online exhibition of over 300 ads that goes back to the 1920s with brands like Rawakelle Tea and Lux Soap Flakes to Lynx deodorant and Grainwaves chips. 

Called Sellebration, general manager of outreach and engagement Diane Pivac says it’s a celebration of the art of advertising, but also a reflection of New Zealand’s society at the time it was broadcast.

“They represented a moment in time and they reflect us back at ourselves, the clothes that we wore particularly, the way we said things and the things that became things we said like ‘yeah right’ and ‘bugger’—those things have become part of our vocabulary,” she says.

The work—predominantly from production companies such as Peach Wemyss Astor, Morrow Productions, Pacific Films, Birch Rising Productions, Aardvark Films, Silver Screen Productions and Flying Fish, and agencies including Charles Haines, Colenso and Saatchi & Saatchi—has been divided into decades to allow for easy finding of ads and easy comparisons between them all.

While advertising in New Zealand started in the 19th century, Sellebration goes as far back as the 1920s when cinema owners were making their own advertising slides on glass. But that doesn’t mean the ads were basic, as a Cole’s Footwear ad, demonstrates the use of text and video footage to shows the complete shoe-making process in nine minutes.

There’s also a 48-second animation for Sportsman Cigarettes to show the brand’s cigarettes are smoked by players of all sports.

A still from the Sportsman Cigarette ad.

While Pivac doesn’t expect people to remember those early ads, she says they’re a useful starting point to show how far advertising and New Zealand society has come over the years.

However, she says all ads are made in a paradigm and not everyone will feel like they’re represented in the mix, particularly when considering Maori and Pacific Islanders were not included in ads until the 1970s.

“We’re not saying for a moment that this is what New Zealand looks like or what we all agree to, but we do think that they reflect the way we were, the way we spoke, the music we were listening to, family roles and particularly changing attitudes to health and sexuality,” she says.

While no one blinks an eye during today’s television ad breaks when a condom brand and anti-domestic violence message is promoted, Pivac says ads on those topics would never have been seen during the beautiful, most elegant egalitarian society of the 1950s.

In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-80s that broadcasters became less coy about promoting products such as condoms due to the arrival of HIV AIDS. And by 1994, they’d loosened up enough for Lifestyle Condoms to win a New Zealand Radio Award for Best Commercial by a station.

Opening with the word ‘sex’, the ad talks about the risk of having unprotected sex with someone ‘who’s been around the block a couple of times’. It was commended at the awards for the way it advertised such a tricky product.

And while the topic of sex would have shocked listeners in the 1950s, what did appear in the ads back then was cigarette brands, which like Westend Cigarettes radio ad, promoted smoking as one of the pleasant things in life.

A 1950s Westend Cigarettes ad from Nga Taonga Sound & Vision video.

Smoking advertising was later banned in 1963 by broadcasting authorities in response to calls by the Medical Associations following research and evidence on the harm of smoking.

For Pivac, one of the ads she always goes back to when thinking about how far society has come is a 1983 Toyota Starlet spot set to Tom Jones’ ‘She’s a lady’. The spot equates the car to the female body as it flips between shots of the car’s features and a woman putting on pink lipstick and stiletto shoes.

“I’d like to think it wouldn’t be made in that way anymore,” Pivac says.

A still from the 1983 Toyota Starlet ad.

Not only does the exhibition reflect the concerns and preoccupations we held at during each decade, it also shows how far the technology and production behind the ads have come.

“We’re hoping people will enjoy them for the nostalgia and enjoy looking at them and getting a sense of change over time, if not in the messages but in the ad making itself,” she says, pointing out there are some great examples of animation as well as very simple ads in the mix.

While today we’re watching digital shake up the advertising industry with its hyper-targeting and ever-changing canvas, the introduction of TV in 1960 and then colour TV in 1973 were huge game changers.

Take a look at the ads of the 80s, before the stock market crash, Pivac says and you’ll see ads were major productions with beautiful cinematography shot in beautiful destinations. Now, many still have high production values but budgets have been reined in.

Pivac also says today’s ads are creeping into more areas of our lives because of hyper-targeting. While they’ve always targeted people she says, giving the example of ads that make women feel like they aren’t proper housewives if they don’t buy a particular detergent, or they’re not a proper woman if they don’t wear a particular lipstick, digital has made that ability even more specific.

These most recent changes also make for interesting comparisons between today’s ads and those of the 1920s, however, right now the exhibition doesn’t go past 2007.

Pivac says Nga Taonga Sound & Vision will be including more and it respond as best it can to the requests people make in the comment section.

Pivac says it hopes to start a conversation and people will let it know what they think of the ads as well as their own favourites.

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