The more things change … Andrew Holt on Promoting Prosperity and the art of early Kiwi advertising

At Clemenger BBDO we believe firmly in the power of commercial creativity. It’s been part of our DNA since our inception in late ’60s Wellington and we affirm it everyday through our mantra: ‘The Work. The Work. The Work.’ And it turns out we are in very good company. In their new book Promoting Prosperity, Peter Alsop and Gary Stewart have created an inspiring celebration of the role of commercial art in the development of the economic, social and cultural fabric of New Zealand.

  • Check out a sampler of the book here.

Part social history, part award annual, Promoting Prosperity mixes eclectic essays with glorious imagery to document the role of advertising in shaping New Zealand’s drive for prosperity throughout the mid 20th Century.

Like any history, it’s as interesting for what it tells us about today as much as yesterday. As Churchill said, “the further backward you can look, the further forward you are likely to see” and so it is as we rediscover the world of advertising for Cavalier Hats ‘for men who care’, Cremoata ‘the national breakfast!’ and Rolfes’s Wax ‘outshines all others!!’. Indeed, overuse of exclamation marks aside, what is most striking about this work isn’t how much advertising has changed, but how much it fundamentally hasn’t.

That the ad industry formed as a self-conscious blend of art and commerce won’t surprise, but the enduring nature of two attendant tensions might. First that creativity and effectiveness have always jostled as if they are conflicting rather than causal aims. As the Goldberg agency proclaimed from Wellington in the 1920’s “commercial art needs to be relevant and have a definite sales focus, instead of being merely ‘pretty’. Second, that most of us in the ad industry have always secretly wished we were doing something ‘proper’ instead. “Commercial art is a wonderful profession” runs one early recruitment ad, protesting perhaps a tad too much. Promoting Prosperity does a wonderful job of restoring lost pride in the value of commercial art and artistry.

And what of the work itself? The book is a powerful reminder of the fundamentals of good storytelling: relevance and elegance. We may have elevated consumer understanding into a science but, as the best work here demonstrates, advertising has always been the art of reflecting universal human needs for social advancement (‘by appointment to the Very Best People’), national identity (the Empire’s star turn’), and even protection from ourselves (‘speed that thrills is speed that kills’). And if the stories still resonate, so does the storytelling. Whether through pictures that paint the proverbial thousand words, or economical copy that evokes a theatre of the mind, Promoting Prosperity shows us that our most valuable contribution to commerce has always been the ability to simplify.

But most importantly of all perhaps, it reminds us that whilst good advertising reflects the society from which it comes, great advertising helps to define it. A goal that is as inspiring today as it ever was.  

  • Andrew Holt is managing director of Clemenger BBDO, which is sponsoring tonight’s Wellington launch. [email protected]

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