The Local in Advertising: From Georgian Doors, to the Pulp Fiction of Chip Ads, to Jack Daniel’s typefaces

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National Geographic RM. Mural painting depicting local life on a wall in downtown Cusco.

National Geographic RM. Mural painting depicting local life on a wall in downtown Cusco.

In an age when we are connected everywhere, visualizing the local in campaigns and communications isn’t straightforward.  We look at a classic print campaign and discover the local played out in poetry and chips

When did ‘local’ get so buzzy? When did ‘local’ become not just a matter of geography, but a sign of value, an endorsement? When did ‘local’ escape the parochial and small-minded ? To a young man growing up in recession-hit Dublin of the 1980s, local didn’t feel ‘authentic’, or if it did, ‘authentic’ meant drab and grey. And then there was the Irish Tourist Board.

Ad Agency exec Bob Fearon’s image for the Irish Tourist Board, originally destined solely for tourist board offices in New York, became an incredibly successful calling card round the world from the 1970s onwards. You can see why, it’s a beautiful piece of design constructed from found images, and it helped put pressure on government planning departments who saw these doors as relics of Ireland’s colonial past.

I'm not sure whether this is the original by Bob Fearon. From memory I thought there was white type coming out of a black background. Not sure either whether the original had celtic script. It feels more 'authentic', more original, but of course these were 'colonial doors' built in what was the Empire's second city so Celtic script might feel local, but doesn't connected to lived reality.

I’m not sure whether this is the original by Bob Fearon. From memory I thought there was white type coming out of a black background. Not sure either whether the original had Celtic script. It feels more ‘authentic’, more original, but of course these were ‘colonial doors’ built in what was the Empire’s second city so Celtic script might feel local, but doesn’t connected to lived reality.

But for a younger generation, in a country whose economy was blown away by the recession of the 1980s, the poster was a metaphor for the closed doors of Ireland’s economy and establishment. Its typeface might have looked ‘authentic’ to potential visitors, but to many young people the Gaelic script was a sign of a country that couldn’t cope with modernity. This poster was as beautiful as it was ubiquitous in bars and legal, accountancy and insurance  offices in central Dublin.  To potential tourists elsewhere this signifier of the ‘local’ was an invitation to visit Ireland, for young Irish men and women it was an invitation to emigrate.

‘Local’, and ‘local’ imagery has had growing cachet and romance over the last decade as a response to both the economic consequences of Globalization and the impact of the internet. Surely it was time to sit up and take notice when McDonald’s changed their name to Macca’s for a month in Australia last year. But it’s arguable that our modern idea of the ‘local’ in relation to the Global arrived via a photograph. Taken with a modified Hasselblad 500 EL by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders in 1968, ‘Earthrise’ shows the earth, floating in space and for many it was a sign both of our fragility and our connectedness to each other. Astronaut Jim Lovell observed in a transmission from the crew that, “the vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.”

Image Credit: NASA

Image Credit: NASA

And remember the episode of Mad Men when Pete Campbell has an existential funk, spending an adulterous night with a woman who compares his eyes to pictures of the moon from space, “It didn’t bother you to see the world tiny and unprotected, surrounded by darkness?” And all Pete wanted was some guilt-free cheating. And of course  earlier in the decade there was technology guru Marshall McLuhan, writing in 1962’s The Gutenberg Galaxy in the age of TV and telephonic communication that, “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.”

Since the idea of the Global Village, and the image of Earth from space (an image which writer and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and the Global Business Network Stewart Brand understood would change our relationship to the environment), the idea of the ‘local’ has always had association with Ecology, with our being connected – “Think Global, Act Local” the slogan of environmentalists since the 1970s.

The cover of Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog, a magazine dedicated to providing information for a sustainable lifestyle.

The cover of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, a magazine dedicated to providing information for a sustainable lifestyle.

And then the world really did get miniaturized. Almost as fast you can say smartphone, the world got customized, connected and delivered to the palm of our hands. This photo by Cornelia Schauermann captures the pace of the local, the dog taking the owner for a walk. But the smartphone in the hand of the young woman is like a Tardis, can take her, emotionally, psychologically anywhere else in the world as fast as her phone company will allow. 

Image Source RF / Cornelia Schauermann

Image Source RF / Cornelia Schauermann

TV Advertising in recent years has happened on a strange, unique and obviously effective formula to signal the local – poetry read in a regional accent. It ticks off authenticity box too. Take this ad for Magners cider, whose cider is marketed as ultra-local-Irish – ‘Irish’  stands for raw/local/rebel, a free-thinking wanderer in contrast to the mannered straight lines of Mr. Conformist.

 

Visually the local also signifies nostalgia – check the juke-box, the vegetable boxes, then the piano for a sing-song just like the old days, no cable TV here. Though the poem itself was originally written by English poet Murray Lachlan Young, in the context  of advertising it cant help but feel part of that tradition of faux-folk. Illustrator Hanna Berry was moved to capture this poetry/local/authenticity trend in verse.

It’s folksy!” They cry, “They’ll reminisce

About those rosy days they miss

Country sayings, nursery rhymes

Old wisdom gleaned from bygone times.

A canny bumpkin educates us

On microwaveable baked potaters.

It’s boy-next-door, it’s trusted friend

A kindly elder who recommends

A hotel room or fast food chain:

A nostalgia prion in the brain.

And just as advertising has always folded in ‘rebellion’ and ‘anti-establishment’ attitudes into its creative so the criticism and of faux-folk comes from Advertising such as this McCain’s ad with a voiceover from the snarling/bitter/cynical pop icon Mark E. Smith vocalist for post-punk band The Fall. It also goes to town on the visual vernacular, from hand-lettering on walls to cloud-made typefaces, it’s the Pulp Fiction of chip ads.

Ad Man David Ogilvy wrote, “If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular.” Or you could phrase it more precisely, copywriters and Art Directors imagine the vernacular and the local in highly seductive ways.

In the worlds of pop culture, Art and Design, the vernacular and the local has always stood for the unconventional, to signal a challenge to the official. I’m still struck by the murals along the wall in the local Marks & Spencer store in London that champions the produce of a local farmer in a letterpress typeface in a space that otherwise is designed to be a cool and fairly anonymous department store.

Visually ‘local’ has always meant faded rather than shiny, Doctor Benjamin Stone rather than Doc Hollywood, ‘Local’ as a signifier is always eccentric, and in real life is often truly and magically eccentric  signaling local character and ‘authenticity.

Robert Harding World Imagery / Rights Managed. Mexican folk art, Santa Fe, New Mexico, United States of America, North America

Robert Harding World Imagery / Rights Managed.
Mexican folk art, Santa Fe, New Mexico, United States of America, North America

It’s why whiskeys marketing their unique flavor created in unique terrains use ‘vintage’ typefaces to create a general impression, modern ones for product information.

Typefaces for Jack Daniels by Carlos Seguro Inc., with a nod on their site to Rod Cavazos

Typefaces for Jack Daniels by Carlos Segura Inc., with a nod on their site to Rod Cavazos

But in the age of digital marketing ‘local’ can get complicated. This image from a campaign by Arnold working with letterpress printer Yee-Haw Industries, like Jack Daniels based in Tennessee, travelled too far from its original idea according to Ad Week 

JUS_Indpdence_Bottle-Bars

“’As American As,’ which is basically a celebration of America as it used to be – a land of physical rather than virtual invention. Everything in the commercial is old and weathered. Sharing thumbnail JPGs of letterpress posters must be one of the most inauthentic things you could possibly do. It’s like listening to Mozart through Macbook speakers, or watching Blue Velvet on an iPhone.”

Irish-American politician Tip O’Neill used to say, “all politics is local”, in the age of the Global Village, of being connected everywhere via the smartphone in our pocket getting, ‘local’ right in communications is a bigger challenge than ever. Over the next few weeks we’ll be talking to photographers, art buyers and editors about the innovative tools businesses, magazines and citizens are developing to express and tap into the local.

 

 

 

 

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