Has there really ever been a ‘Golden Age’ of advertising? Or, rather, is talking about one a kind of syndrome that strikes media types in their middle years and causes them to talk nostalgically or sentimentally about a mythical, better past – often using it as a benchmark to rubbish what is around now?
In his new autobiography, ‘The Fry Chronicles’, Stephen Fry talks about the first TV commercial he ever recorded. It was this one for Worthington in the early 1980s. When retelling the story he has what might be described as a bout of ‘Golden Age Syndrome’:
‘The golden age of British advertising was just coming to an end. The most prominent stars to have risen over the past decade had been Ridley and Tony Scott, Hugh Hudson, David Puttnam and Alan Parker, who now all devoted their time to feature films. Paul Weiland, a generation behind, had started his career as a tea boy at the production office where most of those big names had worked and was to become the leading commercials director of the eighties and nineties. Indeed he still reigns supreme.’
I’ll leave it to you to debate who reigns supreme or not as the case may be, but Fry is far from alone in thinking there is a lost golden age. Google “golden age” and “advertising” and it returns 9 million examples. The brilliant Mad Men has perpetuated the myth and may even be symptomatic of the syndrome.
My point is that I’m not convinced there has ever been a ‘golden age’ of advertising – unless we are still in it. Nothing has ended; I think it is more likely to be a question of perspective and that there is probably at least as much really good advertising around now as there was in the so-called ‘golden age’ of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Standards have not slipped; the problem is distance.
When those with longer memories peer into their minds’ rear-view mirrors, all they can see are the giant, outstanding ads on the distant horizon; the less good ones are not as memorable and so are less visible. So distance tricks them into thinking that things were generally better then.
Added to this is the fact that they can easily think of ads they might not highly rate that are on TV now or were in more recent memory – these are memorable because they are closer; in time, though, they will be forgotten. The great stuff stays in view; the less good slips from view.
There is also an argument that the creative bar has risen since the 70s and we have got used to a certain standard of creativity in our advertising. Something judged mediocre now may have wowed audiences back then. This is certainly true of TV programmes and, I would argue, advertising too.
And, if ads are so much worse now when we have so many technologies to avoid them, why are we watching more than ever (45 a day each) and going online to watch or share some again and again?
The ‘golden age’ claim belongs in the same realm as complaining that the weather used to be better, or that food doesn’t taste like it used to, or that music these days is rubbish. Fast forward twenty years when today’s crop of fresh faced graduates will be running the industry and I predict that there will be a similar wave of nostalgia for the golden age of advertising of the noughties; when Meerkats and Nikes delighted us, when flashmobs spontaneously danced in perfect unison, and when “Always a woman to me” meant a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye.
That’s what I think; what do you think? Advertising is nothing if not subjective.