Photography Magazines: Advertising in the 1970s

Kodak advert in the journal of the Royal Photographic Society, 1970

One of the strange things about popular magazines and printed journals is, as they age the content becomes less and less important and the context of the advertising become more interesting.1

Photography magazines make a lot of about sharing professional photographic skills and techniques, but they’re really there to review and sell new camera gear to ‘enthusiasts’, even if most of it is used to take family snaps. While they have changed over the years, back in the 1970s they presented women in a patronising way that was part of the male dominated culture of the era. Glamour photography was a popular interest and it often featured in featured portfolios, galleries, and as a test subject for new camera equipment.

So, the sexist adverts in 1970s photography magazines come from a time when ‘glamour’ images of naked or scantily clad women were considered art or artistic. In the 1970s models wearing bikinis, perched on car bonnets at car shows, the Miss World competition, were part of the mainstream culture.

For us now, these images would be seen as outdated, politically incorrect, and comically inappropriate. Nonetheless, the cultural shift is interesting considering how much has (and has not changed in 50 years).2

Most of the advertising is promoting the convenience of new technology to consumers, or products and services aimed at the trade.

The history of consumer photography has been one of offering greater convenience. When photography started you needed to be an amateur scientist. The Kodak Brownie offered almost magical convenience. It’s a great example of radical simplicity providing an excellent user experience.

You press the button, we do the rest.

The Olympus Trip (1967 – 1984) (TV advert, YouTube) took convenience even further. And, in the 21 Century, the iPhone almost guarantees a sharp, properly exposed image, and 4K video from your phone.

The Kodak advert (a company which no longer exists in its original form) in the journal of the Royal Photographic Society is sexist and yet knowingly sexist in the way that it acknowledges its sexism.

What our paper ads need is a sexy dolly3

The sales rep looks out of place in the Kodak advert, like he’s travelled in time from 1953 or 1943 to 1970. The conversational tone of the writing is going for a spontaneous, ‘modern’ tone. The text is interesting too, because it’s aimed totally at men. ‘Dollies grab attention’ it begins and goes on to say, ‘let’s do what the other boys do’.

But, because the advert is in the journal of the Royal Photographic Society the model is wearing trousers and is not overtly naked. The image of her is part of the ‘just a bit of fun’ mindset of the advert.

There’s always a debate about images of women in photography magazines. Are they a sexist cliché? Are they a politically correct cliché? Are they a male fantasy? Are they a realistic representation? The debate is constantly changing.4

1 I’ve long been interested in printed magazines as cultural documents of their time. In the 1970s, the upmarket The New Yorker magazine was read by wealthy, aspiring connoisseurs of high culture and good taste (or at least its readers believed they imbued those qualities), but — more importantly — they had large disposable incomes, which the advertisers targeted. The 1970s spirits adverts in The New Yorker provide a fascinating insight into the culture of the times, and the inspiration behind the aspirant consumers of the era. The 1970s car adverts in The New Yorker reveal a world of semiological signals and signs, the stuff that Roland Barthes wrote so brilliantly about in his 1957 collection of essays Mythologies.

2 Advertisements from 50 years ago are culturally alien. I’m interested in them as someone who’s writing science fiction set in the future and pondering how people in 50 years time, or more, will see our world. The things that we consider harmless now will be completely unacceptable, and things that shock us now will become ordinary.

3 The use of the term ‘dolly’ references dolls, models, and air stewardesses (the so-called ‘trolley dolly’) but behind the blokey light humour there’s an unsettling tone, the patronising insinuation that can, so easily, slip into intimidation. It’s reminiscent of the way charismatic bullies use humour.

4 In an advert for the Volkswagen up! from a campaign in the 21st Century, a woman in a yellow dress strides past a yellow car. What stereotypes does the woman express? Is she empowered, confident and in control, or is she the 21st Century equivalent of Kodak’s ‘sexy dolly’?