There Was No Golden Age of Advertising, So Quit Pining for It

If You Haven't Seen Any Good Work Lately, Then You Don't Know What It Looks Like

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Credit: Kelsey Dake
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Remember back in the day, when everything was better? The air was clean and a golden light shone on everything, including advertising. Especially advertising.

Every once in a while, we'll get a letter at Ad Age or, more likely, a web comment on one of our stories, bemoaning the passage of the golden age of advertising, when Creative Giants roamed the offices, brilliant ad copy trailing in their wakes. Their worst ideas were better than anything these young punks are putting out today, what with their bits and bytes and snap-tweets and Huluzons and what have you.

Why don't you all just get off my lawn?!?

Wait. I got carried away.

The fact is, there was no golden age. It didn't happen in learning, religion, world peace or advertising.

Recently, in the wake of the Volkswagen emission-cheating scandal, I read a piece stating that the automaker had squandered 50 years of advertising heritage. This is ludicrous on the face of it. VW might have squandered many things, but an advertising heritage isn't one of them. Yes, VW had some stellar advertising work in 1959 when the Beetle was launched in the U.S. The thought that the average consumer in the market for a Volkswagen today has any knowledge whatsoever of that advertising is laughable. To the average consumer, few brands have an actual advertising heritage. And Volkswagen isn't one of them. Even most ad experts would be hard-pressed to name anything between the "Think Small" work and "The Force," that cute Super Bowl ad with the Darth Vader kid (which, by the way, ran four years ago).

But that's the problem with advertising. The good stuff, people remember. The mediocre and bad stuff, which is the overwhelming bulk of any content -- advertising, TV, literature -- ends up forgotten.

Still, I've seen people say and/or write that there is no good advertising these days, that everything being churned out is crap. This is untrue. Experiential. Digital. Film. Outdoor. Business-to-business. Business-to-consumer.

Check out Cannes during any given year and I'd put this generation's work up against any generation that came before it.

Oh, but that's just creativity for creativity's sake, they'll counter; just some frustrated wannabe filmmakers from New York and California and Europe just patting themselves on the back. Actually, much of it isn't. In fact, you'll note a lot of "pure" creatives bemoaning the fact that there's too much emphasis on effectiveness at Cannes these days.

But, fine, forget Cannes. And go look at the Effies. Or a couple of Ad Age's own award shows, like Small Agency Awards and BtoB Best or the Modern Healthcare Awards. Some of the creativity on display is astounding. Before taking on this column, I spent a year reviewing ads. Many of them were forgettable. Some brought shame to the industry. But others were good. I've written before that this decade's crop of insurance advertising on TV is impressive. And without even trying I can recall the Caterpillar work from last year, in which a giant game of Jenga was played with earthmoving equipment. The "real" Hot Wheels campaign from a couple of years ago. Domino's savvy use of technology to sell that stuff it calls pizza. Holiday ads from U.K. retailers. And on and on.

Those who say there is no good advertising these days are only proving one of two things: They aren't paying attention to advertising anymore or they don't know good advertising when they see it.

When these people start up, in my head I start to hear the following lyrics:

Boy, the way Glenn Miller played
Songs that made the Hit Parade
Guys like us we had it made
Those were the days.

That, of course, is the theme song to "All in the Family." And what people often forget is that Archie Bunker wasn't meant to be a hero. He was the stuck-in-the-past buffoon. One of the subtexts of the song and the show is that the "guys like us" who "had it made" were white guys. This is true of "Mad Men" too. Great time to be alive. As long as you were an upper middle-class white guy. It wasn't the best time to be in the workforce if you were a person of color or a woman.

But I don't want this to sound like I'm beating up on the Greatest Generation or baby boomers, or talking about diversity. (God knows we don't want to talk about that in relation to advertising.)

The fact is, Gen Xers and even millennials are also quick to slide into nostalgia and start grousing about the woeful state of creativity and entertainment.

These days, there are a million Archie Bunkers on Facebook. You know the ones. The ones who were class-cutting, pot-smoking, sass-mouthing bullies who were always the first to embrace the profane. And now they're comment cops demanding that prayer be put back in school and grousing about the kids these days.

These people can be funny. And sometimes fun to hang out with. They're also consumers, so you need to know how to sell to them. But watch out for the nostalgia trap.

Yes, as Don Draper made clear in that one episode of "Mad Men" -- you know the one, the weepy one about Kodak -- nostalgia can be a powerful tool for marketing.

But it's a harmful trait in a marketer.

So instead of hunting for a past golden age, do your best to make future generations think this was their golden age.

Ken Wheaton is the editor of Advertising Age. His latest novel, "Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears," was published in 2014.