The man from Russia -- an Englishman, actually -- got lucky. His dogged search led him to the John Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History in the Special Collections Library at Duke University in Durham, N.C., which was able to give him some help. While not a comprehensive advertising archives -- such an animal does not exist -- the Hartman Center has probably the largest collection of advertising materials in the world, the most important of which are the J. Walter Thompson Company Archives and the Outdoor Advertising Association of America Archives. The center's entire collection, which also includes files of competitive ads, agency business records and communications with clients, as well as collections from DMB&B and the Mobius Awards, takes up 4,000 feet of shelving.
JWT and DMB&B, which donated their archives to the Hartman Center, are among the few agencies that have kept extensive records of their work. Most agencies tend to hold onto only what is deemed their best creative work and the work they are most known for, and the rest gets lost in the shuffle.
But why are agencies generally such lousy record keepers? "It's a combination of really looking forward so much of the time, and an uncertainty about the importance of the work," speculates Ellen Gartrell, the director of the Hartman Center. "And maybe even an insecurity about the value of what they're doing."
"The advertising business is not an infrastructure-heavy business," says Nora Slattery, director of corporate communications at Ogilvy & Mather/New York, which has kept its better-known work. "To archive and catalog advertising for historical purposes is a luxury most agencies can't afford."
Leo Burnett in Chicago is one of the best at cataloging work -- not only from its own offices but from agencies all over the world. Its Great Commercial Library has 4,500 of what Burnett deems the best commercials ever made, and that collection is constantly updated and broken down into categories and sub-categories for cross-referencing. Its Global Commercial Library has 10 times that many spots and goes further back in time. The vast collection is "an intellectual weapon to fight for better work," points out Michael Conrad, Burnett's vice
chairman and chief creative officer.
The drawback here, though, is that access to Burnett's archives is extended only to those in its worldwide network, and its clients and prospective clients. Fortunately for students and anyone else who has a question about advertising history, there are non-profit organizations like the Hartman Center that are open to anyone and will track down requested information, often for a reasonable fee. (A company might pay $50-$75 per hour to the Hartman Center depending on its size, for example, but a student would pay far less. Charges by other organizations that care for ad archives vary. Some charge only duplication fees, and others nothing at all.)
Pockets of resource material are scattered around the country. The D'Arcy Collection from the agency's St. Louis office, including early Coke ads, is housed at the University of Illinois at Urbana. The Ted Bates Collection, along with a variety of commercials from other agencies, is at the Brooklyn College Television Advertising and Culture Archives. Foote, Cone & Belding in Chicago gave its archives to the Wisconsin State Historical Society. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., has the NW Ayer Collection -- including 600,000 proof sheets from campaigns the agency ran between 1889 and the 1970s -- and the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, whose two million items include trade cards, posters, and in-depth examination of modern ad campaigns such as Pepsi, Marlboro, Alka-Seltzer, Federal Express and Nike.
"It's powerful evidence about what people are thinking, feeling or observing that complements written sources for studying history," says John Fleckner, chief archivist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, of the value of old advertising. "It tells us about broad cultural values, and about the advertising industry and the production and selling of consumer goods."
Fleckner believes the dearth of ad archives is a reflection of the nature of the ad industry itself. "It's very decentralized -- advertising goes on not just on Madison Avenue but in every little place in America," he says. "The creators of advertising, as organizations, often have short life spans. They come and they go and they merge. As a result, there are few repositories with large advertising collections. [The collections] don't date back very far, and only a few are fairly well developed compared to, say, the history of physics or political life in America. The corporate world is not well-represented in archives. But even among corporations, advertising agencies are underrepresented."
In Portland, Ore., there is the American Advertising Museum, founded in 1986, which has about three million TV, radio and print items. "We focus on award-winning work, but we've had agencies contact us who are cleaning out and want to donate their collections -- and we take them," says museum administrator Catherine Coleman. Advertising has always grabbed "whatever the nation's mindset is at the time," she adds. "It's like a history book you get to walk through."
The Museum of TV & Radio in New York provides a permanent home to roughly 14,000 commercials, mostly TV, and that is always increasing. "We look for things that represent excellence in the field; or things that are historically significant, which changed the industry in some way," says David Bushman, the museum's curator of television and advertising. "Apple's '1984' commercial would be a classic example."
There are efforts underway to establish an even more comprehensive Museum of Advertising in New York, though no details were available at press time. Indeed, Bushman and others believe that advertising collections are destined to grow. "There's a new consciousness about [preserving ads] that wasn't there 10 years ago," he observes. "It's a constantly improving situation."
In 1963, at age 10, budding cinema buff Jean-Marie Boursicot made a stunning discovery: hardly anyone is interested in hanging on to commercials. When Boursicot went back to the projectionist's booth after a show one day to see if he could get a copy of the movie, the only reels he could find were the discarded cinema spots. "When I was older, I understood that nobody conserved advertising films, and I decided to create my library," Boursicot says.
Today, Boursicot's bibliotheque takes up 600 square meters of storage space. The Frenchman is not only the guardian of 460,000 commercials from all over the world -- a calling that has garnered him the moniker La Memoire de la Publicite (Advertising's Memory) -- but the founder of La Nuit des Publivores, the seven-hour screening of commercials classics that draws about 2,000 advertising fans per night -- and as many as 4,000 in Paris and 6,000 in Beijing. Since its inception in 1980 in Paris, it has been shown in 40 countries on five continents. "It's a cinema show, not an advertising compilation," Boursicot stresses. "It's art."
Boursicot, whose contacts in 60 countries send him commercials for his collection, does not think highly of the ad industry's scattershot efforts to preserve its creative heritage. "Nobody in the world today -- advertising agencies, producers, media companies -- conserves advertising films," he laments, taking a wee bit of liberty with the truth. "Everybody thinks that somebody is collecting them, but nobody knows who."
Boursicot would hate to see all that historically significant material go to waste. "It's interesting to see the evolution of society through commercials," he says. "But for an advertising company, it's not important. Advertising people