James B. Twitchell's celebration of the greatest 20 hits of the U.S. advertising industry shows how a thoughtful consideration of ads can add up to a fascinating social history. From Lydia Pinkham's patent medicines (said to cure all serious "Female Complaints") to Nike shoes worn by Michael Jordan, Twitchell gives us a quickie history of the ads that hit home and transformed our culture--the ones that "really had the beef," as he puts it. Some of the feats are amazing. The dazzling "Diamonds are forever" campaign managed to take not particularly rare rocks and transform them into sacred amulets practically everyone buys and never sells (which would depress their value). The ads brilliantly used honeymoon scenes by famous artists and swoony copy to woo women, while devoting a corner of each ad to fact-packed boxes reassuring men that diamonds were sound investments priced according to scientific principles. The jujitsu-psychology techniques of the VW Bug and Avis "We Try Harder" get their due, as does the "Does She... or Doesn't She?" ad that convinced women they could color their graying hair with Clairol's new one-step technology. The racy innuendo appealed to people fearing loss of appeal; the presence of young daughters in the pictures neutralized the floozy image dyeing used to have, and the line "Only her hairdresser knows for sure" soothed the salons that were about to lose their business once women figured out they could use Clairol at home.
There are all kinds of cool stories in this breezy book: how Anacin's $8,200 TV spot depicting a hammer in the headache sufferer's head earned $36 million; how Coke remade Santa literally in its own artist's image; how LBJ beat Goldwater partly because of a single 30-second ad featuring a girl resembling the murder victim in Frankenstein plucking and counting daisy petals while an announcer counts down to a nuclear blast that reminded voters of Goldwater's speeches about nuking Vietnam and made them forget the war was LBJ's fault in the first place. --Tim Appelo