Taking Advertising Into Account A Board Member At The Atwater Kent Museum Tries To Sell A Truly Local Idea.

Posted: December 06, 1999

Somewhere, perhaps in a box in the back of a closet, or in the bottom drawer of a rusty file cabinet, Philadelphia's advertising history is buried, dusty and forgotten.

And that frightens David Brown, particularly when Brown, an advertising executive himself, considers that Philadelphia was the home to America's first advertising agency, N.W. Ayer & Son Co., founded in 1894.

"We have to tell the story right," said Brown, president of Philadelphia's Beach Advertising & Graphics, sitting in a crowded office at the Atwater Kent Museum in Philadelphia. "And it seems to me that this is the perfect place to tell the story."

To Brown, an Atwater Kent board member, it only seems natural that the museum, which focuses on Philadelphia history, should take the lead in collecting, archiving and exhibiting Philadelphia's advertising past. Tomorrow, he will host members of the city's advertising community at the Atwater Kent for a $100-a-head reception and mini-exhibition of Philadelphia's advertising past.

Brown's goal, besides raising money and awareness, will be to persuade his advertising colleagues to unearth their treasures and donate them to the museum.

Atwater Kent is in the middle of a $17.6 million fund drive to build a 24,000-square-foot addition, renovate the existing building, and create an endowment for the preservation of its collection. Brown hopes there will be room in the new building for a permanent advertising exhibition.

"Advertising has set the pace for America in the 20th century," said Nancy Moses, executive director of the museum. "We live in a consumer age, but it was not necessarily true that a consumer society was predestined."

But, she said, "advertising is ubiquitous" and its constant presence has contributed to the way Americans in general - and Philadelphians in particular - think about themselves.

"You name a social issue, advertising is going to have an impact on how people think about it," she said.

Like the fine art in galleries and museums, advertising is created by photographers, painters and illustrators, but the aesthetics of the work are not what will earn it a place at the Atwater Kent.

"If we were sitting in an art museum," Moses said, "we might have to make an art argument [about the value of advertising], but this is a history museum."

Even so, she said, "An effective advertisement has an elegant simplicity, like a good chair, or a paper clip."

While Atwater Kent's collections will inevitably focus on Philadelphia's advertising legacy, Brown thinks the effort makes an important statement about today's advertising community.

"We've always had an inferiority complex, that we're not as good as New York," he said. "The perception is that we're passe - that this is where it started, but somehow it went away. But that's not true. We're still doing things that are shaping advertising."

Brown said that the local Addy advertising contests prove that Philadelphia has the talent. He hopes that the exhibition will provide insight about Philadelphia's current place in the world of advertising.

Philadelphia's early predominance in advertising "came out of the growth of the magazine business," said the museum's curator of collections, Jeffrey Ray. Philadelphia was the headquarters of the Curtis Publishing Co., which produced the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal, among other publications.

"Cyrus Curtis believed that you worked to make money to buy things, and all his magazines existed for one reason - to enable advertisers to reach the public. His company was an institution founded on faith - faith in advertising," Ray said.

"Someone had to represent the client's interests," he said. And that's where N.W. Ayer, now based in New York, and other advertising agencies came in.

N.W. Ayer, Ray said, produced the nation's first branding campaign for Uneeda crackers after the turn of the century. They were manufactured by another company that started in Philadelphia, National Biscuit Co., better known now as Nabisco.

Uneeda's hook was its packaging, Ray said. Crackers had been sold from barrels, but Uneeda crackers came in a package, where they presumably would stay fresher and crisper. The company spent a whopping million dollars in 1901 and 1902 to buy space for Uneeda print ads featuring a little boy in a bright yellow slicker carrying the crackers.

Atwater Kent's advertising collection, which already numbers thousands of pieces, includes such items as cigar-store Indians - those giant wooden sculptures that advertised to passersby that tobacco was sold inside.

Atwater Kent owns a pencil-case promotional product produced by A.C. Yates & Co., a boys' clothing store situated at 6th and Chestnut Streets in the 1890s. These days, advertising in schools is a controversial topic, but no one seemed to object to an A.C. Yates & Co. pencil case.

What Ray and Brown hope to collect along with the pieces are the stories that go with them.

Like this one, from Robert O. Bach, a retired N.W. Ayer creative director and account executive, who created a 1969 advertisement for the then brand-new Boeing 747. Headlined "The Spacious Age Begins," the print ad, carried over two pages, shows the plane just as it is lifting off.

Bach said he told Boeing executives that he wanted to photograph the plane as it took off on its test flight, so he sought their advice about how to capture the shot.

"They sent me to see the test pilot," Bach said. "He was out of central casting, a rumpled flight cap, smoking a big cigar.

"He said, 'Yeah, sonny, what do you want?'

"I said, 'Sir, I hope you can tell me where on the runway I should be so I can get a picture just as you lift off.'

"He took the cigar out of his mouth and said, 'Son, I don't know if this [airplane] is going to fly.'"

A former Atwater Kent board member, Edith Kaplan, was one of the first female copywriters and ad directors at N.W. Ayer. In the early 1950s, when automobile manufacturers finally realized that women had a pivotal role in car-buying decisions, Kaplan came up with such copy as:

"Snow for the holidays, everyone home and you, Plymouth - to complete the most wonderful Christmas any girl ever had!," begins the advertisement, showing a scarfed, black-haired beauty smiling from behind the windshield. "You're all I'd hoped so many years for - a long, wing-curved beauty with a festive glisten as we flash by. A free-spirited look that belies the lamb-like way you behave at a feather-weight touch of my hand."

What fascinates Brown, who heads the nation's second-oldest African American-owned advertising agency, is the role of blacks in advertising.

Slave owners often purchased front-page advertisements in newspapers offering rewards for runaways. Now companies spend millions on advertisements targeted to African Americans.

"We've gone from being products to being consumers," he said.

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