The early history of promotional video: The ‘Golden Age’ of advertising

Promotional video has a long and rich history. From music videos to television advertisements and digital app promos, video is still one of the best tools in your arsenal when it comes to promoting your product, brand, or service. In this series of posts, we’ll be exploring the history of promotional video to demonstrate how dynamic and ultimately powerful video content can be.

In this series so far, we’ve explored the connections between promotional video and the history of music videos and propaganda in order to demonstrate the different ways video has been used to promote certain causes and products over the years. Against this backdrop, we can now explore the ways in which video helped to kickstart the PR and marketing industries we rely on today.

Following the end of the Second World War, you could say that many propagandists were out of a job. The postwar period was one of unparalleled prosperity and was undeniably the period when the idea of mass consumption became mainstream. Luxury products like televisions, cars, clothes, furniture, houses and appliances were becoming increasingly affordable. In the USA, these consumer goods were inevitably linked to the long-standing idea of the so-called American Dream—it’s where the (rather utopian) ideal of a suburban, white picket fence modern family life originates, after all.

This boom in consumer products accompanied explosive growth in the advertising industry, and so the 1950s and 60s became the era of a vast number of novel attempts at marketing and advertising. Popular cartoon characters were used to sell cigarettes in an early form of product placement, while drive-in cinema goers were now exposed at every intermission to video adverts for food, drink, and refreshments.

The Flintstones endorsing cigarettes in the 1950s

More significantly, the 50s saw the birth of long-standing advertising trends which are still prevalent in today’s modern environment. Family was now linked to consumption, and the ‘ideal’ nuclear family of 2 parents and 2 children began to be used to represent consumers across advertisements. Today, the idea of family is still used to promote products, particularly household products such as detergent—we are frequently exposed to, for example, images of middle-class men who enjoy football, beer and gadgets; meanwhile, women love glossy magazines and do most of the domestic labour. These visual tropes undeniably have their roots in the age of advertising born during 1950s.  

The 1950s also witnessed the birth of focus groups. These are still vastly used today to measure and assess the effectiveness of a promotional video. Marketers rely heavily upon focus groups to understand how different groups of consumers read and react to advertisements, and it’s again thanks to the pioneering efforts of the 1950s.

Images of family and children are still frequently used to sell household products on our screens.

Watching promotional video from the mid-20th century today, one can’t help but notice the outdated, antiquated values present in the advertising of the time. Children’s cartoons were used to sell cigarettes and coffee was used to reinforce outdated gender stereotypes. While our values are dramatically different in the modern day, it’s also hard not to feel as if many of these promotional videos are crude, outdated, and clumsy.

However, the age of mass consumerism in the mid-20th century trail blazed the way for the directors and marketers of today. Promotional video may be much more modern and forward-looking today, but the industry undoubtedly still take many cues from those early ways of advertising when it comes to making promotional videos in the modern world.