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The Ghost of Christmas Past

by Glen Emerson Morris

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One of the presents waiting under Christmas trees this season is the latest incarnation of Pandora's box for advertisers; a ten volume set of 33 CD-ROMs containing every issue National Geographic has ever published, with the single exception of the most recent issues. The box art invites consumers to "Discover every fascinating article, spectacular photograph, and classic advertisement from the (fill in the decade.) " National Geographic, like many publishers with a vault of vintage material, is taking advantage of new technology to release their entire back catalog on CD-ROM. For the better or worse to advertisers, they are including all the original ads.

Publishers are beginning to realize that vintage advertising is actually an attractive feature of their older publications. A quick cruise through the 1950's volume of the National Geographic demonstrates why. The ads say as much about our world, and how it used to be, as the articles do. For instance, the January, 1950 issue has four full page ads for trains, and no ads for airlines. The December 1959 issue has three full page ads for airlines, one for an aircraft, and none for trains. Besides history, there's a high nostalgia factor. There's a series of ads for cheap Kodak cameras almost anyone alive then owned, and dozens of ads for more expensive and equally antique brands.

The public seems to find this kind of thing amusing, as will many advertising professionals. However, the companies whose advertising is being featured may be feeling considerably more than just amusement. The most common feeling may be helplessness, since advertisers apparently have no say about the reprinting of their ads in most cases. Some companies, like Coca-Cola, may also be elated at the free advertising they're getting. Other companies may not be as happy. There was a series of cigarette ads in the fifties that featured doctors promoting the health benefits of smoking a particular brand that is unlikely to help the tobacco industry's credibility in its current war.

Another interesting aspect of the flood of vintage advertising is that advertising is now being circulated which is illegal under current law. A huge loophole has emerged in advertising law, and it goes something like this. If Coca-Cola wants to run one of its vintage ads in a current magazine, the ad must conform to current law, not the law in effect when the ad was first published. But if Coca-Cola wants to help a publisher reprint a magazine from the thirties that prominently featured its ads, the law of the thirties is in effect, to the extent that any laws are in effect at all. If Congress manages to outlaw cigarette advertising, the tobacco industry may become the biggest subsidizer of digital magazine reprints. (Possible titles include The Marlboro Man presents Time Magazine 1950--1970.)

The resurgence of classic radio on the Internet, through applications like RealAudio, is raising similar issues. In the 1930's, radio programs frequently had only one sponsor, and the ads were integrated into the show so well it was sometimes difficult to tell when the show stopped and the advertising began. It is possible to hear Jack Benny pitching cigarettes on the Internet today, in radio shows he did a half a century ago, or more. Any attempt by the government to regulate this would be difficult to defend. The government has a right to regulate advertising, but not to revise history.

One of the most significant aspects of the Information Age is the quality of immediacy and timelessness it is creating. Much of what we know about the world comes to us through electronic media, and the difference between what is happening now, and what happened in the past, is just a difference of channels. Someday, every piece of surviving print or broadcast media will be available on demand, from the dawn of print and radio to last year's multimedia entertainment. Much of it will be available soon.

The recent Seybold Exhibition in San Francisco featured several software packages designed to put large amounts of magazine and newspaper back issues on the Internet, and in a searchable format. Most of these products preserve the original page layout, so it would actually take extra, and costly, effort to remove the ads. Given the relative affordability of these programs, and their capability, they're profit engines the publishing industry can't afford to overlook.

The next two years will see an explosion of back issues of magazines and newspapers on CD-ROM and the Internet. It will mark the beginning of a new kind of media environment, where ads never go away, they just get fewer hit counts. This change will add a new dimension to advertising production, and it must be understood and accounted for. Like wine, some advertising ages well, some advertising doesn't. Advertisers will have to learn to produce ads that age well on a consistent basis because, in the future, companies will be judged by every ad they ran in the past. It may be too late to keep the past from haunting us in the present, but we still have a chance to keep the present from haunting us in the future.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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