Ad Boy: Vintage Advertising with Character

Ad Boy is little more than a scrapbook, albeit a bright, shiny and reasonably well-organized one. This collection of images, depicting characters dreamed up to shill for everything from spark plugs to soft drinks, offers plenty of colorful eye candy, but little in the way of context, to say nothing of analysis.

Ad Boy is like a companion volume to Dotz and Husain’s earlier work, Meet Mr. Product, if not for the fact that the two books contain some of the very same characters. If anything, Mr. Product stands out as a stronger work, offering as it does more in the way of context and analysis.

The rear cover blurb suggests that “illustrators, graphic designers, advertising enthusiasts, and nostalgia buffs” are the book’s target audience, but the latter two categories may be disappointed by how little they learn about these mascots and the companies they represent. Each image is accompanied with a company name, a date and an indication of where the image appeared. For example, we’re told that a fellow named Quisp, who sports a propeller on top of his head and a goofy facial expression, was found on a “water decal” in 1972 to promote Quisp cereal.

For companies that are still around, or whose provenance is easily enough ascertained, this is plenty of information. Other characters, like our friend Quisp, are less familiar. These “delightfully different” fellows include “Mr. Pli-Moor”, an anthropomorphic rope who advertises “the rope that relaxes”, and appears to be reclining in a hammock made of his own body.

No information is given to place regional companies and chains, such as Mr. Steak, Red Barn Restaurant and Churchies, in a particular region of North America. The reader may not recognize many of these companies or know anything about them.

The characters of Ad Boy are sorted out into broad categories, arranged alphabetically, from Alphabet, Bees and Candy, to Snowmen, Toys and Vote. Short, explanatory paragraphs appear every couple of pages. The authors’ analysis veers into stating the obvious at times, such as their note that images of Native American women represent “nature’s wholesome beauty”, but much of what they add does shed light on their subject matter.

It may not be obvious to the modern reader, for example, that plaid patterns were used in advertising to suggest good bargains, based on the idea, however stereotypical, that the Scottish are thrifty. The authors also point out how midcentury advertising, particularly for spirits, was influenced by artists such as Pablo Picasso, giving the companies a sophisticated, European air by association.

Nothing negative can be said about the images themselves; they are reproduced here in crisp, vivid color. The authors note at the end of the book that all the items depicted in Ad Boy are from their personal collections. One can only imagine how lovingly these pin-backs, packages, signs and fliers have been cared for by Dotz and Husain to appear so beautifully herein.

Given how deep advertising images seem to sink into one’s consciousness, this book will no doubt rekindle many memories for those who remember the days of Miss Fluffy Rice, Teddy Snow Crop (promoting Florida oranges) and the Sun-Maid Raisins Wrangler.

While lovers of midcentury graphic arts may find enough to enjoy in the pages of Ad Boy, casual readers may be left wanting. In the end, this is not really a book to be read, but rather one to be looked at. Unfortunately, like many of the fast-food products mentioned within, the experience is sweet enough, but lacking in substance.

RATING 6 / 10