Design Trend Report: 50s Style Retro Ads

By on Feb 4, 2019 in Design Trends
Design Trend Report: 50s Style Retro Ads

When you think of 50s style, the first things that come to mind are likely drive-in theaters, soda fountains, and Elvis Presley. If you want a visual treat that appeals to your aesthetic side, though, you’ll start thinking about these marketing gems. These 50s style retro ads of a bygone era are every bit as interesting for their dated, cultural references as they are for their vintage visuals.

The midpoint of the 20th century was an exciting time for design trends because there were so many that were having a large-scale impact on society. From the classic Midcentury Modern that defined America after World War II to Swiss Design that exploded in the 50s all over the world, this decade was full of creativity.

In the midst of all of this, these sorts of ads helped to define culture at a pivotal time in history. In that spirit, let’s take a look at the design sensibilities of these ads, as well as admire some famous, indelible examples.

The History of 50s Style Retro Ads

The sixth decade of the 20th century was a remarkable time in the world, full of hope, certainly in the west. With World War II—the bloodiest battle in human history still fresh in everyone’s collective mind—recently over and won, America was just coming into its own as the world’s superpower. This peacetime climate of euphoria, marked by a roaring economy and returning servicemen who wanted to settle down and start families, created the necessary conditions for these retro ads to be developed.

For one thing, without a global war to fight anymore, people had a lot more time on their hands to build products and services—and then create the marketing necessary to sell them, as part of the postwar economic boom and the capitalism that ensured that it flourished.

Additionally, the landscape in the 50s just lent itself to advertising, due to the explosion of pop culture in TV, radio, comic books, science-fiction, and even pop art design. With all of these relatively new mediums in existence, an entire ad industry sprang up to satisfy the need to both promote and chronicle all of this—and to ensure that the growing industrialization of America and the west would continue to benefit from strong consumer spending.

For a deeper sense of how the ads from this decade stood out, see some of the most outstanding examples from our collection:

But to really understand where 50s style retro ads originated, we have to go back a couple of decades to see how advertising developed in the United States. To this end, mass marketing, which was a strategy to influence consumer purchases on a large scale by appealing to target demographics’ emotions and hidden or sublimated desires instead of their rational mind, was developed in the 1910s and 1920s. It hit into high gear by the midpoint of the 20th century.

The U.S. government even actively promoted advertising during the 1920s and 1930s, making it seem like a strange arrangement to us now, when much of the ad industry is privatized.

Because advertising was still a relatively novel concept and industry by the 50s, and consumers weren’t as savvy as they are now, practices that we would deem controversial today were actually quite commonplace back then.

The first such case that springs to mind is the widespread promotion of tobacco as not being dangerous, seen in numerous cigarette advertisements in the 50s. Tobacco companies even hired famed public relations expert Edward Louis Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, to put a positive spin on tobacco usage. As a result, we had a lot of retro ads that touted the “healthiness” of smoking cigarettes, along with the implied understanding that it was also cool and hip to do so. This marketing slant, of course, would continue on for numerous decades beyond the 50s.

To wit, the ad for Lucky cigarettes from 1956. The ad, with vibrant and lifelike illustrations, depicts a couple who have temporarily taken off their skis and taken a seat to enjoy the “cleaner” and “fresher” taste of this brand of smokes. The man in the ad has somehow even fitted two cigarettes into his mouth at the same time to better enjoy the “good-tasting” tobacco of these cigarettes.

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Image Credit: The American Tobacco Company

Critique aside, though, from a design standpoint, the ad used several design best practices to ensure maximum visual and communication effectiveness:

  • Symmetry (the couple is neatly centered in the frame)
  • White or negative space (the solid-colored background directs attention to the people in the ad)
  • Vibrant colors (the blue backdrop, the woman’s peach-colored sweater)
  • Easy-to-read and big headlines (with mainly sans-serif fonts)

Another controversial approach that didn’t get much criticism or attention in the early part of the 20th century was "sex sells" advertising, which is pretty self-explanatory. Though nowhere as in-your-face and obvious as it is today, this type of advertising was strategically used to sell a range of products back then.

The very first example of it—benign by today’s standards—was devised by a woman named Helen Lansdowne Resor to sell soap. Titled A Skin you love to touch, the 1911 ad featured a well-dressed man and woman, with the man clutching the woman closely to him and leering at her.

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Image Credit: Campaign Live

There are actually two variations of this groundbreaking ad. The version that ran in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1916 featured better, more lifelike illustrations. In this one, the man’s face is partially hidden behind the woman’s face, in profile, as he presses his face against hers, holds her hand, and touches her arm.

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Image Credit: Ladies' Home Journal

This subtle sex-sells advertising would continue with 50s style retro ads, pushing boundaries ever so slightly more, but still being very tame when compared to today’s standards.

In the example below, an ad from Royal Crown Cola from 1955, we see a woman in a one-piece bathing suit and red lipstick about to take a swig from a bottle of this brand of soda. At the same time, a claim of low calories is also made. Note the progression from the 1911 A Skin You Love to Touch ad—where the sensuality is more implied as the two people in the ad are fully clothed—to this Royal Crown Cola offering with bare skin showing.

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Image Credit: RC Cola

To be sure, not all 50s style retro ads were sensationalistic in nature. Not even close.

A take on these retro ads depicted more mundane scenes straight out of middle-class, American life. During the decade, it was very common to see special postcards called Linen Type postcards, and they were part of the Midcentury Modern approach to design.

These postcards generally featured:

  • A strong sense of Americana
  • Bright, vivid colors
  • Accessible illustrations (scenes of the beach, travel, etc.)
  • Themes that included technology, civilian life, and nature

Overall, the ad industry was still in its relative infancy in this decade. As a result, advertisers during this time were experimenting with various techniques to see what worked and what didn’t with audiences, which helps to explain the strong focus on psychological tactics to sell.

Also, keep in mind that, just before the 50s, propaganda graphic design was in full swing, with assistance from the U.S. government, to help the Allies win World War II. With this involved experience in producing and promoting propaganda, the entire ad industry learned a lot about psyops (psychological operations) and how they’re able to subtly influence a whole range of people.

The Characteristics of 50s Style Retro Ads

Regardless of how you feel about the blatant, psychological quality and strategy of these old-school ads, one thing’s for sure: they stand out powerfully. Take a look at one of these ads from yesteryear, and you know immediately from which decade it came. They have a unique look and feel that the ad world has moved away from in the last 70 years, but they’re every bit as eye-popping now as they were back then.

Here are some indelible signs that you’re looking at something straight from the midpoint of the 20th century:

  • Bold, striking and bright colors
  • Dramatic illustrations
  • Comic book-style drawings
  • Idealized, affected, or otherwise exaggerated interactions and scenes
  • Middle-class, accessible Americana references
  • Eye-catching typography of all sorts (sans serifs, serifs, scripts, slabs)
  • Cheesy taglines and slogans
  • Celebrations of products considered risky today

What makes ads like these stand out for sure is their campiness. Since consumers have wised up a lot over the decades from the constant barrage of commercials thrown their way, brands can’t really get away with this style of marketing to people anymore. Whereas the consumer was more naïve back then, today’s Internet-savvy (and perhaps more cynical) consumer would see right through this approach to advertising.

50s Style Retro Ads in Graphic Design

This design style has captivated the imagination of many a graphic designer, purely for its very noticeable aesthetic and unique ad direction. Here’s a sampling of some great offerings that harken back to days gone by.

1950s Retro Style Ad Templates

With 44 ad templates, this design asset is bursting with inspiration from the midpoint of the 20th century. Original illustrations in the templates take you on a trip down memory lane with nonstop references to the Americana of the Baby Boomer generation.

This digital asset features an Automatic Texturizer Photoshop effect preset that takes these retro styles and gives them an additional, vintage newspaper appearance. If you enjoy larger-than-life, affected illustrations done up in a classic, comic-book style, then this is definitely worth looking into. For hardcore lovers of the 50s only!

Designers can use this set of templates on a wide variety of projects, such as:

  • Invitations
  • Email newsletters
  • Websites
  • Blogs
  • Cards

Mid-Century Ad Elements – Retro Fun

The reference to Midcentury Modern design duly noted, this high-value set of old ad elements is a 50s aficionado’s dream come true. There’s something here for every designer who has ever waxed nostalgic or otherwise admired the ads of this bygone era targeted at the American Dream, the middle class, and Americana in general.

This set includes:

  • Kids inspired by the Stepford Wives
  • A family going on vacation
  • A librarian who pushes the boundaries
  • Dapper gentlemen
  • High-fashion ladies

Use these ad elements for a variety of projects, everything from newsletters and flyers to brochures and web-related designs.

The 1950s Retro Patterns Collections

As the name implies, this collection is your one-stop shop for all the creative assets you could possibly want that capture the essence of this memorable decade. One of the most creative decades in human history, boosted by postwar euphoria and technological leaps and bounds, the 50s showcased design style like no other era.

Designers looking to spruce up their projects with some old-fashioned designs will get:

  • 30 hand-drawn prints in the mold of Midcentury Modern design
  • 6 high-resolution paper and fabric textures
  • Swatch installation directions

Perfect for flyers, brochures, backgrounds, ads, logos, merchandise, and other projects, this collection features carefully hand-drawn illustrations turned into vectors, so you can customize and resize them without quality loss for any project. If you’re feeling extra creative, you can even create your own patterns from scratch.

50s Style Retro Ads as Web Design Inspiration

Getting to appreciate this design movement on the web takes this blast from the past to an entirely different level. Here are some of our favorite web designs infused with 50’s influence.

Fifties Web

Fifties Web is a site dedicated to all things 50s, 60s, and 70s, with a special emphasis on the midpoint of the century, of course. The site sets the tone right off the bat with its groovy logo: a 50s diner-inspired, black-and-white checkered design complete with bubble letters to appropriately complete this combination mark logo.

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The content here encompasses everything from the classic cars of this decade to its old TV shows, along with fashion and music thrown in for good measure. Its bold and vibrant color scheme, together with lots of white space, is also emblematic of retro ads.

Nostalgiaville USA

A site that’s perfectly named as a repository of everything 1950s, Nostalgiaville USA celebrates all the Americana unique to this memorable decade. The e-commerce site’s navigation features categories that give site visitors the chance to buy lovable, 50s kitsch like costumes, memorabilia, and even cardboard cars.

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The homepage features an eye-catching image of a classic car filled with French fries—an homage to all the diners and drive-ins of the era. As you scroll down the homepage and appreciate the site’s card-based design, you’ll notice further 50s-based images like cotton dice, the iconic Route 66 road sign, vintage clothing, and furniture, and even retro candy (atomic fireballs and edible candy cigarettes, yum!).

50s Style Retro Ads as Interior Design Inspiration

If you’d like to do up your home in this retro style, no problem. Here are a few pointers to get your home looking like something straight out of a typical 50s house in no time.

Bright Pastel Colors

There’s a reason every TV show or movie you’ve ever watched that spotlighted this decade used striking colors in their sets. That’s because pastel colors were all the rage in this decade. Pastels are defined as high-saturation colors that, however, are at their lightest values. This creates a smooth feeling of coolness, calm and softness, which is great for spring and summer.

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Image Credit: Wikipedia, Courtesy of MichaelMaggs

Pastels generally include colors such as:

  • Pink
  • Turquoise
  • Baby blue
  • Mauve
  • Lavender
  • Periwinkle
  • Pale yellow
  • Mint green

Honorable mention: Scandinavian design colors like gray, brown, and cream were also popular during this decade.

Scandinavian Furniture

Scandinavian design made a splash not just with its color schemes, but also with its furnishings. The modern, timeless and minimalist design philosophy of Scandinavian design was much beloved by the 50s crowd for its ability to bring a sense of quiet sophistication to any middle-class living room.

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Image Credit: Wikipedia, Courtesy of CrazyD

A distinct feature of furniture in this style was its heavily textured appearance, especially in earth tone colors like tan and brown.

Luckily, Scandinavian furniture endures in the 21st century, so it shouldn’t be hard to find a few good pieces for your home today.

Patterns

The decade produced quite a number of popular patterns that you’d see on the walls and furniture of your average American home. For starters, fabrics that sported anything from fruits and flowers to much more abstract design were a common sight, but that was only the beginning.

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Image Credit: Wikipedia, Courtesy of Mike Toews

Visit a run-of-the-mill home back then, and you’d be treated to even more daring patterns like:

  • Polka dots
  • Checks
  • Stripes
  • Stars
  • Space-inspired graphics like planets and galaxies

To recreate this nostalgia in your home today, have these unique patterns made for your tablecloths, wallpapers, curtains, and upholstery.

Take a Trip Down Memory Lane

50s style retro ads are enjoyable for a couple of reasons. From a purely design-based aesthetic, they’re bright, colorful, campy, and sensationalistic—perfect for design connoisseurs as well as creatives looking to learn a thing or two about the finer points of basic design principles like contrast, color schemes, and typography.

The other big benefit to designers is that these old-school ads can teach you a thing or two about the psychological aspect of marketing. Sure, many of these ads use tactics that consumers are now on to and are more skeptical about after decades of being barraged by them, but they still provide you with an eye-opening introduction to how ads can appeal to your audience’s emotions and hidden desires.

All in all, these vintage ads are a visual treat for your eyes and examples of sound marketing.


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