Arts / The sizzle behind the sell

“IT’S time,” a larger-than-life Gough Whitlam roars at the viewer from a poster made famous during his successful 1972 election.

“Keep the bastards honest,” a more demure-looking Democrats leader Cheryl Kernot beams.

They’re ads you can’t forget, and now, reclaimed from the capacious vaults of the National Library, they are now on show to remind us that advertising is no mere contemporary art form, as it traces how advertising has evolved through social and technological changes from the 1790s to the 1990s.

The political posters are just some of the ads on display in the National Library of Australia’s enticingly-titled summer exhibition, “The Sell”.

Elsewhere, a handsome Paul Hogan relaxes with a Marlboro, a huge Minties billboard dominates one wall and the voluptuous redhead who advertises matches for the company of the same name surfaces in several different formats.

These are ads we’re so used to that we may ignore the fact that advertising is a branch of the creative arts, but curator Susannah Helman, who has been exploring the library’s files, shows us the bones of the profession and makes us realise that advertising has been around in this country for a very long time.

Take 1796, for instance, the year when the play “Jane Shore” was mounted in Sydney. There’s the handbill, so rare that it also appears in the current Canberra Museum and Gallery exhibition “Memory of the World in Canberra”.

While the splashier items, including an ad for Akubra hats, posters for Robyn Archer’s show “A Star is Torn” and Bangarra’s first show, “Praying Mantis Dreaming”, speak loud and clear to us, it would be a mistake to zip through this exhibition too fast, so to make a more reflective visit possible, Helman and her team have used extended captions to show us details of the ads.

Beginning in black and white with a dark insight into Australia’s past, we see ads for convict labour and posters offering rewards for the capture of runaways and bushrangers such as Ben Hall, making it clear that even then, admen played with font, style and size of print.

Teasing line-up of beauties for “Towel Week" from the '20s.

Teasing line-up of beauties for “Towel Week” from the ’20s.

I suggest to Helman that sex would be the one thing that, surely, would be missing from the 18th and 19th century ads. Wrong, she says, pointing to the risqué tone of many ads for corsets, the blunt language that appears in ads for bile tablets and the delicious teasing of a line-up of beauties covered by towels in “Towel Week: Not since 1914 have such values been offered. 1920s. Crisp Bros”. Sydney.

There is, as she says, something for everybody.

“The Sell: Australian Advertising, 1790s to 1990s” at the National Library of Australia until April 25. Free exhibition.

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