Arts / Hard sell meets soft sell at the Library

IF you thought that advertising was an invention of the TV and digital age, think again, because the National Library of Australia’s newest exhibition, “The Sell: Australian Advertising, 1790s to 1990s” says otherwise.

pelaco-shirt-adCurator Susannah Helman has been deep in the Library’s advertising collections, tracing the hard sell way back to a 1796 theatre playbill and she has pulled together a wide range of themes showcased in the exhibition.

There’s the smiling face of Cheryl Kernot gracing a Democrats’ “Keep The Bastards Honest” poster, there are ads for Akubra hats, glamorous classics like the ad for “Redhead” matches, and on the arty side, a suite of posters for Robyn Archer’s show “A Star is torn” and an early poster for Bangarra Dance Theatre’s first show, “Praying Mantis Dreaming”.

From Australia’s dark past come ads for convict labour, alongside posters promising rewards for finding runaway convicts or bushrangers like Ben Hall.

Helman emphasises that this is a “something for everybody” show, with a strong emphasis on the tools of the advertising trade. In the old days one popular medium was the billboard, like the huge one for Minties that occupies one wall of the show.

And what of sex? Was that missing from early advertising?

With a smile Helman indicates a whole suite of risqué ads from swimming costumes and corsets to the alluring pastille, “Honey Kisses”, billed as “poems for the palate” – the art of copywriting may not have come much further than that.

“The Sell: Australian Advertising, 1790s to 1990s” opens today, November 23, at the National Library of Australia then runs until April 25. FREE exhibition.

Image above is “It is indeed a lovely shirt, sir!: Pelaco in Apparel: the Australian magazine for Men’s Stores, vol. 1, no. 2, March 1949, Australian Printed Collection,


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