Brought to you by The National Library of Australia

A delightfully emotive exhibition of iconic Australian advertising at the National Library of Australia provides a trip down memory lane that will have you humming jingles you thought you’d long forgotten. 

How did Ford market one of its very first cars? With the slogan “cheaper to run than a horse”, of course. 

How does a fledgling nation attract new immigrants to its shores? Simple, just serve up a series of ads in the UK inviting “The British Domestic Girl” to come on over.

And how does a company differentiate something as common as a light bulb in the late 1940s? Just add an image of a scantily clad woman and four words – “Easy on the eyes”.

Mad Men indeed! A bit like a barometer of our national psyche, advertisements provide a fascinating insight into how much – and, in some cases, how little – attitudes have changed. Throughout our nation’s history, Australia’s own Mad Men have captured attitudes, cultures and social mores through their words and images. Perhaps more so than any other profession, they understand what makes us tick – after all, their success depends upon it.

Now some of their greatest and most iconic pieces will be on show at a free exhibition called The Sell: Australian Advertising 1790s to 1990s at the National Library of Australia in Canberra.

From November 23 to April 25, The Sell takes visitors on a trip down memory lane that will raise smiles with some oldies but goodies ranging from men’s fashion – for example, Pelaco’s “It is indeed a lovely shirt, sir” campaign from 1949 – to household items including the mid-1950s ad “Which Hills Hoist is best for me?” Not forgetting the airlines, of course, there’s Qantas’s memorable ad from 1970, “Smart women fly QANTAS, it’s the height of fashion!” And many will remember the simple but effective words of the 1977 national public health campaign, “Life. Be in it.”

This comprehensive and rich collection of Australian ads also includes classics such as Mortein’s Louie the Fly, who first flew into our homes in 1957, as well as the “I like Aeroplane Jelly” and “Happy Little Vegemites” jingles, and the Redheads matches girl. 

A favourite of the exhibition’s curator, Susannah Helman, is an ad for Stamina Trousers with the tagline “For pleasure in leisure”.

“The language can seem quaint and attitudes sometimes sexist but if you put that aside you can see, through these advertisements, a real complexity of life,” Helman says. “You get a unique view of a fully functioning society in a time before the internet.”

Perhaps the most surprising ad is one for Penfolds Hospital Brandy. That’s right – an alcohol product specifically designed for, and marketed towards, the seriously ill. “I never lose hope when my patients have Penfolds,” a nurse says. Laughter really is the best medicine!

For more information on the exhibition click here.

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