A social history, no matter how you view it

June 18, 2015 / Features

By Jacqueline Holmes

Advertising is a unique tool for understanding the past.

Advertising has become a great barometer and record of our social change and history over the decades. Whether in print or on TV, ads and commercials have mirrored society reflecting the changing settings, fashions, language, products and attitudes which have enticed consumers, offering an insight into how we Brits lived our lives. 

A BBC TV Washes Whiter series, first broadcast in 1990, explored these changes in depth tracking the changing face of British advertising. Researchers collected thousands of TV commercials on a variety of formats from numerous agencies across the industry with only a fraction making the final cut. The entire collection however, was then transferred onto 1-inch videotape. In 2007, the BBC donated the 110 VT 1 inch tapes to The History of Advertising Trust (HAT), an archive regarded as a national treasure collected over the last 40 years and home to the industry’s archive. 

Thanks to the HAT charity’s expertise and equipment donated by the local ITV Anglia studio, the unique collection of ads from the Washes Whiter series is now preserved and being digitised by HAT. Programmes from the BBC series can be seen on YouTube:

The first in the 5 part series is entitled She’s Not a Moron – She’s Your Wife – a well-known comment attributed to advertising executive David Ogilvy 1955. Ogilvy suggested that customers should be treated more sympathetically, in softer tones and regarded as intelligent customers and not patronised.

She’s Not a Moron… focused on the changing role of women in society and the emergence of a new, post-war domestic environment. In the first half of the 20th century, cinema advertising – the forerunner of TV commercials – had  been mainly aimed at men and the war had seen women taken out of the kitchen and home to work in the factories and on the land.

Now, with the war over, TV commercials were produced to appeal to the female customer. They focused on products that could help women fulfil their new roles as they adjusted to being the homemaker, a mother and a good wife. Commercials were aimed at the woman at home in charge of their own domestic bliss! They showed how women could take pride in their housework – their families’ clothes were whiter – think cleaner – than the next person’s, which was the mark of a successful mother and wife. Even with the introduction of frozen foods and cake mixes, a frozen pie still had to be baked just right and an egg added to the mix to create a perfect sponge.

The thousands of Washes Whiter commercials from 1955-89 along with the British Arrows Archive of more than 25,000 award-winning TV commercials from 1976 to the present day are now available through the History of Advertising Trust. They provide a fascinating moving-image record of advertising right from the start of commercial TV in 1955.

These ads are held alongside records, documents, artefacts and images of various organisations, brands, agencies and campaigns charting the history of advertising back to the 1800s. The HAT Archive is regarded as the largest archive of British advertising in the world, reflecting changes in our social history and providing a unique resource for advertisers, broadcasters, researchers and students.

Washes Whiter was an early success story for HAT Archive and the charity continues to acquire, preserve and, very importantly, provide access to other collections from the industry and operate an efficient and reliable service to ensure they are preserved and accessible. The HAT Archive has featured in other ‘ad inspired’ series including ITV’s Ade in Adland, the BBC’s Back in Time for Dinner and a wide variety of other TV and Radio broadcasts from game shows to factual and foodie to footie docs. Take a look at HAT and prepare to be inspired!

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