The Ad Exec: Ad exclusive — four decades of Esquire Magazine
by Tom Fels (@thomasfels) In December of 1967, Esquire magazine housed 308 pages filled to the brim with advertising, aimed at the ‘modern man’ — 166 ads in all, of which hard liquor and fashion took almost half the spoils between them, supported by 26 spreads promoting the latest men’s fragrances, and 19 introducing the latest advancements in audio and film equipment by the likes of Kodak, Canon, Pentax and Hitachi.
I know all of this because, on New Year’s Day, I was gifted an advertising ‘time-capsule’ of several Esquire magazines dated from 1967 to 1971. My father would have been in the army or university at the time, and the legacy of this ad era certainly lives on in his penchant for good whiskey and the familiar whiff of one of his signature colognes.
Flipping my way through the pages, I was amazed at the then-topical content and the many ads — a flashback to a time well before my birth. In the news: disdain over the Vietnam War, Andy Warhol, Martin Luther King’s legacy, Dennis Hopper and a landmark party thrown by author Truman Capote.
I was struck by how much had changed in exactly 47 years of this magazine and set out to review the most recent edition (of which I could only find the UK version in print locally) to uncover the trends in what is a landmark publishing and advertising journey.
Rihanna gone wild
By comparison, the UK edition kicks off with a half-dressed Rihanna, bent forward in a seductive pose, with her eyes egging you to flip through to her editorial where she reveals significantly more flesh.
We know there is a lot more competition for attention on the newsstand these days, but I’d argue that men’s titles have truly embraced ‘sex sells’ as their moniker and you’ll be hard pressed to find a month where a smoking-hot actress or model is not paying her bills on the cover.
In stark contrast, many aged titles feature figures of social or political importance as a precursor to the content inside — a guide for the worldly man, if you will.
One article from 1967 begins with a stark warning that “This report is 28 000 words long and so depressing that you may not be able to take it.” It is about war (in general) and, as you’d imagine, gives pretty comprehensive coverage to every angle of the subject, as well as the desirability of peace.
Of course, the US was by then already at war in Vietnam, but I think you’d appreciate that journalists of that time were more of the immersive Hunter S Thompson cannonballing type than many of today’s celebrity-hunting, restaurant-reviewing fare.
The single biggest category shift I observed is in the simply wild number of liquor ads — 15 in the old mag to every one featured in the new.
Also, as it was a December edition, many of the ads were related to the ‘gifting’ of liquor which isn’t played at heavily in current times.
Show vs tell
The ’60s and ’70s marked the introduction of many new technical innovations, and advertising clearly played its role of salesman to a tee. From new cars to cameras and even Scotch, brands waxed lyrical about product features, benefits and usability, unashamedly justifying the value for money one would derive from its purchase.
This was, in many ways, a time of deep intrinsic expression, where it was felt the consumer had to be told why a product was better than its competitor.
Then, with tech at his fingertips, he will self-select those brands he wants to engage with and learn more about. The ad is merely the visual foreplay.
One last thing
To conclude, it’s not just in the advertising or content, but in the ethos of my lucky find, that I am left with a thought. Or perhaps it is more of a feeling, that there is an essence of what it meant to be a man that somehow is no longer portrayed by today’s press.
Maybe it is an ironic lack of worldliness — as we are more connected than ever before — or simply instead that the definition of masculinity has changed and that the press is simply a mirror to our reality.
To put my finger on it, I sense the difference exists not so much in the stories themselves, but in the telling of them.
With a decade of local and international experience in leading brand consulting, design, shopper marketing and integrated advertising roles, Tom Fels (@thomasfels) has gained a deeply relevant understanding of the dynamics of agencies. His skills are put to work daily as group managing director of Publicis Machine. He contributes the monthly “The Ad Exec” column to MarkLives.
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