Promoting Prosperity, by Peter Alsop & Gary Stewart

ImageThis book is available in bookstores nationwide.

Internationally, New Zealand has long advertised itself as a prosperous land of natural splendour with a resultant surplus in primary products. Selling the Dream, the recent offering by Alsop, Stewart and Bamford, dealt with the art that shaped and characterized early New Zealand tourism. Art that promoted mountain and lamb, butter and beef, apple and hot pool.

Hot on the heels of the dream has come a second magnum opus, Promoting Prosperity, dealing with similar themes and the same period of advertising history: that leading up to the arrival of television. But if the earlier book focuses on the art that was used to present New Zealand to a global audience, this one zeroes in on how New Zealand companies used advertising to promote their products to domestic consumers; in doing so, it sheds insight on how the images used may have shaped as well as reflected the nation’s view of itself.

This second book makes clear that it wasn’t only the private sector attempting to win hearts and minds; the governments of the time also used poster art to appeal to the better moral instincts of the citizenry. Sections of Promoting Prosperity with such titles as ‘Five plus a day’ and ‘Health is wealth’ contain evidence of these altruistic (or social engineering) tendencies, while ‘Loose lips sink ships’ is devoted to images of brave New Zealand soldiers as well as graphic invitations to contribute to the war cause via the Victory Loan.

Kevin Roberts of Saatchi and Saatchi has written the foreword. Several of his comments succinctly draw attention to the all round excellence of Promoting Prosperity: “… a treasure trove of illustration, painting, typography, copywriting and studio production;” “a rare combination of passion, productivity and visual and editorial literacy;” “designers globally will tip their hats to this effort;” “Craig Potton Publishing are a world-changing outfit, every book a bullseye…”

Clearly then, the cast and crew involved in production have been in fine form. The star of the show is naturally the artwork itself, and the black and white photos book- ending each section. The original images come from billboards, posters, magazine adverts and journals, made with techniques including lithograph, woodcut and painting. The designs are often hard to resist: a reader might find herself considering the logistics of transferring them to tee shirts. One-offs of course, to avoid legal issues, though perhaps there would be few complaints if the wearers were opening up new markets for, say, HONEY or WOOL, taken from posters in the section ‘Britain’s farm.’

The same reader might think twice before transferring images from ‘Sex, drugs and alcohol,’ not because those products are not still in demand, but because there tends to be a bit of stigma attached to advertising them. Such messages as ‘ATM cigarettes- Irresistible!’ and ‘Smoke Park Drive- It lasts longer!’ and very simply, ‘Try it!’ suggest that even in the early to mid twentieth century, exclamation marks were needed to help consumers overcome their health concerns when it came to tobacco.

Good news for literary types: the eleven essays grouped together in the early pages of Promoting Prosperity are as literate and stimulating as the works of art. Without wishing to agree with Kevin Roberts too much, I think he is correct when he commends Dick Frizzell’s essay in particular for its originality and quirk.

Multiple entry points then. Something for the reader, something for the viewer. Something for the aesthete, something for the anthropologist. Something for the art historian, something for the common woman. And a question, perhaps, for the curious: does the best advertising, as Kevin Roberts suggests, make things clear and simple to inform choices, form preferences and ultimately make better lives? Or does it direct the general population toward mass consumption, and shape artificial preferences based on the illusion of choice?

Promoting Prosperity does not seek to answer that question. Nor need it. For it is splendid and abundant and it smells good. Try it! You’ll like it! Or your money back.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Promoting Prosperity: The Art of Early New Zealand Advertising
by Peter Alsop & Gary Stewart
Published by Craig Potton Publishing
ISBN 9781877517969