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

Selling the Dream: The Art of Early New Zealand Tourism

Selling the Dream 300dpiAvailable in bookshops now, shortlisted in the Illustrated Non-fiction category of the New Zealand Post Book Awards

An immediate side effect of opening this book in public is the conversations that it invites. People who see the massive, gorgeous artifact on my lap or flattened across a tabletop feel compelled to comment or ask questions, to make contact. A typical conversation, on this occasion with a man named Greg* in the Otago Museum foyer, went something like this.

“What’s that you’re reading, mate? Looks interesting.”

“Well” I began, only slightly resentful of the interruption, “This is a book about the art of early New Zealand tourism. You know, the posters that were commissioned by Tourism Departments and the like, designed to show off New Zealand and lure people to the country.”

“That right?” and Greg leaned right in, then sat down on the padded bench. I started flipping the thick, shiny pages. There was colour contrast and a blooming scent of newness, of quality. “Old school, are they?”

“Yep. Pre 1960s. Before photography and television. Look at this one.” There it is, Mitre Peak, symbol of all that is grand about New Zealand, one of many mountains and glaciers represented in these pages.

“Or this.” The mighty Rangitata, pride of the New Zealand Shipping Company, taking the shortest route to London. Men in white jackets and Panama hats wave from the canal’s banks to leave us in no doubt as to where the journey will take you.

“Then there’s this kind of thing.” And there she is, a Maori maiden with naked thigh and bare shoulders, gazing up in expectant adoration at a Pan American jet as it propels its cargo of tourists toward the jewel of the southern seas. Mt. Cook in the background, a pastoral scene to the fore, the Union Jack covering part of the thigh. This poster, also the book’s cover image, is magnificent. Published in 1940, how could it not have enticed war weary Europeans and war wary Americans?  Even Greg was having trouble tearing his eyes from the slopes and motifs.

Or it could have been the book altogether that was mildly stunning his sensibilities. Because that’s the other side effect of Selling the Dream. The actual art – each piece so skillfully rendered, originally on silk screens or as lithographs, by talented and meticulous artists – is exceptional. You could spend a long time admiring the simplification of form and swimming in the broad, flat areas of pure colour. To see them all together, contained (but only just) within these four hundred pristine and glorious pages, would be overwhelming, were it not for the careful curation of Alsop, Stewart and Bamford.

Arranged in sections with such titles as Unique Maoriland; Plains, Trains and Automobiles (and Ships); and Pastoral Paradise, the posters by themselves are a narrative of how a ‘young’ nation perhaps saw itself, or of how it wanted to be seen by the rest of the world.

“For those who like words with their pictures,” I said to Greg, “There are also a dozen essays on hand to further tease out the narrative and shed insight on the artistic process, the outrageous cultural appropriation, the role of publicity in shaping New Zealand’s identity.”

But I had lost him to the glossy pages, to Timaru by the sea, to Mt. Cook’s Hermitage, thousands of feet above worry level, to trout fishing in the Routeburn river. He was stopping to sniff the trout. I drew the line there. “Greg,” I said, “If you’re that keen, get yourself across the road to the University Book Shop right now.”

As he disappeared out the sliding doors I re-entered Selling the Dream, to bathe in splendour, to await the next enquiry.

*Not his real name

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Selling the Dream: The Art of Early New Zealand Tourism
Edited by Peter Alsop. Gary Stewart, Dave Bamford
Published by Craig Potton Publishing
ISBN 9781877517778