Cultural Commerce

Protesting the War — In Your Best Dress

A new section of the Voice Archives will look at advertising and its discontents

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Back in the days before Google AdChoices and Craig’s List, advertisements fueled newspapers — a 120-page issue might be 75 percent ads and 25 percent editorial. Design directors, photographers, cartoonists, pasteup artists, and editors labored mightily to make sure that the news stories, features, reviews, and comics on the edit spreads were at least as enticing as anything Madison Avenue could throw at readers. In the case of a publication like the Village Voice, ad reps often dealt with proprietors of mom-and-pop stores who would bring in homemade ads that might be drawn with a felt marker or glued together like an elementary school project.

For anyone researching cultural history, advertising will reveal a wealth of information about any given epoch — if folks were willing to shell out their hard-earned cash maybe they were getting what they truly wanted.

Or perhaps, as Leslie Savan often pointed out in her “Op Ad” columns — which started in the 1980s, a great decade for hucksterism — we’re just suckers for all those P.T. Barnum wannabes out there. (We’ll be putting our “Cultural Commerce” pieces online in order of decade so there’ll be plenty of Savan’s insights to come when we begin the 1980s and ’90s sections in the near future.)

Another genre that delivered plenty of eye candy were high-end ads for movies. Soon we will start posting ads for some of Hollywood’s biggest extravaganzas — and then take a look at what Voice critics thought of the films behind the hype. Same goes for concerts and theater ads.

We’ll start this new section off with a case of the tale wagging the dog — beginning in the 1960s, Howard Smith brought readers a weekly look at the downtown scene in a column appropriately titled Scenes. In the October 19, 1967, issue he and photographer Merle Steir zeroed in on a young woman wearing a dress patterned with peace signs. Therein lay a tale:

THE DRESS LEAST LIKELY to be seen on the Johnson girls this season is a simple $20 short-sleeved wool knit. Nothing eyebrow-raising about that, ex­cept that the print happens to consist of all-over peace symbols. And while it’s true that Arnold Constable is trying to update its image, in this case the staid old department store’s little fashion trip was an example of how com­pletely out of things it really is. The store evidently bought the dress because they liked the print — but had no idea what all those little circles with the three lines in them were all about. Unfortunately for all you girls who don’t have a thing to wear for the October 20-21 Mobilization, the entire rack sold out in two days.

Besides pointing out that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s daughters probably would not be wearing the dresses since their father was so identified with the ongoing war in Vietnam, Smith also notes that the uptown department store just wasn’t hip enough to understand how popular the item would be.

Well, someone at the establishment perhaps saw Smith’s piece and decided, two weeks later, that there was no better place to advertise their replenished stock than in the pages of that pinko/homo/degenerate rag downtown. Just goes to show once again that capitalism knows no shame.

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