Right up to that ill-fated day, nearly 2000 years ago, when the city of Pompei was buried under a torrent of volcanic ash spewed out of Mount Vesuvius, the ancient city was considered one of the Roman Empire’s richest and most prosperous epicentres. Their financial comfort allowed residents to indulge in a host of pastime activities; one of which happened to be watching gladiator fights. “And exactly how do you know that?” you might wonder. Well, “Twenty gladiator pairs under the patronage of Decimus Lucretius […] and 10 gladiator pairs under the patronage of his son, Decimus Lucretius Valens, will battle it out on the 8th […] of April. Furthermore, they will also be fighting all manners of wild animals.” This was the wording of an ad – that’s right, an actual 2000-year-old advert found engraved on a wall on one of Pompei’s busiest high streets.
As it turns out, the doomed Roman city’s walls were teeming with such adverts. Meanwhile, passersby who happened to glance down, might come across adverts of a somewhat different nature: a drawing of a male phallus in its… ahem… fully ‘alert’ state, pointing in a certain direction – the road where the local brothel was situated.
The adverts found in Pompei offer a fascinating tableau of a local culture wiped off the face of the earth, eons ago. Ironically, were we to attempt a similar exploration of the local culture in Israel/Palestine in the far more recent past – let’s say, the last hundred years – we would soon find out that it really isn’t all that simple. Adverts in Pompei were quite literally etched in stone, which was how they remained so pristinely preserved underneath all that volcanic ash. Posters, press ads, and billboards on the other hand, used for advertising in modern times, did not fare as well through the years. Fortunately, much of the video footage that is kept at the Israeli Film Archive – scenes of a period spanning roughly a hundred years – also features adverts. And just as it had been with ancient Pompei, here too the adverts provide a unique lens through which one may enjoy a contemplative glimpse of the past.
This collection features an assortment of adverts produced in the land between the 1920s and ‘70s. We will endeavour to use them as a way of exploring the various trends and processes Israeli society has seen throughout the decades, as captured through the camera lens – a form of advertorial archaeology, if you will.
Hebron’s Finest Hotel
Our archaeological adventure’s first stop takes us all the way back to 1863, a time that marked the first appearance of Hebrew language publications, Ha-Levanon (‘the Lebanon’) and Havatzelet (‘lily’) in the land. The first ever advert to feature on the pages of a Hebrew language newspaper in Palestine appeared in the fourth issue of Havatzelet: it was text only, without any illustrations or tongue-in-cheek puns, and had been consigned to the very bottom of the issue’s last page. The ad was a call for donations towards the construction of a new synagogue. The fact that the ad, in essence, was not of a retail nature offers an accurate portrayal of the locals’ financial circumstances at the time: not only were there so few businesses around – large or small – that could afford to purchase the ad space, fundamental awareness of the advantages of advertising was virtually non-existent.
First glimpses of change began to appear at the turn of the 20th century, in tandem with the mass waves of Jewish emigration from Europe. Those immigrants, especially those who had come from relatively well-off Western European countries, ushered in with them not only a relative improvement in the local Jewish community’s overall financial situation, but also a demand for the cultural luxuries that were commonplace in their native countries such as the theatre, cafes, entertainment shows, and so forth.
Testimony of that is evident on the pages of Doar Hayom (‘today’s post’) which, in 1919, was the first daily Hebrew-language newspaper whose revenue was predominantly ad-based, with adverts covering up to 60 percent of page space. Eshel Abraham – Hebron’s Finest Hotel!; Save your teeth from rot and decay! Sr. Sarkis K. Samarjian, expert dentist, etc. These slogans, appearing on the front page of one of Doar Hayom’s early issues, were indicative of the changes the country had seen since the 19th century: more disposable income towards holidaying and leisure, and a rise in the number of professionals and tradespeople offering a host of modern services to the locals.
The earliest adverts kept at the film archive are also of the same period, e.g. an advert dating back to 1928 in which farmers are urged to purchase fertiliser made by a brand called Union. This particular advert can teach us a fair bit about the locals’ priorities at the time, and their attitudes towards this then-relatively new trend called ‘advertising.’ In order to sell some fertiliser, advertisers opted to use a series of quotes from the Bible, coupled with footage of Hebrew workers toiling away at the harvest – elements that foreground the Zionist vision of purchasing and revitalising Jewish land that was so instrumental to the pioneers’ philosophy. The fact that these are adverts that are over four minutes long – a veritable eternity by contemporary advertising standards – also shows us that for filmgoers of the 1920s, these advertisements were a perfectly legitimate way of gathering new information about the world around them. That is to say, the adverts were certainly not seen as a patience-trying nuisance bur rather, as interesting, and genuinely gripping content; perhaps every bit as much as the film for which they’d gone to the cinema in the first place.
Yet another fascinating aspect of local advertising in the first few decades of the 20th century is the relatively meagre space taken up by advertising brands in the same adverts about them and commissioned by them. At [Israeli food corporation giant] Tnuva, for instance, they much preferred to highlight the Zionist element in the company’s work. Their 1938 carp fish advert features the picturesque vistas of the Galilee region and the Sea of Galilee, as well as footage of Jewish pioneers collecting the fishing nets. The one mention of the Tnuva brand only comes on in the last few seconds of the advert, in the form of a tiny sign on the outside of a van.
The 1950s: Advertising Wins a Promotion
In the 1930s, the country saw a mass wave of German immigrants (the now famous ‘Yekke’ migration) arriving on its shores, and it was them who ushered in this brave new world of professional advertising. If, to date, those who had been coming up with ad concepts, scripts, and messages had been the advertisers themselves, the country was now seeing the meteoric rise of ad agencies who were offering those very services to their clientele. Per one estimate, by the end of the 1930s Tel Aviv already had roughly 25 ad agencies operating in the city. Their founders took on names that foregrounded the novel element of this burgeoning industry such as ‘Novel Advertising’ (‘pirsum hadish’) and ‘Modern Advertising’ (‘pirsum modern’), etc. That said, local mass media – including the press, radio, and film – were still very nascent in British Mandatory Palestine, which saw advertisers scrambling to seize every last advertising opportunity available to them. For instance, attending Tel Aviv’s annual Purim Parade (aka ‘adloyada’), taking out billboard ads, and designing unique and eye-catching shop display windows.
Following the establishing of the State of Israel, local media’s evolution went into hyperdrive: the Haganah resistance’s underground radio station became the state’s public radio broadcaster, and whereas television broadcasting was still but a pipe dream – local filmmaking was also coming into its own. Advertisements too, were becoming increasingly polished and more professional; however, their content remained fundamentally different to that of the ads we have got so used to seeing in the 21st century. How so, you wonder? Well, modern advertising for one puts a far greater emphasis on the viewer, and on portraying the way(s) in which the advertised product would benefit their well-being or change their life. The finest example of this modern approach are the campaigns for female sanitary pads that try to convince the viewers that they need only choose the right pad (the one being advertised, of course) for their lives to be forever changed, delivering them unparalleled levels of carefree joy and freedom.
1950s averts, on the other hand, boast a far more practical philosophy, i.e. highlighting the product’s quality and excellent features, with hardly any acknowledgement of the consumer and their individual needs. A brilliant example of that takes us to a 1959 Friedman Radiators advert which is almost entirely dedicated to the size of the radiator’s gas tank – in other words, its practical specs. Had this been a contemporary advert, we would undoubtedly expect to see a happy, tightknit family spending a delightfully cosy evening, all curled up together by the radiator.
Another prominent feature of 1950s advertising is the beginning of what, today, we have come to know as branding: the attempt to shape a certain idea of a product or manufacturer, beyond its physical specs and features, in the eyes of one’s target demographic. An early example of that is a 1950 advert for Amcor electric fridges that hardly even mentions the actual fridges. Instead, a combination of footage and voiceover narration aims to highlight the top-end manufacturing process and the factory’s immaculate QA standards; naturally, in order to establish a connection between the concepts of ‘Amcor’ and ‘Quality’ in the viewers’ minds.
Also noteworthy is the fact that in virtually all adverts of that period, ‘quality’ and ‘abroad’ were two concepts that always seemed to go hand in hand: whenever the advertiser wished to illustrate that their product is of exceptional quality, they would often point out that the product has been approved for international export, or that its manufacturing followed US standards – and at times, even supervised by US manufacturing engineers.
The 1960s: The Transition Years
If in the 1950s, one might have gleaned the earliest signs of budding modernisation in the advertising industry then in the 1960s, as a new decade rolled in, that change was now in full swing. For instance, let’s have a look at a 1950 Tempo soft drinks advert in which two female models are shown visiting the company’s factory. Despite opting for models – an exceedingly rare choice in adverts of the time – the advertisers, ultimately, still chose to foreground the factory and its range of products, with the models, at best, there as attractive background ornaments: sauntering around the machines and sipping their drinks.
In an Osem ice cream advert that aired just two years later, the framing of the celebrity starring in it is already that much closer to the concept of the ‘presenter’ as we have come to know it today. That celebrity is Rafi Levi. According to the host of Israeli football podcast, HaKipod (‘the hedgehog’), Effie Brick, Levi was an A-list footballer who had scored no fewer than 11 goals for Israel’s national team. As such, the first half of the advert is all about him, with no reference whatsoever to the aforementioned ice cream – and it is only later that we get to see him and his teammates savouring the refreshingly cold treat. In a break from advertisements of yore, in this ad we learn nothing of the quality level of the ice cream’s manufacturing process, let alone the available flavours. This advert is every bit as much about the celebrity as it is about the product that they are promoting.
Another fascinating indicator of this shift is notable in a 1960 Amcor espresso machine advert in which four men and women, in distinctly upper middleclass attire, are shown playing bridge whilst sipping coffee from the new espresso maker. As said, whereas earlier adverts tended to focus on the product and its features, or emphasise the superior quality of the manufacturing process, here for the first time we have an acknowledgement of a connection between a product and a certain lifestyle attributed to the target demographic – in this case, an attempt to establish a link between Tel Aviv’s sophisticated middle classes and the quality coffee made by this top-end coffeemaker.
One other major process taking place in the 1960s is the Israeli advertising industry’s coming of age as it finally started to find its footing, following in the footsteps of US advertisers. In 1959, Israel launched an ad chart [a-la Top 40], commissioned by the Israeli Advertising Union, as a way of promoting film advertising. Three years later, in 1962, the first Advertisers’ Union conference was held and attended by a host of industrialists, journalists, and a great many reps from the world of advertising.
One of the archives’ later adverts is a 1979 National Insurance infomercial, starring singer-songwriter Ariel Zilber, in which one can witness the aforementioned process coming full circle: not only is the advert entirely focused on the celebrity – there is now far greatr affinity between his occupation and the advertising message (In this context, Zilber and his band are performing their single, Independent in the Field (‘atzmai bashetach’), whose lyrics complement the theme of the infomercial – national insurance for the self-employed and freelance contractors).
The two trends I have outlined – shifting the focus away from the product and onto the consumer, their needs, and lifestyle, alongside taking to frequently using celebrities in advertising – are both testimony to a far more fundamental shift taking place in Israeli society from the 1960s onwards: the transition from a collectivist, ideology-driven society (in which the collective trumps the individual) into an individualistic society in which one’s own aspirations and desires are every bit as important (if not that much more) as those that shape the society in which they live. All of that is painstakingly evident in the archive’s collection of advertisements.
One wonders what future generations will make of our contemporary adverts that come at us on TV, online, on the radio, and on podcasts. Might they be able to recognise early signs of yet another societal change to which we are currently oblivious?