Classic vintage advertising — why old is gold

Harish Bhat | Updated on August 09, 2018

Old, iconic campaigns hold learnings

Recently, I was called upon to inaugurate an exhibition on vintage Tata advertising campaigns, at the Tata Central Archives in Pune. The exhibition showcased a wide range of advertisements released by Tata brands, dating back to over 100 years ago. I found the voyage most instructive.

First, a word about the oldest known Tata advertisement. This appears to have been published in a Mumbai newspaper in 1903, when Taj Mahal Palace Hotel first opened its doors in Mumbai. It simply said – “Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Bombay. Open 1st December, 1903. All Latest Comforts. Moderate Charges. From Rs. 6 upwards.” It was signed by Louis Gapp, Manager of the hotel. I was delighted to note the reference to “moderate charges” — clearly, Indian consumers were as value-conscious in those days, as they are today!

Also displayed in this exhibition were Tata trucks advertisements of the 1960s celebrating truck drivers and Tata Airlines announcing its flying services across the country way back in the 1930s.

Soul of the brand

What was most instructive to me was how the exhibition reflected an enduring theme that has been at the core of the Tata Group over the 150 years of its history — a commitment to the community and the nation. This was the thread that flowed through most of the advertisements on display.

I thought to myself, this would perhaps be true of any other iconic brand in the world — if Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Rolex or Mercedes Benz were to do an exhibition of their vintage advertisements, the core theme of the brand would certainly bubble up, time and again, over the decades. Vintage advertising, particularly when viewed over a long period of time, can therefore help us understand the soul of the brand. That’s a good reason why marketers should occasionally delve into the history of their advertising, because it will remind them what is at the core of their brand.

Source of inspiration

Classic vintage advertisements are iconic because they have appealed greatly, and have stood the test of time. In most cases, this is because they are based on a simple, appealing idea, derived from a strong consumer insight, or built around a relevant product benefit. Think of vintage Indian advertisements such as the Liril soap TV ad of the 1970s, where the Liril girl (originally, Karen Lunel) frolicks under a waterfall, dancing carefree, to a peppy jingle. This film was based on the powerful insight of an Indian housewife using her daily bath to escape the drudgery of her world, reclaim her space and be herself in fantasy mode.

Think of the Cadbury girl, or the long running Nirma advertisement, or even the Ericsson “one black coffee” advertisement — vintage advertisements that emphasise the appeal of a simple idea. As marketers and advertising professionals study these and understand why they have worked so well, they will be inspired to discover new, simple and powerful ideas to create the great advertisements of tomorrow.

The best vintage advertisements have sported brilliant taglines that have stuck with us forever. Unfortunately, perhaps driven by the immediacies and data-driven demands of the digital world, this is an artform that appears to be fading out today, with only a few exceptions. So young marketers can use a voyage through advertising history to push themselves to invent the wining lines of today. How can we forget “Made for each other” (Wills cigarettes), “I love you Rasna” (Rasna), Taste the Thunder (Thums up), “Har Ghar kuch kehta hain” (Asian Paints), “Palmolive da jawab nahin” (shaving cream with Kapil Dev) or “Neighbour’s envy, owner’s pride” (Onida)? Each of these is over two decades old, yet we remember them fondly now.

Study in design

Many vintage advertisements are masterpieces of graphic design — totally uncluttered, yet aesthetically so appealing. They are a beautiful, seamless marriage of content and design. Air India’s hoardings, featuring the Maharajah, are a classic case in point – they blend royal service on board the airline, with a mascot derived from Indian royalty, who cuts the clutter totally. Coca Cola vintage advertising, always featuring the famous glass contour bottle design, is another great example. I also recall the BSA SLR bicycle and Dipys Squash ads of olden days, which had a unique comic-strip design feel to them.

How are today’s advertisers reclaiming their design touch? A study of vintage designs can help greatly. In addition, if you wish to create a retro look in any of your current advertising, your own brand’s classic old advertising campaigns are a great starting point.

Nostalgia marketing

Nostalgia-led advertising can appeal greatly if crafted and positioned smartly. This can happen when vintage advertising is re-created in a contemporary avatar or when a great advertising idea is kept alive, by constant reinvention. Liril has recreated its cult “girl in the waterfall” advertisement on a few occasions, with many famous Bollywood actresses and models replacing Karen Lunel as the Liril girl. A great example of vintage advertising are the topical Amul hoardings. This marketing campaign began in 1966, we have seen over 8,000 Amul hoardings until today, but each hoarding is contemporary. If there is one living mascot of vintage Indian advertising we can learn from, it is the little Amul girl.

For all these reasons, marketers should study vintage advertising, including that of their own brands.

Sometimes, old is truly gold. What’s your own favourite vintage advertisement? Do write in, and let me know.

Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons Ltd. These are his personal views. He can be reached at

Published on August 09, 2018

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