How America’s ‘Mad Men’ fooled British viewers

Britons watching what they thought were quintessentially British television adverts in the 1950s and 60s were, unbeknownst to them, viewing American-style content.

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Britons watching what they thought were quintessentially British television adverts in the 1950s and 60s were, unbeknownst to them, viewing American-style content.

That is according to Professor Sean Nixon from the University of Essex, whose research documents an unseen “American invasion” in British advertising.

Ahead of his lecture at the university, Trading on Human Weakness: Advertising and its Critics in the 1950s and 60s, Nixon told historyextra that American advertising chiefs crafted their commercials to appear British-made.

After descending upon Britain in the 1950s, and dominating London’s advertising houses, American ‘Mad Men’ figures “softened their American influence for a British audience”.

Nixon said: “There was a big American presence in British advertising, but what is interesting is you didn’t see the Americanization of British adverts.

“You had jingles and ‘live action’ adverts demonstrating, say, the effectiveness of a new kitchen roll – both American advertising techniques – but they were cleverly adapted.

“Typically British actors were cast, and the performance style was distinctively British.

“Producers played to the traditions of British film-making, and even styled some adverts to appear as documentaries.

“They also looked towards British television culture. They created sitcom-style adverts, and drafted in comedy actors such as Tony Hancock, who appeared on an advert for the Egg Marketing Board.

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“Britons would have had no idea they were watching adverts influenced by Americans.

“Even advertising house J. Walter Thompson – an American company that had a big London office – presented itself as a British agency.

“It was trying to shed its Americanness, and was led by upper-class Englishmen. 

“In terms of why American owned producers did this, they realised a British audience would not be persuaded by an American influence.

“The British had a funny relationship with the US – many were fond of it, but there was a section of society that was very hostile.

“Some saw the US as the future, believing it had better films, and better-looking people with better teeth. It was everything Britain was not – bright, new and shiny.

“But others saw it as devoid of culture, and tried to defend British cultural values.

“The strong British accent heard on the BBC, for example, developed in the wake of the rise of Hollywood in the 1930s. It developed in retaliation against Americanization

“Nevertheless, Britain was transformed by what it learned from the US.

“We struggled to understand what to do with the new medium of television – at that point, newspaper advertising was all we had. Television advertising techniques came from the US.”

Nixon’s lecture, Trading on Human Weakness: Advertising and its Critics in the 1950s and 60s, will take place on Monday 2 December in the Lakeside Theatre at the Colchester Campus of the University of Essex. In it, Nixon will explore the growing fascination with and scrutiny of the advertising industry during the 1950s and 60s. The event is open to the public and is free to attend.

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