The 1930s weren’t the happiest period in history. Instead, it was a decade where the Roaring Twenties gave way to the Great Depression and Nazism. This decade saw a surge in innovation and resilience. The 1930s were a golden era of advertising, a time when creativity flourished despite adversity and brands dared be different.
We asked experts to choose their favourite ads from the 1930s for this article. These ads are not just a nostalgia trip, but they have a lot of lessons for modern designers. Like the Best 1930s LogosThese ads are mini masterpieces of art, filled with the spirit and energy of the time. They capture the anxieties, aspirations and longings of a country struggling with economic hardships.
Since almost a hundred years, marketing has been the key to Guinness’ success. In the 1930s Guinness commissioned John Gilroy, an artist, to create a series expressive ads. These ads were a massive success and have a special spot in advertising history because of their ingenuity.
Matt Hauke says that Gilroy’s “My goodness, my Guinness” is an excellent example of taking a bold creative leap into abstraction with various circus creatures depicted in funny situations. Design by Structure. “On paper, it makes no sense but captures the joy and humour only creativity can bring. The Toucan became an icon of Guinness for the rest of the 20th century. This campaign set the tone for quirky and offbeat advertising by the brand for years to follow.
Gary Jacobs’ favourite design partner at Live & BreatheGilroy’s Lovely Day for A Guinness’ is a must-see. “This timeless work of art revolutionised advertising by incorporating whimsical, captivating visuals to everyday activities, centered around the enjoyment a pint Guinness,” he says.
“Gilroy’s brilliance as an artist, combined with the campaign’s ability evoke joy and camaraderie has transcended its era. It is an enduring icon, and an inspiration for future advertisers.” The magic is in turning a simple product narrative into one that creates an emotional connection with consumers. This shows the everlasting appeal of creativity in advertising.
Bovril, a meat extract paste, has played a key role in British history. It was a favourite among football crowds and soldiers during the First World War. Ernest Shackleton’s team also had it when they were marooned in Elephant Island. Advertising was crucial to maintaining the brand’s dominance on the market. The History of Bovril AdvertisingPeter Hadley’s book is a must-read for anyone working in advertising today.
“Bovril’s art style was so very 1930s,” says Benny Bentham, creative director at Waste Creative. “A sense of art deco wholesomeness, with bold colours and usually a picture of a cow or a heroic man flexing his muscles after drinking it. These posters are iconic, of an era, yet also timeless. ‘It must be Bovril’, ‘It puts beef into you’ and ‘Develop strength’ are three lines of copy I’ve remembered since childhood, after seeing my gran’s Bovril poster showing a boy taking a photo of a cow that looks very displeased it’s about to be turned into a drink. I found it mildly disturbing but I remembered it!”
Karim Salama, director at e-innovate, a pioneering brand, is equally enthusiastic about it. “Bovril’s 1930s campaign is often regarded as a product of the zeitgeist of the time,” he explains. “Symbolising health and prosperity in a period marked by economic uncertainty, was a fantastic marketing strategy. The inclusion of the iconic black bull was one of first popular examples of anthropomorphism. Its influence is still felt today.
“It would be hard to say that any of the most popular marketing campaigns involving animals would still be here were it not for Bovril’s Bull,” he adds. “The perspicacity of GEICO’s Gecko; Aflac’s Duck; even Frosties’ Tony the Tiger may not have been nearly as effective were it not for Bovril’s inclusion of an animal in the marketing. Bovril’s success in using this symbolism taught other brands that anthropomorphism works as a marketing tool.
There is a persistent urban myth that Coca-Cola invented Santa Claus. That’s not true. The company’s marketing did play a major role in shaping Santa Claus as we know him today.
Before the 1930s there were many different depictions around the world of Santa Claus, including a tall gaunt person, an elf, and even a frightening version. But then in 1931, Coca‑Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create paintings which established Santa as a warm, happy character with human features, including rosy cheeks, a white beard, twinkling eyes and laughter lines. The ad appeared first in The Saturday Evening Post & Collier’s magazine in December 1931.
“Coca Cola Santa Claus is a classic, but what else can you say?” says Hauke. “Their 1931 campaign reminded people that Coca Cola was not just for hot summer weather, but also all year long. It proved to be a stroke of genius giving the drink an unrivalled, and globally understood, brand ambassador – at zero cost – and permanently tied the drink to one of the most loved holidays in Christmas. “Such was its impact, it has maintained relevance for future generations.”
Agfacolor Neu was a multi-layer colour film that reversed colours. It was introduced by the German multinational conglomerate Agfa in 1936. It was the first commercially-successful colour film. Its vibrant colours and ease of usage revolutionized photography. It was necessary to create a powerful advertisement to bring attention to this amazing innovation.
Natasha Blevins is the creative director of We Are Collider. “It ditches traditional headlines, calls to action and opts instead for product focus and expressive images. Its strength is the dynamic diagonal layout where hands and a flowing scarlet pull the eye.
“The restrained color palette supports this with striking contrast. But there’s also a clever narrative: the protagonist is getting the attention of the people she’s photographing, as well as us – the audience. This is a refreshing and progressive portrayal for women in a world dominated by ads focusing on housewives.
Dubonnet, an aromatised wine created in 1846 by wine merchant Sir Joseph Dubonnet and chemist Sir Joseph Dubonnet to get French Foreign Legionnaires living in North Africa to consume quinine. AM Cassandre was the painter, commercial artist, and typeface designer who created this beautiful 1930s ad. His innovative and avant-garde design approach earned him a prominent position in the Art Deco Movement.
Adele Leyris, design director at House 337, explains what makes it so clever. “It’s three steps that show the different moments in which you can enjoy the drink,” he says. “You begin by admiring the drink (Du bo = Du Beau), then you drink it (Du bon), before you pour yourself another glass. Cassandre shows the impact of a product by using negative space. He fills his character up with colour.
He adds, “This is a perfect example of a carefully considered design that effectively serves an emotional message about the Brand. This was never seen before 1932.” “You can still find some of the old painted advertisements in rural villages and towns across France.”
Rob Kavanagh, Executive Creative Director at Oliver UK, who is also a big fan. “Ever since I saw this poster at university, it’s held a place in my mental scrapbook of great and guiding work,” he enthuses. “The ad is elegant and clever, but it’s also instructive. Back in the 1930s, creatives weren’t armed with insights. Cassandre probably took a close look at the product and the inherent solution slowly revealed itself.
It’s easy to focus on the fun stuff, like the brands that we’ve already covered. Ed Lloyd, creative strategy at Seed.
“Pharmaceutical advertising involves the challenge of communicating precise – and perhaps dry – information in an interesting way,” he points out. “Many ads in France in 1930s met this challenging by incorporating bold, experimental graphic styles that drew on popular art movements at the time, including Bauhaus, Constructivism Art Deco, and Art Nouveau.”
This example of the constipation drug Taxol (not the cancer treatment with the same name), features the striking type, clashing colors and diagonal lines that are often associated with constructivism. “Interestingly, TFL’s latest safety campaignLloyd adds that the design of by illustrator Andrew Hudson seems to draw from a similar artistic terrain to communicate well-being in a bold and quick manner.
Cadillac was founded in 1902, long before the 1950s. Raj Davsi is the creative director of FutureDeluxeThese 1930 ads for American car brand are a favorite of.
He notes that the consistency of the design language in their advertisements for each new car release is an admirable feature. “The illustration is beautiful and I love the graphic nature of side profile. It’s a very iconic image, and its central position draws the viewer’s attention. I love it and use this central framing in my work a lot today.”
He continues, “The illustration of the car combined with the image has been executed in an elegant and tasteful way with a great usage of the Art Deco Style. It gives a glimpse of the lifestyle that a car owner might lead. The ad’s minimalist layout and thin type create a luxury feel, which is perfectly suited for the car.”
Davsi loves this Doxa advertisement, a Swiss watchmaker that was founded in 1889 but is now best known for their dive watches. “There are many things I love about this ad,” says Davsi. “The chosen colors give off a luxury and expensive vibe reflecting the intended market. I love the balance between blues, reds and browns. It’s so pleasing to see how the composition is used.
Davsi continues, “The angle that was used to compose the timepiece feels heroic and powerful.” FutureDeluxe has had the pleasure of designing and developing watch commercials. We looked for similar compositions to make a watch film. The compositions extend seamlessly into the sailing, which feels like luxury promotion. I like the composition and typeface. It feels solid, almost like a watch.”
Ford is the O.G. Ford is often referred to as the “OG” of mass production. We tend to think that Ford cars are simple, reliable, solid and basic. This 1937 ad by A.M. Cassandre is not boring or simple.
Design commentator: The artist in this ad has virtually thrown away every advertising convention. Daniel Shannon“Harnessing European Minimalism to elevate this medium to something closer to modern art.” He also anticipated the more emotional approach that would be seen in the future.
Shannon continues: “A striking, single all-seeing eyes remains curiously anonymous in an age when most advertising is heavily gendered.” “Our faceless protagonist rises above the role of consumer and is instead an observer – liberated and seemingly unwanting. The headline, so unassuming as to verge on the existential, pulls away from the iris – the first place the viewer’s eye naturally falls. The delicate alignment of the cap ‘W’ with the V8 icon lends a compositional elegance rarely seen at a time where typography was often an afterthought.”
10. London Underground
London Underground’s map and logo are among the most celebrated designs in modern history. But there’s much more to explore in the past of the transport network. Here’s two great examples of its long and successful tradition of advertising.
As you can see, Marc Allenby, co-founder and chief creative officer at Hijinks Collective, notes: “The London Underground design, iconography and poster design has become a key part of London’s rich history and a visual representation of the city itself. These beautiful pieces of advertising were created by an artist named Alan Rogers for the London Underground. Less ad, more art, Alan elegantly – and in my mind so smartly – incorporated the iconic roundel into his bold, modernist designs.”
These posters were created in the 1930s. However, they remain timeless pieces. Allenby says, “These ads elegantly convey their messages through beautifully crafted illustrations and typography.” “They conveyed a new, optimistic world of travel and futuristic romance. They helped to turn OOH posters into something that you’d put on your wall. “My takeaway, let’s bring back art to today’s OOH!”
Kodak was a key player in making photography available to the public, starting from the late nineteenth century. It was expected that a company whose focus was on visual communication would produce great advertising. And they didn’t disappoint.
Angela Sturrus is the creative director of Kodak. She says that Kodak had a rich history of advertising in the early 1900s. Hook. “With memorable slogans like ‘You push the button, we’ll do the rest’ and Take a Kodak With You’, the Kodak name became a household name, making photography accessible and approachable. In the 1930s, Kodak began to expand its target market, by focusing on the younger generation, and then their parents.
Sturrus recalls that they launched this advertising campaign with a bang on their 50th Anniversary by giving 500,000 free cameras to any child aged 12 years old. In the years to come, they created their holiday slogan “Give a Kodak” where they reinforced this idea of giving a Kodak as a gift to children.
Sturrus adds that “this creative strategy helped embed Kodak in the hearts of the Greatest Generation which continued to pay for the brand for many decades.” “Overall, Kodak’s creative strategy during that time was not only captivating, catchy, and insightful but also completely futuristic.”
For more design inspiration, see our Favorite print ads.