TIME: Where Young & Rubicam Outdoor Trade Advertising Totally Disappears

A seldom-remembered detail of the commuter-railroad experience back in the 60s is the prevalence of ‘trade advertising.’ These were posters and car-cards and billboards that you passed but barely noticed in the train car and on the platform. They didn’t advertise a product per se; they advertised advertising space where you could sell your product.

Catching the train in Bronxville or Cos Cob or New Haven you’d see these ads, often mystifying and surrealistic, lining the station platform alongside the enticements to Broadway plays and musicals:

Gilroy IS Here! The Subject Was Roses. Pulitzer Prize Something.

What? You Haven’t Seen Man of La Mancha (“The Impossible Dream”) Even Once?

Now, those theatrical posters were straightforward. They were clearly selling something, and you knew what they were selling. But unless you were in the business, you might not know what a trade ad was up to. If it was plugging WNEW Radio, you’d probably vaguely imagine it was telling you to listen to WNEW Radio . . . but actually it was telling ad buyers to buy time at WNEW Radio.

Ceci n’est-pas «le TIME trade-ad campaign»

One baffling but long-lived trade series was a Young & Rubicam campaign for Time magazine.  There might be eight or ten of these in a single location. Imagine you’re walking down a long station platform or concourse, and every few yards you see a mockup of a Time magazine cover. There’s a stark, simple image, and one short line of copy mentioning a Time advertiser.For example, you might see the arm of a chalk-stripe suit surrounded by the Time branding, and the copy would go: “TIME / Where Brooks Brothers buttonholes the upscale Madison Ave. man.”

I can’t show you an example of this trade advertising because…

That example is made up; I don’t think Brooks Bros. advertised in Time anyway, and they weren’t featured in this  series. In fact I can’t remember any specific copy from Y&R’s trade campaign for Time. This forgettability was sort of intentional. The agency was trying to get Mr Advertising Man  to buy space in Time right now, this week, in 1969 . . . they weren’t hoping consumers would go around mouthing a brilliant tagline for the next fifty years.

Because that would be tragic. Nothing fails worse than a clever campaign that doesn’t hit the right target. “You don’t have to be Jewish . . . to love Levy’s . . .Real Jewish Rye” is the Y&R line from the era everyone remembers now, though almost no one today has ever eaten Levy’s rye bread. Do they even make it anymore?

I suspect the Levy’s campaign was like the cartoon ads for Piel’s Beer a decade before, appealing mainly to people who wouldn’t ever buy the product.

But while we may remember the Levy’s ads, the Y&R trade series do not stick in the public imagination at all. In fact they’ve essentially been dropped down the memory hole. I’ve been Googling and otherwise researching Advertising Age and Young & Rubicam histories to see if there’s any mention, any image of the Time campaign. No luck.

I can’t even find online photographs of station platforms where these ads appeared. I guess no amateur archivist ever thought to snap them. It’s almost impossible even to find photos of Broadway posters online. That’s why I show a Playbill above instead of the actual 1964 theatrical poster for The Subject Was Roses.

What does stick in my recollection is that the Time campaign was resolutely upscale.  A place to advertise hi-class products for hi-class readers, was the subtext. That may sound laughable today, when Time is reputed always to have been a middlebrow rag. Time now survives in a scrawny print edition that is filled with ugly pharma advertising and is read mostly by 80-year-olds, probably because they got in the habit of reading it in the 1960s, back when Time ran real news and half its full-page insertions were for gin and scotch.

But however nasty it may be now, in advertising demographics Time was the class act for decades, far outshining the ad-stuffed Life and Look, which were perceived as picture books that subscribers thumbed through. Readers read Time.

Trade campaigns for other magazines imitated the Time model to a certain extent—e.g., the endless variants of “Forbes: Capitalist Tool,” which made a subtle pitch to the advertisers by flattering the readers. This series of ads, which ran in and around commuter trains in the 1970s and 80s, almost looked like a subscription promotion aimed at ambitious young commuters. Actually the ads were reminding posh advertisers on the train that if they bought space in Forbes they could reach those ambitious young commuters. (The kind of people who read Forbes do not need a train ad to tell them to read Forbes.)

The Sunday Giant

The most pervasive and long-lived of the trade-ad campaigns was probably for the downscale, big-circulation Sunday supplement called  Parade. “Parade is the Sunday Giant!” went the slogan, generally on a poster or car-card showing a line-drawing cartoon of a towering figure looming over lilliputian Sunday rags (NY Times Magazine, perhaps?).

Having mass nationwide circulation was and is basically Parade’s only selling point, but advertisers needed to be reminded of this because Parade was easy to overlook. It was and is a one-of-a-kind publication: a bland, friendly downmarket supplement, with content kept so generic it can never seem out of place in Salt Lake City, Sarasota, or St. Louis. This is a difficult trick, and Parade’s done it for, whatever, 70 years? (Look it up!)

Back in the 60s and 70s, every town worth mentioning had at least a couple of big Sunday newspapers, and one of them—generally the one with the better funnies and the shorter editorials—carried Parade. In such locales you’d actually see people in stores and newsstands on weekends, thumbing through the hefty Sunday paper to make sure the sports section and Parade were there! The same way parishioners of St. Catherine of Siena in Greenwich might head for the newsstand after Mass, full of beady-eyed intent to ensure that their Herald-Tribune or New York Times wasn’t missing its Book Review section.

Parade emphasized its mass-market, downscale orientation in a dozen ways. In the 50s and 60s, when newspapers boasted of their sturdy newsprint stock and excellent rotogravure processes, Parade went in the other direction and made itself as shoddy as it possibly could. Tabloid-sized and unstapled, its pages were all different sizes, some with rag edges, others cut sharp or with extra dog-ear flaps at the corner. Even on the cover, their color printing was often somehow out of registration, like a 3-D comic book. (It’s neater today, like most color reproduction.)

Parade left a spot on its nameplate where the local newspaper could print its name or logo, and this just added to the cheap feel, since the newspaper’s name was usually printed crooked or looked like a rubber stamp.

The “editorial matter” was mostly filler dealing with celebrities and fads, the kind of stuff any of us could write off the top of our heads, so long as the words aren’t too big, and the sentences aren’t too long, and the attitude is relentlessly chipper.

The main rule, though, was that if you mentioned a celebrity, it had to be someone recognizable to 95% of the population. That was the secret of “Walter Scott’s Personality Parade,” an inside-cover feature that started around 1971 and still runs today, although Walter Scott himself apparently has no more actual personality than Betty Crocker.

It was a brilliant addition to Parade, because it ensured that there would be at least one feature that everyone would read. It’s still the first thing you see on the inside: pithy queries and answers about stars and politicians that everybody’s heard of, usually with very upbeat, anodyne answers.

(One I remember from circa 1974: “Does Elton John always wear a hat because he’s ‘bisexual’? No, actually he just likes hats! Also he’s having hair transplants!“)

Parade’s own advertising mechanism I never figured out. The rag’s low-budget, rec-room-floor style would never have been a good fit for most advertisers. (Toothpaste, yes;  Tanqueray, no.) And since the same edition was distributed across the country, there was no way it could pick up lavish display ads from retailers or car dealers.

Maybe they did try local-market ‘spot advertising’ at one point, but if so I never noticed it. The logistics of the thing would have been extremely complicated, and probably would have required a drastic upgrade in format and a more specialized, target audience. No more Sunday Giant.  So mainly Parade survived on cheesy, cheerful national ads for things like two-dollar muumuus, and anti-itch powder for dogs.

Their perennial full-page advertisers mostly sold stuff you might never see advertised anywhere else, or at least outside a Sunday supplement. There was Zoysia grass, a magical kind of turf that evidently never needed watering or weeding, and then there was an amphetamine-laced weight-loss candy that had the merry name of Ayds. The latter’s ads were always disguised to look like editorial matter and invariably consisted of a first-person narrative by a former fat-lady, “As told to Ruth L. McCarthy.”

One hears sometimes that Parade is a family-run, closely held, business. I find that easy to believe. There’s just enough work here, and just enough money, to support one extended family.