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Jordan Franklin

Hist 380-001

9 April 2004

Image Project


Smoke, Mirrors, Magic and Illusion

Op Art in Advertising



            Pop culture aspires to become high art (Lecture Syllabus 1.31).  In the 1960's, pop culture succeeded in doing just that in the Pop art movement.  At almost exactly the same time, another movement was gaining popularity in the art world: op art.  The term was coined in 1964 by Time magazine to describe the abstract art that seemed to move, shake, shimmer, wave and contort—optical illusions.  The art movement influenced style and dress as well as advertising.  The tendency toward op art in advertising, while fulfilling necessary advertising function of increasing visibility, seems to show the excesses of creative movement in advertising in the 1960s.

            The two, however, should not be confused.  David Bernstein point out that art must have a function, but not necessarily a purpose.  “Aesthetic satisfaction is an end in itself” for art (Bernstein 70).  Advertising is not the same as art.  Although both can be intimately connected to art, in the end, advertising, like pop culture, is a business.  “Ads are not designed to decorate walls or newspapers . . . ,” Bernstein writes, “Ads are designed to sell goods” (70).  He concludes his chapter on art and advertising: “There’s the basic difference between advertising and art.  And how often it’s forgotten or wantonly ignored!  Art is an end in itself: art-in-advertising is a means to an end” (71).  All art in advertising is used for a purpose, and that purpose is selling the goods of a company.

            The purpose of art in ads mostly has to do with the visibility aspect of advertising.  Among Bernstein’s rules for visibility are:

Get the ad off the page—“An ad has little time to attract attention.” 

Make the layout say ‘action.’

Make sure the words and pictures work together—“this does not mean that they have to do the same thing. . . .  Often they can conflict, gain attention.” 

Surprise.  (Bernstein 165-170)

Art, and especially op art, excels in these areas.  However, during the 1960s, art was often the resort of advertisers.  Writing in the 1970s, with some distance, Bernstein categorizes the previous decade’s advertising style as marked by abounding creativity.  “‘Creativity’ . . . apparently was the OK word for the 1960s . . . presented as the panacea for all advertising manager’s problems” (182).  In her book Advertising in the 60s, Hazel Warlaumont agrees that creativity was the distinctive feature in 60s advertising, and advertisers often took that creativity to the extreme—much farther than necessary (75).  The tendency toward op art, fulfilled the visibility criteria, but was perhaps altogether too creative to be used effectively in advertising, especially in such media as The Saturday Evening Post. 


The Television Revolution

            In the 1960s it had become clear that television was the dominant medium, and print as well as print advertising was beginning to decline.  However, print was still powerful and influential throughout the 60s, despite the rise of television.  The rise of television advertising, however, came to show that even in print, advertising must never be static.  Motion, even in the print page, became associated with the cutting edge in advertising. 

            One was of simulating that motion was through the use of various panels, creating a layout like a photographic comic strip.  A series of Clairol Nice ‘n’ Easy hair dye ads used that technique to show a woman running from a distance into the arms of her husband, stating that he would not be able to tell she dyed her hair, whether she were at a distance or in his arms.

            Op art was another way of simulating that motion in print.  Highly kinetic, op art was developed after psychological studies on the effects of color and shape on the brain.  The function of op art is to trick the brain into seeing motion and depth on a two dimensional surface.  In a survey of advertisements run in The Saturday Evening Post in 1965-1967, op art was not used very often.  However, the techniques of op art were focused in three main, interesting areas: psychological drug/pharmaceutical ads, automobile ads and women’s dresses in ads for various products.


Psychological Drug/Pharmaceutical Ads

            Only two advertisements of this type are included in the collection.  In both ads, the use of optical illusions or blurring effects is associated with pain or anguish, whether physical or psychological.  A nasal decongestant features op art to portray a “headache” in a collage of images and patterns to describe the suffering of a head cold.  The second ad, sponsored by a collective of psychological drug companies, is a general advertisement asserting how much pain and mental anguish have been avoided by the use of their psychological drugs—including fewer broken windows, implying that mental patients, both in and out of psych wards, often destroyed windows in fits of rage or insanity.  In both of these ads, op art techniques are used to portray the mental dissonance that the recommended drugs would cure.


Women’s Dresses

            Although none of the ads were for women’s apparel, op art patterns and prints were used in many of the dresses featured in ads for other products.  All of these products are household or health and beauty products.  These products include Clairol Nice ‘n’ Easy Hair Dye, with two ads, Tampax Tampons and One Hour Martinizing Dry Cleaning.  The Clairol ads, as previously mentioned, create the illusion of motion through the use of photo panels, but they also feature op art motifs in the design of the women’s dresses.  In all of the ads, the patterns on the dresses create a sensation of motion or dizziness.  This trend in women’s fashion was most likely reflected and reinforced, but not created, by the ads.  The image created associates a fashionable, “with-it” woman with the use of these products, a particular selling point for these items.  However, as with many image-based print ad campaigns, the identification comes only after reading the text of the ad to associate the logo, brand or product with the image.  The only image where the woman’s dress would really concretely connect with the product itself is the dry cleaning ad.


Automobile Ads

            One example of the use of op art in a woman’s outfit is not used in conjunction with a household or health and beauty product.  This ad, for the Ford Mustang, represents a transitional ad, between the use of women’s dresses and advertisements for automobiles.

            The sensation of motion can play a key role in an automobile ad.  Cars move.  That is their purpose.  But a car is more than just a way to get from point A to point B.  The signs associated with a car in an ad campaign create an image for the car, which is adopted by those who purchase the car, creating their self-image.  Therefore, it is vital for an automobile company to associate the correct images with their products in ad campaigns.

            The Ford Company utilizes op art features in the background of one ad, for the Wizard model, and in the skirt of the female model in the ad for the Mustang.  The Pontiac Company uses op art techniques in the background of a double page spread for the ‘66 Toronado.  The Volkswagen Company uses optical art techniques in their ad for the Beetle to illustrate its popularity.  The Firestone Tire Company most likely used op art techniques inadvertently, but their advertisement can still produce the same effects of motion and dizziness.

            The use of op art as an image associated with automobiles produces a similar effect as the one produced by its use in ads with women’s clothing.  The image produced is one of “hipness,” something which was becoming increasingly important to middle class America throughout the 1960s.  The op art effects also help to focus attention on the car, because the artistic backgrounds and patterns are abstract.   This effect is especially obvious in the Ford Wizard ad, where the black and white ray effect literally focuses the viewer’s eye on the car itself.  The use of op art techniques does not detract from the message of the ad, nor do they bring in unwanted associations from other ads or connotations because of their abstraction.  The signs cannot be recycled from another advertising campaign or misinterpreted and incorrectly used by the ad managers.



            The use of op art in advertising in the 1960s was not prevalent in The Saturday Evening Post.  However, when the op art techniques and effects are found, they are used by advertisers to capture the attention of the magazine readers, and to associate an image of fashionability and hipness with the product.  The techniques fulfill Bernstein’s visibility criteria and associated a sign which could only create a positive image for the products and brands advertised.


Works Cited


Bernstein, David.  Creative Advertising: For this you went to Oxford?  A personal textbook of advertising.  London: Longman Group Ltd., 1974.


Fox, Frank.  Lecture Syllabus, History 380.


Warlaumont, Hazel G.  Advertising in the 60s : turncoats, traditionalists, and waste makers in America's turbulent decade.  Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.