Tuesday, Feb 9th, 2016
Deserving of a Promotion (Part 2 of 3)
posted by Bruce Canwell
We're smack-dab in the middle of a three-part look at the types of ads newspapers used to run to promote the strips on their daily and Sunday comics pages. If you're joining us in progress, why not pop over to the Blog/January 2016 of this site and read our first installment. Don't worry—I'll put on some elevator music until you get back.
**The soothing sounds of Montovanni play**
You'll remember from the preceding article that we ran a 1934 Oakland Tribune promo for Little Orphan Annie featuring two illos of America's Spunkiest Kid, accompanied by some snappy text (well, snappy by 1934 standards, anyway—it was a more leisurely time, after all). Such "broad brush" sells were useful, because they were generic enough to be used over a relatively large span of days. We'll use Annie to demonstrate another popular type of promo ad: the ones highlighting an ongoing (or upcoming) storyline within a given strip. For a feature like Little Orphan Annie, which was fifteen years old by the time the ad below ran, it was not unusual for reader interest to wax and wane over time. Ads of this sort served as a wake-up call to the audience: "Hey! Something exciting is happening in one of your old favorites - you'll want to turn to the funnies and check it out!" This Punjab-tastic panel, with accompany text implying a threat to everybody's favorite red-haired tyke, greeted readers of the Nebraska State Journal on Friday, March 23, 1939 ...
Plenty of newspaper editors understood text and photos a whole lot better than they did illustrations, and they understood illustrations a whole lot better than they did the blend of visuals and script that makes up a comic strip. It was not surprising, then, that some editors chose to promo their strips using text only. Still, given the wealth of beautiful graphics available to call attention to Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates, it's a bit surprising to see an ad selling that bravura series using only words, no pictures - but here's one from the May 8, 1943 Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Telegraph:
Four years separated the Annie "Pubjab'" ad and the text-only Terry ad. Jumping ahead another four years from the Terry, we reach a 1947 promo that does double duty, pushing Dick Tracy while also touting the "Crime Stoppers Club" Chester Gould had made such a feature of his strip. As discussed by Jeff Kersten and Max Collins in our Dick Tracy Volume 11, Crime Stoppers became a popular concept thanks in part to the rise in juvenile crime during this period. It serves as a prime example of the ways highly-read comic strips could influence the larger society around them.
The promotion of a given strip could evolve over time. Take a look at this 1960 Tracy ad from the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (which strikes me as a funny name for a Texas-based paper—how many avalanches occur in Lubbock?). This new-at-the-time demographic information about the stalwart detective was quickly whipped into an eye-catcher designed to appeal to local advertisers eager to target a large male audience.
Between 1947 and 1960 falls the decade of the Fifties, with Cold War rhetoric on the rise, television ascending at a rapid pace, and newspaper strips feeling the heat from concerns about the connection between comics and juvenile delinquency. Promo ads began to point toward the things comics could offer readers that they wouldn't find anywhere else, whether that was the uncanny prescience Milton Caniff brought to his early Steve Canyon sagas ...
... Or the galactic vistas and sweeping visuals that flowed from an artist's pen - in this case, the pen of Mac Raboy—which early-'50s movies and TV circa could never equal.
I have another fistful of promos at hand and I'll share those with you next time. Until then we have plenty of elevator music to keep me entertained—now where is that Barry Manilow playlist ...?