6 Effective Elements of Vintage Advertising (That Still Work)

1980s 1890s "Drink Coca-Cola 5¢" Advertisement. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The earliest examples of advertising, as we know it today, began to take shape in the 16th century with the advent of newspapers and magazines. Since then, brand messages, layouts, and design aesthetics have drastically changed in response to major milestones like the emergence of television, and most recently, the internet. Today, collections of vintage advertising and memorabilia include objects like Victorian trade cards, tobacco tins, beer trays, pull signs, and classic Coca-Cola ads.

While vintage advertising methods encompass a broad range of styles that span decades and genres, some elements of decades-old ad campaigns remain relevant today. We break down the power of nostalgia to explore why certain elements of vintage advertising are not only beloved by collectors, but used by businesses to successfully market their products still today.

The Power of Memory and Nostalgia

1954 U.S. advertisement for the Dodge Custom Royal Lancer V-8 automobile

1954 Dodge Custom Royal Lancer V-8 Advertisement.

One of the biggest factors that determines the way we perceive whether an advertisement appears vintage or old-fashioned is the notion of nostalgia, a sentimental longing or affection for a bygone era. Nostalgia makes us crave the past, and when used in advertising, it can appeal to an audience on a powerful, sentimental and emotive level. Even as technological advances and new media are introduced, nostalgia remains an essential human component, which is why advertisers and designers capitalize on its potential.

Nostalgia is triggered by sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. Much like how a distinct perfume scent can remind you of a person, or how a song can immediately take you back to a specific memory, vintage design elements can evoke the same sort of nostalgic feelings. It is precisely the reason the social media hashtag “Throwback Thursday” has become widely popular, and why the series Mad Men, centered around a fictional 1960s American advertising firm, drew so many viewers during its seven-season run.

Advertisers can leverage nostalgia by tapping into the human desire for a sense of belonging, connectedness, and positivity. Using certain techniques and elements that appear “aged” can not only appeal to an audience on a feel-good level, but make a design appear more authentic as well.

Elements of Vintage Advertising

There are many elements of vintage advertising that utilize the power of memory and nostalgia. While some call upon subtleness and simplicity, others are boisterous, colorful, and catchy. Below are some of the core elements of vintage advertisements that continue to attract art connoisseurs, collectors, and consumers today.


Many of the ads we see today are cluttered with imagery and information that distract from the main selling point. Pared-down, minimalist designs can not only evoke nostalgic feelings of a simpler time, but can also prove to be more effective. Volkswagen famously revolutionized this concept with their “Think Small” campaign, which was released in 1960.

Advertisement of Volkswagen’s Think Small campaign

Volkswagen’s “Think Small” Advertisement. Image via Medium.

Prior to the VW campaign, car manufacturers used big, flashy, colorful components in their ads, but Volkswagen’s did just the opposite. The company used stark, unretouched, black-and-white photographs with copy that focused on a particular facet of the car, thus contributing to the ultimate success and popularity of the Beetle.

Long Copy

While modern advertisements tend to rely heavily on images and less on copy, lengthy blocks of text were a staple of vintage advertisements. Though using shorter copy seems like a viable strategy to capture the audience’s attention quickly, switching to longer copy can be beneficial for the right product, evidenced by Cadillac’s 1915 ad, The Penalty of Leadership. Though the company doesn’t mention its cars or utilities once in the 400+ all-text advertisement, the ad was successful in defining Cadillac’s brand identity, which gave it an edge over the car manufacturer’s competitors.

With the appropriate combination of persuasion and charm, longer copy affords the opportunity to better describe the benefits and advantages of a product in greater detail. Many modern advertisers have even witnessed an elevated interest from their audiences when utilizing lengthier text.

Large, Catchy Headlines

One of the most prominent components of vintage advertisements was the use of big, bold headlines, especially in print ads. By using attention-grabbing headlines, companies were able to immediately draw in their audience. Boot company Timberland leveraged this tactic in a 2009 campaign, touting the powerful headline, “WALK THE TALK.”

Rockford Watch Tin Over Cardboard Advertising Sign.

Rockford Watch Advertising Sign. Sold for $425 via Morphy Auctions (December 2018).

Similarly, a catchy slogan, especially in the realm of radio advertising, became a key player in vintage ads. Some slogans, like M&M’s “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand,” have stuck with the company since the language was first used in 1954. Brands continue to weave this tactic into campaigns today, developing memorable slogans to use in contemporary advertising.

Bright Imagery

A majority of vintage ads, especially those created in the 1950s and 1960s, used bright, colorful imagery to capture their audience’s attention. The vibrancy of a decades-old campaign adds to the appeal of vintage memorabilia as antiques and collectibles today. It’s been proven that color can influence our buying mood, and certain colors produce a specific emotion. With this in mind, advertisers — both old and new — utilize this phenomenon in branding. Popular brands like Converse and Coca-Cola are particularly notable for having bright, beautiful ads in earlier decades.

Signature Styles

There are a variety of eclectic visual styles that reflect the decade in which they were created. Contemporary designers often mix these visual, vintage elements with modern design features to ensure they still feel fresh and resonate with modern audiences. For example, to elicit a more Victorian-inspired design, advertisers can revert back to circus-style typefaces, text-heavy layouts, and ornate borders. Elements like letterpress, an old printing technique that produces an engraved effect and a handmade look, are also used to produce a more aged feel.

These visual styles can range in creative output, yielding more muted colors and old-style typefaces, or in contrast, produce bold, retro collage-style colors like those of the Pop art movement.

Incorporating Vintage Elements in Modern Advertising

By utilizing vintage advertising elements, brands today can easily tap into the emotive capabilities of nostalgia. Explore the most effective vintage elements from decades past below.

infographic showing vintage advertisements

Though technology has dramatically changed through the course of the last century, many strategies used in successful advertising have remained the same. In the age of social media, consumers, now more than ever, crave a sense of trust and community, and modern brands tap into this by evoking nostalgic sentiments through vintage ad elements. Vintage advertising serves both as a powerful guide for modern design principles as well as fascinating relics of decades past, which collectors and interior designers alike flock to today.

Sources: Collectors Weekly | Udemy | The Guardian | Canva | Design Crowd