Australia has certainly had its share of memorable advertising, with this week’s use of the Sydney Opera House as a ‘billboard’ without a doubt one of the most controversial. This week we thought we’d have a very quick look at history of outdoor advertising in Sydney.
There’s a great entry on the Dictionary by Professor Robert Crawford that looks at the general history of advertising in Sydney here.
During the 19th century, street frontages were used to advertise theatrical productions, and retailers adorned their shop frontages with signage. In 1854, Isaac & Joseph Roff became the city’s first dedicated producer of posters for commercial purposes, followed quickly by the establishment of other outdoor advertising businesses. Bill posters were soon appearing stuck to any flat surface, whether buildings, pillars and hoarding and became so prominent that cartoons of the time satirised Sydney’s vulgar looking streets. By the late 1870s, another company, Hollander & Govett, was, in addition to printing posters, also erecting its own hoardings in prominent places and placing its clients’ posters on them. These giant hoardings featured a cacophony of posters of varying sizes, colours, and appeals.
The ‘ghost signs’, as they are often called, that reappear around on the city during construction works, were painted on city buildings during the 1920s and 1930s, and were another popular form of outdoor advertising that has left its mark on Sydney. One of these is the sign for Peapes menswear store which was uncovered last year at Wynyard, as discussed on the blog by Lisa Murray last year.
It is interesting to note that one cigarette company in the 1930s recognised the importance of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, declaring in one newspaper in 1932: ‘We are not going to try to have this announcement placed on the bridge, feeling that even a “CAPSTAN” advertisement would be somewhat out of harmony with the dignity and impressiveness of this magnificent structure’.
Our most famous actual billboard, the Coca-Cola sign at the intersection of William Street and Darlinghurst Road, was built in 1974 as the largest billboard advertisement in Sydney, and is a physical landmark and heritage item in itself.
Many Australian artists and writers have worked in advertising. Artists like Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor, Hera Roberts and Max Dupain all produced illustrations and photographs for advertisers in the 1930s and 1940s, with Brett Whiteley, Ken Done and Bryce Courtenay all employed in advertising agencies later in the 20th century. While art has been incorporated into advertising in the past, this most recent example of putting advertising on the Opera House attempts to do the opposite – to turn the building, which is an artwork in itself as well as one of the most iconic and culturally significant building in the world, into a billboard.
Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Nicole!