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As Seen on a Dead Whale: Advertising Changes With the Tides 

Wednesday, Jan 21 2015
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At the dawn of the 20th century, the Los Angeles Times referred to Lyman Stewart as "too well-known to need any introduction." A lot's changed since 1902.

Cars, however, still run on gas, and Stewart founded a little company called Union Oil, now known as Unocal. The hundreds of millions he earned from that gig went into his real passion: Protestant fundamentalism. Now, Stewart's successors can more comfortably deny the existence of the prehistoric plants and animals whose mortal remains enabled his fossil fuel empire — which, in turn, enabled them.

So, there's an introduction of sorts. That's how Lyman Stewart — or really, the Lyman Stewart — became a San Francisco tourist attraction. And billboard.

A "private collector" with little desire for publicity recently gifted 1,182 images of old San Francisco to the Western Neighborhoods Project, a history-minded city nonprofit.

Those photos, which represent perhaps 1 percent of the collector's stash, have been digitized and are available on the nonprofit's website. And they are mesmerizing; hours can be lost studying lost years.

A trove of photos like this lends permanence to the city's fleeting moments. And, yes, in the context of deep time everything is a fleeting moment. Nonexistent buildings, vanished railway systems, entire bygone neighborhoods of entirely bygone people: They're all here. But so are the things that were ephemeral even in the day. Like advertising. It's everywhere.

And so, when the Lyman Stewart oil tanker ran aground off Ocean Beach in 1922, city hucksters wasted no time. A photo of its corroding hull reveals it was repurposed, with just some white paint, into an ad for beloved local company Mother's Cakes & Cookies. (Mother's is certainly more beloved than the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, which also advertised on the wreck.)

Scrawling ad copy on the side of a shipwreck isn't the kind of thing you'd do today. Nor is plastering the rotting carcass of a whale on Ocean Beach with pitches for coffee, crabs, and drinks, as locals did in a 1919 photo.

This, reflects Western Neighborhoods Project founder Woody LaBounty, was a time before radio, TV, or podcasts. Going to see a shipwreck or a dead whale was the thing to do. This predated the concept of "highway beautification." Or highways.

The city hadn't yet declared where you could and could not post ad copy, nor devised a means of extracting its pound of flesh on the transaction via permits, fees, and fines. You could slap down what you wanted where you wanted to, so ads went where eyes went.

And, sort of like today, all eyes were on a dead whale.

In the era when putting copy on the side of a putrefying carcass wasn't considered bad messaging, salesmen wandered throughout the country, knocking on the doors of tenement- and barn-owners. What a deal they offered: They'd paint three sides of your building, gratis, if they could put an ad on the fourth.

Bill-posting outfits in many cities were run by local theater-owners. Building-owners were often compensated with trinkets or tickets to the circus. In short, this was a very different time.

But not quite as different as you'd think.

Modern advertising was inadvertently created by New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett in the mid-1800s, notes Duke University anthropology professor William H. O'Barr, an advertising historian. In an era when people would come from miles around to see what washed up on the shore, reading ads was a pastime. Ads were news and Bennett put them on the front page (the London Times didn't stop doing this until the late 1950s).

You can see why these ads were so compelling: Dear Charles — Should such a trifle as a handy hat-brush sever true love? Come home to your ruffled LuLu. They were, in short, the clickbait of their day. On such foundations empires are built.

Bennett declared that no ad could run in his paper twice. This gave rise to agents who'd wait in line at the newspaper office and drop off ad copy for harried advertisers. Sooner or later these people went into the business of writing the ads, too — and nine out of 10 dentists agree the world was never the same.

Papers of this era, then, looked like the cities they covered: They were cluttered with ad copy, down to the margins. Ads were everywhere. And nobody seemed to much mind. O'Barr has done plenty of research on the massive billboards that used to line the Hudson River at around the time Lyman Stewart required no introduction. Boats sailed close and flashed their spotlights on the ads; people sat in deck chairs and read them intently. "Advertising was still new," says O'Barr. "People were interested in it. It wasn't 'clutter.'"

Of course, this was in an era before "zoning." And, unless living next to a rendering plant sounds appealing, you're probably in favor of zoning. But zoning also allowed speculators in cities across the nation to make out like bandits: By restricting certain activities and developments from the "good" part of town and driving them, exclusively, to the "bad" parts of town, they could goose the land values in both areas.

Ads were relegated to the "bad" spots. By the time televisions were ubiquitous and city-dwellers were being bombarded with ads in their own living rooms, the ubiquitous text and pictures surrounding San Franciscans of an earlier era was decried as a form of pollution.

How odd, then, that those ads are the first things to draw our eye when we open an old newspaper or gaze at an old photo. Of a whale, even.

The Lyman Stewart, incidentally, is still looming off the rocks of Ocean Beach. In 1938, 16 years after it ran aground, it was finally dynamited along with whatever ad copy adorned its rusting hull. When the tide is low enough, you can still see bits of its engines and other odds and ends the TNT missed.

You aren't allowed to plaster ads on just anything these days. Five years ago, the city cracked down on a firm that glued fliers hyping a mafia videogame to city streets. Yesterday's enterprising advertising strategy is today's vandalism.

And yet, per state law, it remains unlawful for a city to remove an illegal billboard if that billboard has been in place, even illegally, for five years or more. A 2009 state Senate bill that would have done away with this bizarre amnesty program was quashed by legislators who'd benefited heavily from the billboard industry (including billboards promoting their election and re-election).

In the world of today, the medium is the message. And, quite often, it's all rotten.

You can take Duke professor William H. O'Barr's "Advertising and Society" course, for free, on Coursera starting on Feb. 16:

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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