You might define a successful advertising campaign by its ability to capture an audience’s attention, provide valuable content, and incentivize that audience in such a way, that they convert to customers. Most interesting, though, is how advertising efforts have changed over time- how businesses previously communicated their value, versus how they provide value through content today.

Evaluating restaurant advertisements throughout history allows us the ability to see these concepts in action. We’re going to take a trip down memory lane and look at vintage restaurant ads, and discuss how they’ve evolved over time.

The Origin of Restaurants in America

Our efforts to understand and appreciate vintage restaurant advertisements begin with understanding the origin of restaurants in America. Though getting their start in the late 18th century, it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that restaurants became an established landscape for dining outside the home.

They continued to evolve through two world wars and the Great Depression, only to experience rapid growth and popularity by the mid-twentieth century. By the early 2000s, people dined out on a weekly basis, and it hasn’t slowed since.

19th Century Advertisements

The value of newspaper and magazine advertisements become apparent following the Civil War, but at that point, restaurants didn’t commonly use them.

The advertisements remained simple and to the point, with brief descriptions of their offerings and the name and location of the restaurant. Other historical newspaper advertisements consisted of menus and pricing placed under the restaurants’ names. Restaurants used advertising to be informative, with clear and concise details about their menus.

20th Century Advertisements

In the early 20th century, not much changed with the simplistic appearance of advertisements, however there were changes in the way the advertisements spoke to the reader. Oftentimes, restaurants added phrases like, “The place for good things to eat” or “Won’t we have fun? – And howl!” A vast majority of the advertisements also spoke to the reader in the form of an invitation to restaurant grand openings, citing their location and a couple exciting offerings.

By the 1940s and 1950s, McDonald’s and KFC were leading the restaurant advertising industry with phrases that played on a sense of American identity while tempting readers with low-cost foods. Restaurants quickly adapted to capturing American culture in their advertisements, which effectively played into a sense of belonging and community- the familiar emotional tug that everyone recognizes today in beautifully crafted campaigns.

The ‘60s and ‘70s advertisements still evoked the same emotions, but seemed to mainly speak to a male audience. When women were addressed, oftentimes the appeal was to be a solution to their time-consuming responsibilities in the kitchen. These ads also began focusing on communities, featuring photos of coworkers on a lunch break, or family members dining together with big smiles, enjoying their time with one another. When they weren’t featuring people, they were rife with pictures of storefronts and logos, solidifying images for the reader to remember their names.

The 1980s to 2000s brought about restaurant advertisements full of fun, recognizable slogans and familiar celebrity faces, endorsing their foods. The theme was all about taking breaks, rewarding yourself, and having fun, primarily through the ever-popular standard American diet.

Restaurant Advertising Today

Finally, we reach the modern restaurant advertising concepts of today. We’ve evolved over time, shifting our focus from the simplistic lists of restaurant offerings, our sense of American pride, a desire for community, and a longing to reward ourselves. Instead, we see restaurant advertisements appeal to our interest in connecting with the culinary arts.

Today’s advertisements are heavily centered on the storytelling aspect of the culinary process. We, the audience, find more restaurants showing us the beauty and creativity surrounding the food we eat. Instead of photos of storefronts, we see photos of plated dishes that currently have a place on the menu. We view images of chefs plating our food, and we connect with their operations behind the scenes. We’re drawn to the stories behind their carefully curated meals, and the passion that drives their creative menus. When we carefully select where we dine, perhaps we favor advertisements that show us a meal prepared so carefully, it has to be from a place of love.

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