The Sell: Australian Advertising 1790s to 1990s

Katrina Marshall

Reflecting the progression in Australian advertising from humble newspapers to the rise of ad-assisted social activism.
The Sell: Australian Advertising 1790s to 1990s

Image: Alexander Stitt (1937–2016), Life. Be in it. Canberra: A.G.P.S. 1977, screenprint,, courtesy of Alexander Stitt. Used with Permission from National Library of Australia.


Hidden away in the Exhibition Gallery of Canberra’s National Library of Australia, The Sell takes visitors through two hundred years of Australian spruiking, plugging and shameless PR. The free exhibition opened in November 2016, recently hosting sell-out events alongside the city’s Enlighten Festival. Filled with carefully curated ephemera and objects from the library’s collections, The Sell traces Australian advertising from the 1790s to the 1990s and promises something for everyone – from yellowing playbills to Paul Hogan’s now wince-worthy campaign for Winfield cigarettes. With ads to make us laugh, think and cringe, The Sell asks audiences to consider what advertising can tell us about Aussies' past and present and what might be lurking among the barrage of ads we see today.


Beyond the spacious foyer of the National Library, The Sell sits on the ground floor beside the permanent Treasures Gallery. Outside these galleries is the only audio-visual component of the exhibition, a surprising choice considering how unapologetically boisterous advertising can be. From oversized orange chairs with built-in, noise-reducing speakers – we are in the National Library after all – visitors can enjoy interviews with advertising greats and the exhibition’s curator Susannah Helman, as well as a number of classic television adverts that will no doubt have older viewers humming along.

With ‘C’mon Aussie, C’mon’ hanging in the air, visitors can cross to the exhibition proper which begins with Australia’s first print advertisement from 1796, inconspicuous in the safety of a small glass case protruding from stark white walls. This careful presentation and the lack of sound creates a tone of reverence incongruous with such bright and utilitarian mainstays of popular culture. Nevertheless, this first room sets the tone for the exhibition with an intriguing range of material which often invites comic comparison – ‘wanted’ ads for both lost dogs and ‘lost’ bushrangers warrant a smirk. Each well-lit artefact is accompanied by an informative label with enough historical context to satiate the particularly eager visitors who will also find supplementary material online through the library’s website.

As visitors move through the display the decades wear on, reflecting the progression in Australian advertising from humble newspapers to the rise of ad-assisted social activism – ‘Condoman’, a Phantom-style superhero created in response to the AIDS crisis is a standout example of the latter. Unsurprisingly, opportunities for thought provoking juxtaposition have not been wasted and the confident heads of John Howard and Gough Whitlam share a wall, daring audiences to consider the changing (or unchanging) faces of political advertising.

With a broad range of objects and services being advertised there is an overwhelming number of pieces to take in and, unfortunately, many are easy to miss. As noted in the visitor’s book, the exhibition would certainly benefit from a catalogue wherein each piece might have a chance to shine and each visitor a chance to digest the wealth of information over a coffee in the library’s café, Bookplate. Until then, a couple of hidden gems to hunt for are a book of sample papers from Kodak circa. 1900 and the original musical score for the 1965 ‘Minties’ jingle.

Behind thick protective glass the bright posters and pamphlets of The Sell seem lost in time, a side effect of attempting to reconcile a library with the loud, ubiquitous world of advertising. That said, there is something for most visitors in the quiet Exhibition Gallery, particularly those interested in advertising or design and those in the mood to reminisce – or cringe – at the eye-catching ploys of bygone days. Open daily until 25 April 2017, most visitors to The Sell will leave with a nostalgic spring in their step and both eyes peeled for the ads trying to hook them in.

Rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 5

The Sell: Australian Advertising 1790s to 1990s’

National Library of Australia, Canberra

23 November 2016 – 25 April 2017

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Katrina Marshall is a recent graduate of the University of New England with a long-time passion for history, theatre and popular culture. She is currently studying a Master of Museum and Heritage Studies at the Australian National University and looks forward to making the most of Canberra’s exciting cultural institutions and events.