John Millais was a talented artist who lived in the 1800s and was a main part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His early art included paintings that were eclectic, compelling, audacious and brightly colored. Over the years, however, his style changed into something much more nostalgic, with darker colors and looser brushwork. Some of Millais’ paintings in his later years were commonly known as “fancy pictures”, a genre of art in which “sentiment takes precedence over evolved narrative.” Emotive paintings such as these became popular during the eighteenth century; at the same time, Enlightenment philosophers were exploring newfound ideas of childhood innocence. Previously thought of as being born into sin, children were starting to be viewed in a different light—they became symbols of hope, innocence and joy.(Smith 125) The Victorian era brought different connotations to the idea of the fancy picture. The corruption found in sexual exploitation and child labor made the concept of the fancy picture a paradox of a sort, illustrating emotion, while also conveying anxiety.
The painting Bubbles by Millais was a good example of these notions and ideas.(Drucker and McVarish 157) Millais originally created this oil painting in 1886, when he was at the peak of his fame. He used his grandson, Willie James, as his model. In Bubbles, the young boy is illustrated holding a bowl of soap suds and a pipe. The young, chubby boy is also seen staring up at a large bubble with an expression of wonder and awe. Bubbles (and its copyright) were bought from Millais by William Ingram in 1886. Ingram was the owner of the Illustrated London News and published Bubbles in the Christmas edition of the magazine in 1887. Thomas Barratt, the managing director of A & F Pears was a clever individual and believed in forceful marketing techniques. Barratt bought the image and its copyrights from Ingram with the idea of turning it into an advertisement for Pears’ Soap. Barratt wanted to create a link between the beautiful child, innocence, purity, and cleanliness, therefore convincing the consumer to buy the product. (Smith 184) In order to do this, however, he had to change certain things about the image. Barratt added in a bar of soap at the bottom of the painting, and added in the text “Pears’ Soap” at the top of the image. By doing so, Barratt successfully created an advertisement by using a sentimental image of a child, provoking an emotional link in the viewer’s mind. This usage of children in advertisements has continued to play a large part in marketing since the 1800s. Since then, large companies such as Merck and Gerber Products Company have used this technique, and arguably even exploited children in order to further themselves financially. Over the years, however, the use of children has spun out of control, and the increase of objectification is significantly more noticeable than in the early years of Victorian beliefs.
Small children inspire trust, hope, joy and a multitude of emotions that attract consumers. In the book, Consuming Kids, psychologist David Walsh is quoted by saying, “Emotion focuses attention, determines what we remember, shapes attitudes, motivates, and moves us to act.”(Linn 51) Marketing strategies have been employed in various degrees over the years, but the fine line between displaying the product in a humanly manner and objectifying humans has been blurred.
In 1959, Joyce Ballantyne Brand drew an ad for Coppertone Sunscreen.This ad was to become widely recognizable as the Coppertone girl icon, which is still in use today. Brand was mainly known for her 1940s pin up paintings, depicting childlike-looking girls caught in compromising positions. In a similar concept of pin up girls, Brand drew her daughter; a girl of three years old in blonde pigtails at the beach.(Brand) A black dog is pulling down her blue swimsuit bottom, exposing her bare backside, which is considerably lighter than the rest of her body. Next to the ad, the words “Don’t be a paleface!” are shown in a loose script. The formal qualities of the Coppertone girl ad are similar to Bubbles in the sense that they are both drawn, giving the advertisement a sweet, soft look. Mass production of this image has made it openly famous and easily recognizable.
There is a dramatic difference in the use of children between the time in which Bubbles was used and the 1950s Coppertone girl. The way it is used in the Coppertone ad, although playful, is also visibly provocative and somewhat sexual. The girl’s exposed bottom is suggestive. Additionally, her pose is reminiscent of a pin up girl, and her surprised, angelic expression is also closely linked to the expressions used in pin up girl photographs and paintings. In this ad, there is a visible change in the depiction of children. In past advertisements, like the Pears’ Soap ad, there was a different tone of “innocence”; the Coppertone girl starts to become less childlike and more controversial. Although Coppertone has since then changed the image to make the girl look less sexual, the fact that adult consumers considered this ad “cute” gives insight to the present issue of increasing sexual objectification of children and the audience’s reaction to these types of advertisements.
Love Cosmetics was a company famous in the 70s for their cosmetic products for women. Owned by Menley & James Laboratories, Love Cosmetics had an advertising budget that went over seven million dollars.(Portals) Marketing was mainly geared towards young women, and in 1974, they started producing a line of Baby Soft products, except these were marketed towards adults. These products seemed to be based on the idea of innocence, and the soft smell of baby powder in their products added to this concept. Advertisements on television and print for the line of Baby Soft products portrayed this idea and emphasized a sense of dreamy, sexy innocence conveyed by their products and models. The ads for the line of Love Cosmetics, similar to Bubbles and the Coppertone girl ad, convey a sense of softness and appeal that is parallel to the “sweet and innocent” message they all attempt to convey.
One of these ads portrays a young girl, staring straight at the audience in a sultry manner. Her hand is delicately placed on a stuffed animal that covers a suggestively skimpy outfit. Her face has soft features, with big blue eyes, rosy cheeks and full lips that are reminiscent of a baby’s features. Her hair is light brown and delicately curled, adding to the childlike appearance of the girl in general. The product is shown in the bottom left corner, with an explanation. It describes Love Cosmetics as a “irresistible, clean-baby smell, grown-up enough to be sexy….Pure and innocent. It may well be the sexiest fragrance around.” At the top, the ad reads, “Love’s Baby Soft. Because innocence is sexier than you think.” The text stresses the smell and concept of the product and continues to mention the “innocence” and “sexiness” contained in the scent of the product. The progression of time from when Bubbles was considered controversial to the Coppertone girl, to the 1970s ads for Love Cosmetics, shows the manner in which children are becoming more of an object for display in advertising. Advertising methods are actively crossing lines and becoming increasingly provocative in order to capture the consumer’s attention and sell the product.
Formally, all of the images contain a sense of softness, achieved by hand painting/drawing in advertisements. This style is analogous with both the product it is trying to sell (soap, cream, and perfume) and it also makes the image appear even more childlike and innocent. The Pears’ Soap ad sets the stage for the advertising done later in the 1950s, 1970s, and even today. Advertisements are everywhere and children are becoming commodities as they continue to become mere props for consumption rather than symbols of hope, joy and innocence. Additionally, no one seems to notice the use of these children and the corruption of innocence that is used in order to gain wealth in society today.
Gallo, Max. Poster in History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.
Irwin, Cheri Brand. “The Artist Behind the Coppertone Girl Ad.” Interview by Madeleine Brand. May 18, 2006. NPR. http://www.npr.org/templates/ story/story.php?storyId=5415067.
Linn, Susan. Consuming Kids. New York: The New Press, 2004.
Millais, John Everett. Pears’ Soap Ad. 1886. In Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide, by Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish. Upper Saddle River:
Throughout history and society, it has been a recurring element that those select few who bear specialized knowledge and skills regarding a specific subject hold the greatest power and influence over the masses. These groups of people fall under the category of elitism—a word that carries both positive and negative connotations. While it can be argued relentlessly over whether elitism is “good” or “bad”, there is no denying that it exists. According to Jeffrey Meikle in his book, Design in the USA, “’Good design’ simply denotes the tastes and aspirations of a particular elite at a particular time.”  However, while elitists do exist within the realm of design, they alone do not dictate what good design encompasses nor do they force a prescription for the masses. Good design can be inherently good through its progressive ideas, usability, and engaging discourse between designers and consumers.
Meikle’s provocative words beg the question: what is good design? Is it even definable in a way that utilizes objectivity? Whether something can even be labeled as such remains so controversial because opinions differ and will always remain subjective. However, it must be established that good design is unquantifiable on a purely aesthetic level; instead, it should be viewed as a progressive idea whose value is determined by the strength of its argument. For example, upon purchasing a reusable water bottle, there are a myriad of varying designs to choose from. Some have straws, others are made out of aluminum, but ultimately they all encompass the singular idea of a portable water system. It is an argument for getting water from the tap to the mouth , and through this human necessity for water, the idea of the water bottle is given the opportunity to evolve and progress in order to fit the needs of the consumer.
Furthermore, much like an infinite limit, the concept of good design is never final, but is something that is always being worked toward as a goal by designers. The way ideas continue to progress and become better design is not through an elite group of people, but through the discourse between the designer with specialized knowledge and the consumer who interacts with the idea behind the product. This dialogue comes in the form of action and response—the action being a designer’s idea or argument translated into some form and the response being the feedback from the consumer regarding the usability of the object. The combination of the two allows the designer to incorporate the criticism of the consumer into future design, thus creating better design. This is the reason why companies such as Apple and Adobe constantly update their products and interfaces to the point where some find it irritating. Because they bear specialized knowledge that the average person would not have, these corporations must be responsible for complying and responding to the needs of the customer. When the action is sold before considering the response, only then is elitism criticized of controlling the tastes and trends of good design. Otherwise, how could elitism dictate design trends when ultimately designers should be creating with the consumers in mind?
However, it is not to say that exceptions do not exist. Two designers, Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf, designed an ergonomic chair made out of flexible mesh for Herman Miller: the Aeron chair. Because of its unfamiliar form, the initial response to the design was terrible—those testing the chair criticized it for everything that it wasn’t supposed to be. They described it as “uncomfortable and alien” , even after the great amount of ergonomic research put into the design. However, with continued persistence, over time the testers began to like the Aeron chair more and more—but even so, it was not up to Herman Miller standards. Still, they stuck by the design and released it regardless, and luckily, the response from the consumers was extremely positive. In this case, the action seems to have been sold before the response, but it wasn’t as if the consumers were completely disregarded; a great amount of research was put into the design to make it as comfortable as possible for the human body. Needless to say, there are exceptions to everything. While the question on whether good design is achieved still remains, designers strive to reach closer to the answer through the improvement and evolution of ideas through conversation with the consumer, making the standards of good design a collective, rather than elitist, effort.
During the mid-20th century, modern design continued to flourish. However, much opposition arose, claiming that it was unfair for an elite group to force a certain prescription on the masses that didn’t fit everyone’s personal tastes. This was especially evident during the Museum of Modern Art’s 1949 exhibition entitled Good Design—a collection of modern household products that sought to reach out to American consumers and retailers. The name of the showcase alone sparked much controversy, as many took the title as the elitists’ pretentious, end-all-be-all label to the products displayed.
Edgar J. Kaufmann was highly criticized for his exhibition because he and a choice jury—all of whom carry strong backgrounds in design—made the selections. Meikle writes, “Although Larsen [a textile designer who supported the MoMA collection] affectionately referred to MoMA as the ‘mother church’ of modern design, that phrase suggested an institution that was setting and enforcing standards to control design’s explosive velocity. That is precisely what Kaufmann and MoMA were all about.”  However, it is not safe to assume that Kaufmann believed that his exhibition was the final say in what was to be considered good design because once again, good design is ever evolving and never final. The name Good Design was provocative, challenging the consumer to refute or at least question, “What is good design?” The controversy of the exhibition title allowed for discourse between the customer and the designer, and this was the intention of Kaufmann upon creation of Good Design. Good Design became the action, and the consumer feedback, the response. Furthermore, it was necessary to set a standard by labeling products as Good Design because otherwise, we would not be able to differentiate the good from the bad without anything to compare it with. If that were the case, then the conversation necessary for the progression of ideas would never occur.
Terrence Riley and Edward Eigen, in their article Between the Museum and the Marketplace: Selling Good Design, reiterate that, “The ultimate goals of this complex strategy…were to inform consumers and manufacturers about modern design products.”  And while many believed that the masses took on a completely passive role and were force-fed opinions from elitists, that was not the case. One of the most important functions of the Good Design showcase was the incorporation of the public opinion into the exhibition. The visitors would rate the pieces through polls taken at each door, and the results were distributed amongst the public. Kaufmann stressed that Good Design would provide impetus for designers to further progress their original ideas and arguments so that better design could be achieved. Once again, action and response is utilized to involve the consumer’s opinion, and thus, the status quo is not directed by elitism alone, but rather a collective group. Without the specialization, research, and impetus, a consensus on good design could never exist.
Not only in Good Design, but the importance of the notion of discourse between designer and consumer transcends even past modernism. Ettore Sottsass was an Italian designer active in the late 20th century who crafted the Carlton Bookcase. At first glance, it is easy to overly criticize this interesting furniture design. Not only is it extremely pricey, but also physically does not mimic the every day bookshelf. Its angled walls and unconventional composition prompt the consumer to think, “That’s not a bookshelf!” But upon that realization, they then wonder, “Wait, what is a bookshelf?” Radical designs such as Sottsass’s bookshelf appear to be another iteration of an elitist forcing a specific prescribed taste to an audience, but what it really does is stimulate conversation and idea between the designer and the people for whom they are designing. It challenges the audience to redefine a social norm and therefore redefine how to interact with the object. The Aeron chair example from earlier communicates this notion precisely—its supposedly “alien” form allowed consumers to redefine their idea of a chair’s form, and as a result, understand the design and designer better. Ideas and insight behind products that initially seem elitist end up becoming catalysts that advance the world of good design.
There is no denying that elitism exists, and will always exist—especially in design. That is not to say, however, that it is the sole dictation of what defines good design. Good design is inherently good through its progressive ideas and communication with the populace. With exhibitions such as Good Design as well as catalytic designs that stimulate the minds of the consumer, evolution within design becomes infinite, and we are able to reach closer and closer to the holy grail of “good design”. According to Paola Antonelli, the Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, “Sometimes objects are not immediately functional. They’re not to be sat upon, or to be used to eat, or to be used to turn on the volume. Sometimes objects just deliver emotions or are just part of your life. That’s also enough.” 
 Jeffrey Meikle, Design in the USA.
 Peter Hall, A Good Argument, p. 75.
 Malcom Gladwell, Blink.
 Jeffrey Meikle, Design in the USA, p. 148.
 Terrence Riley and Edward Eigen, Between the Museum and the Marketplace: Selling Good Design, p. 152.
 Paola Antonelli, What makes good design?, http://bigthink.com/ideas/2732 (video).
Antonelli, Paola. “What makes good design?” February 19, 2008. Big Think. http://bigthink.com/ideas/2732.
Gladwell, Malcom. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2005.
Hall, Peter. “A Good Argument.” Metropolis, March 2009, 73-75.
Meikle, Jeffrey L. Design in the USA. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Riley, Terence, and Edward Eigen. Between the Museum and the Marketplace: Selling Good Design. New York, 1994.