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“Advertising Through Spectacle”

Posted: April 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

The World’s Fair, which was invented in 1851, looked to bring countries together by sharing their technologies and manufactured products. As time progressed, the fairs became more about the future and utopian themes. These fantastical displays were funded by large corporations who could make the World’s Fair creators dreams a reality. However, this also fueled a more capitalist based focus and gave the Fair commercial-based undertones. In the 1939 New York World’s Fair, GM’s “Futurama” concepts took off with ideas for the future that were entirely unimaginable for its time. While selling and presenting this idea, General Motors and other participating companies in this particular Fair intended to sell their name by creating spectacular concepts which would be memorable to visitors. This was accomplished often by inviting visitors to understand the workings of a company’s product. The display of the process taken by companies such as GM became more than an educational device, it was in essence a way of advertising and masking their corporate agendas through dazzling displays for the brand to sell themselves to viewers.

Ford Cycle of Production was one of the larger attractions of the Fair. Ford created a turntable 100ft in diameter weighing 152 tons which floated in twenty thousand gallons of water. The grand invention told the “story of how the automobile industry spreads employment” and traced the raw materials from their origins to the making of the car. It intended to demonstrate how machinery makes cars at affordable prices and also creates jobs. The countless amounts of people who saw this a day generally did not come away from the exhibition remembering all they learned from the process that was revealed. What they did recall was the great manifestation of such a large display¹. By awing the crowd with this seemingly futuristic technology, Ford successfully plants a positive association with their brand and the future. According to Meikle, “most…delighted in the mechanics and scope of the display itself…each display functioned as an advertisement intended to leave vague impressions of a corporation’s enterprise and public beneficence1.” What Ford created for the World’s Fair was more of an advertisement to sell their company name than an actual educational device. In other words, though the public was happily whisked away by the extravagant displays, there still remained the sponsor’s underlying corporate agendas. In Henthorn’s words, “Business sponsors offered to solve social problems with a superficial, commercial outlook, attempting to showcase the moral fiber underlying the faceless corporation marked with a less than honest reputation.2” GM as well as the rest of the big corporations involved interwove themselves into this vision of the future simply to further their own profit-driven incentives.

Another example of a process made into spectacle at the World’s Fair was the Chrysler Pavilion of 1964. The Pavilion consisted of five islands linked by bridges which were set in a six acre lake. Four of the islands portrayed different aspects of Chrysler’s work such as engineering, production, styling, and operations while the fifth contained a large theater for a continuously running puppet show. Sights included a 100 foot long engine with a dragon as a crank shaft, a zoo of metallic monsters and a giant rocket on the lake3. One of the main attractions of the Pavilion was the assembly line ride. Visitors would ride in suspended car bodies with mechanical workers lining the loop which immersed them in the process of assembling the Chrysler car. These over-the-top, futuristic creations generally had the intention of displaying how parts of a car worked, such as the working engine one could walk in to or the ‘car of the future’ which allowed viewers to examine the car from below. The pavilion’s “educational and merchandising aspects were generally disguised within an amusement park sensibility.4” While a few visitors may have learned a thing or two about cars, the Chrysler Pavilion was more like a carnival of sorts that dazzled visitors and remind them of how innovative and grandiose Chrysler was, thus selling its brand. Again, Chrysler was one of many businesses involved in the exposition “designed from the get-go as a commercial enterprise for both itself and its exhibitors.5” The 1964 World’s Fair “served as a pronounced endorsement of American-style consumer capitalism³” more than any other Fair had in the past. Chrysler, along with other big names, used this Fair as an opportunity to market itself.

Though it is not part of any World’s Fair, Epcot’s Test Track at Walt Disney World is a ride sponsored by General Motors that opened in 1999 which had the exact same notion as Ford and Chrysler of selling itself through impressive technology and sensational experiences. Test Track simulates an excursion through the procedures GM uses for testing its vehicles. It takes one through all sorts of testing for tires, car doors, an anechoic chamber, environmental chambers with temperatures as high as 110F and as low as 10F, and also a corrosion chamber. Riders are also exposed to different road surfaces and wind through a cone course with the anti-lock braking system off and then on. After experiencing a near collision with an oncoming semi-truck, riders are sped around a track at 65 MPH, making it the fastest Disney theme park attraction ever built6. This is once again an example of turning something educational into something of a marvel. Those who ride the Test Track may be exposed to the processes of how GM tests their vehicle, but what matters most is the wow factor of the fast ride and thrilling elements. Riders leave the park remembering that GM is something special in comparison to other car companies. As it did in the World’s Fair, GM uses Walt Disney World as a way to make profit off of the public. Walt Disney World is vaguely similar to a World’s Fair in that it holds an idea of Utopianism through splendor. This idea, however, is slightly tainted once more by the corporate motives of GM to use this ride as a way to commercialize themselves.

A more recent example of using process and spectacle to advertise is the Oil Pavilion at the 2010 Exposition in Shanghai. This Pavilion was created by three of China’s oil industrial giants: China National Petroleum Corporation, China Petrochemical Corporation, and China National Offshore Oil Corporation. The exhibit focuses largely on oil’s role and importance to the city and human civilization in the past, present, and future and follows the Expo’s theme of “better city, better life7”. The first section, “Driving Wheel of Human Civilization”, explains the genesis of petroleum and its significance in the rapid development of cities. “Indispensable in Modern Life” then delves into the relationship of petroleum to everything in our modern world and its omnipresence in our life. Lastly, “Serve a Better Future” stresses the trends of petroleum and petrochemical industries going technology intensive, environmentally friendly and producing low carbon. It ends on the note of “…extend[ing] the city dream of a green life.8” While the Oil Pavilion presents all of these ideas in a smooth and clear manner, the real attraction is the exterior of the Pavilion itself. The rectangular block is entirely covered in a four thousand square meter electronic screen which shows videos and changes patterns based on music played by the near by spring. The dazzling awe-inspiring structure has won two Guinness World Records for the triangular LED screen which is the world’s largest screen using polycarbonate sheet technology and for the Four Dimensional film “Oil Dream” that runs on the screen. Regardless of the ingenuity of the actual information of the exhibit itself, this wondrous structure caught the eyes of millions of visitors and definitely left an impact on all who went. The oil companies involved in this project has received considerable recognition for this future-forward technology thus advertising their brand exactly as they meant to. What they obviously fail to mention in these awe-inspiring exhibits, however, are all of the negative implications of continuing to use oil as we do. These oil companies paint the image of a better, greener future involving oil, while “most energy experts consider the eventual peak and decline of world oil production to be an inevitable reality,9” along with a good majority of the rest of the world. Regardless of the facts, the oil companies involved attempt to weave oil into the idea of a “better city, better life” and use fantastical displays to accomplish this.

Each display discussed returns back to the idea of presenting a sort of process or understanding of their company’s and field’s workings. They all do so in a grand, sensational manner with the intent of leaving an impression on those experiencing the space to remember who it was that presented it. The Ford Cycle of Production displayed their origins and workings on a scale of something that had never been imagined before, while the Chrysler Pavilion caught people’s attention with the extraordinary spectrum of attractions like the giant car, large engine, and assembly line ride. The Fast Track by GM invented an exciting and thrilling way of experiencing their car testing, and the Oil Pavilion utilized the newest technology available to ensnare visitors with their large LED displays and lights. The examples listed all demonstrate businesses’ underlying tones of corporate agendas intending to sell their brand with the spectacle of their creations, and while they attempt to imply involvement in bettering society as a whole the reality of their intent is solely commercially based.

1Jeffrey L. Meikle, “Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925-1939”, p.199

2Cynthia Lee Henthorn, “From Submarines to Suburbs”, p.47

3Editors of Time-Life Books, “Official Guide New York World’s Fair 1964/1965”, p.214

4Ileen Sheppard, “Remembering the Future”, p. 174

5Lawrence R. Samuel, “The end of the Innocence”, p. xx

6Wikipedia, <>

7Expo 2010 Shanghai China Pavilion Archive <>

8Oil Pavilion of 2010 Expo <>

9John Collins Rudolf, “German Military Braces for Scarcity after ‘Peak Oil’”, The New York Times <>


Also, a video of the Oil Pavilion:


Works Cited

Henthorn, Cynthia Lee. “Business’s Hygienic Counterpoint.” From Submarines to Suburbs: Selling a Better America, 1939-1959. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 2006. 47. Print.

Meikle, Jeffrey L. “A Microcosm of the Machine-Age World.” Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925-1939. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1979. 199. Print.

“Oil Pavilion of 2010 Expo.” CNPC. China National Petroleum Corporation. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <>.

“Oil Pavilion – the Official Website of Expo 2010 Shanghai China.” Expo 2010 Shanghai China. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <>.

Rudolf, John Collins. “Study Warns of Finite Oil and Economic Crisis –” Energy and Environment – Green Blog – The New York Times, 9 Sept. 2010. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. < perilous-oil-crisis/>.

Samuel, Lawrence R. Introduction. The End of the Innocence: the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 2007. Xx. Print.

Sheppard, Ileen. “Icons and Images: The Cultural Legacy of the 1964/65 World’s Fair.” Remembering the Future: the New York World’s Fair from 1939-1964. New York: Rizzoli, 1989. 174. Print.

“Transportation Area.” Official Guide, New York World’s Fair, 1964-1965. New York: Time, 1964. 214-16. Print.

Wilkins, George. “Test Track.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <>.



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