Perspective: Into the Wood

Timber has been around longer than humans. But even the most common commodity needs a little branding

The Saxons of the second century have been credited as having built the first houses made of wood. These Germanic tribesmen were also the first to lay hewn planks down over packed earth, hence creating the first hardwood floors. By all accounts, the idea was a good one. Over 1,000 years later, we're still using wood for our walls and floors. In fact, 90 percent of U.S. homes are built with wood.

So why would it be necessary to advertise it? As it turns out, there are two answers to that question–each as different as the two advertisements here.

In 1962, when the National Lumber Manufacturers Association produced the full-page ad on the right, the wood industry was healthy–still riding the wave of the postwar housing boom in which 6 million single-family homes rose in the 1950s alone. But as a commodity, wood was facing a new kind of competition. It came from synthetic materials that, thanks to evolving technology, were cheap, plentiful, and highly useful for home interiors. Linoleum floors (already popular since the 1920s) were easy to install in adhesive-square form. Polyvinyl chloride–or, just "vinyl"–could be made into moldings, railings, and decorative trim. Improvements in injection-molded plastics produced everything from lamps to chairs. And don't forget Formica. At the time this ad ran, the brand was planning a 1964 World's Fair show house in which every single interior furnishing was made of the multicolored laminate–which also came in a wood-grain finish. So the tree people struck back.

"This ad reminds consumers that wood is what their whole world is made of," observes Alan Colvin, creative director of Minneapolis brand design firm Cue. "You see it as flooring, subflooring, and joists–but also as decorative articulations." In a sense, the ad does triple duty. It shows wood as an aesthetic and structural material, as well as the embodiment of a smart lifestyle. "It was meant to be inspiring," Colvin adds. "Live like you've fantasized."

Come ahead to 2011, and wood is once again center stage of an advertisement, but the reasons behind it have changed. Fatigue over the prevalence of plastics and the concomitant rise of the green building movement now mean that people don't just know about wood interiors, they lust after them. The Mirage ad does not educate; it indulges a vision that's already there. "Nowadays, people know what they're looking for. This ad is targeted at people who like hardwood," Colvin says. "And it just provides a visual, attractive presentation."

While the 1962 ad had to assure its audience that wood "brings such good taste" and "strengthens the character of the room," the 2011 consumer knows such things. If he or she wants more details, that's what the Web address is for. Meanwhile, just look at those terrific plank floors.

The Saxons must have had the same thought.