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Closer Than We Think: Arthur Radebaugh and advertising's role in selling the future

The 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey saw many tributes to the vision and foresight of creations like Hal-9000. But Kubrick wasn’t the first to engage in future-gazing in his work.

Closer Than We Think, a new documentary from filmmaker Brett Ryan Bonowicz, explores the forgotten legacy of Arthur Radebaugh – graphic artist, comic-strip writer and ‘imagineer’ who foresaw smart wearables, electric cars, mobile phones and video calls some 50 years before they were brought to market – and examines the role of advertising in promoting visions of the future.

The film discusses Radebaugh’s life and work, taking in his background as an industrial designer and his lengthy career in adland. Bonowicz, who came across the artist when researching props for his previous film The Perfect 46, told The Drum that he was attracted by “the way that he connected the ordinary to the extraordinary,” as well as Radebaugh’s uncanny knack for prediction which led him to ink predictions regarding everything from modern factory farms, airborne drone delivery and Skype.

Although best known for his lurid comic strip Closer Than We Think, nationally syndicated between 1958 and 1963, Radebaugh first made his name working for commercial illustration houses on ads for Bohn Aluminum, Nash and Chrysler.

According to Bonowicz, Radebaugh’s practice as an predictor was heavily informed by his years as a commercial illustrator. “I think that's really integral to his predictions and the way that his predictions continue to be relevant,” he said.

His print and poster ads projected a sleek, optimistic image of the next century, full of fantastic automobiles that testified to Detroit’s industrial prowess. Blogger and archivist Matt Novak, interviewed in the documentary, called Radebaugh’s work “an Americanized vision of the future”.

Speaking in the film, Syd Mead, the legendary illustrator who created the concept art for Aliens, Blade Runner and Tron and a contemporary of Radebaugh’s, said that futuristic predictions are often a “synthesizing” of the needs of clients and of consumers “that was attractive to people who were in the business of designing cars” while also inspiring audiences.

For all his premonitions, Radebaugh wasn’t always accurate. “There's no thinking about racial diversity,“ says Bonowicz. “Even just the way that women are portrayed is not great. That's definitely a reflection of the time in which it was made.”

Despite his preoccupation with consumer goods over, for instance, demographic or climate change, Radebaugh’s depictions of a sunny, affluent future are incredibly optimistic. Bonowicz says this positive outlook was the key to his success with readers: “That's what we have to look forward to. Tomorrow will come, but is it going to be good or bad? We want it to be hopeful and optimistic.”

Brett Ryan Bonowicz's documentary Closer Than We Think will show at Sci-Fi London, the international festival of science fiction film which runs 1-7 May.

You can read more about how Radebaugh’s work inspired the designers and developers of today in the upcoming Smart Cities issue of The Drum magazine, published late May.

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