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15 Insane Vintage Ads That Will Shock You

15 Insane Vintage Ads That Will Shock You

Once upon a time, ads were misogynistic. And racist. And really inappropriate. Main characters were babies promoting soda, toddlers playing with guns, doctors endorsing tobacco brands, eager-to-please wives, and abusive husbands. Messages were very aggressive and offensive, but people didn’t seem to mind.

Advertising has always been a dirty and deceitful game. They have always had a lot of freedom to deceive consumers, hide the truth, use subliminal messages, target children, lie about side effects etc. If you watched Mad Men, you are somewhat familiar with the shady things behind the closed doors of the advertising world.

In the United States, advertising increased significantly after 1870, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that innovative advertising techniques were used. And we have tobacco companies to thank for that.

Sit down and take a deep breath. Even if you are not easily offended, some of these ads are sure to strike a chord.

15. Fat shaming

It wasn’t until modern times that skinny women became popular and a standard that many women still try to achieve. During the Renaissance period, it was full-figured women who were considered beautiful and attractive. Beauty standards have changed many times throughout the history and so did the sizing system. In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Commerce got rid of the uniform sizing system, so today’s size 8 would have been equivalent to size 16 in the 50s.

By some standards, Marilyn Monroe would be considered a little too curvy today, but in reality, she was just a petite woman (5.5 tall and 120 lbs) with an hourglass body shape. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, times change and so do the trends. Standards are always unrealistic and not supposed to be followed blindly.

In the 1900s fat shaming was very common and companies used very disturbing messages in order to promote their products: “If men hate the sight of you, read this”, “Overweight girls need this unique deodorant protection”, “Her husband was ashamed of her, but now he’s so proud”.

On top of that, these ads promoted products that most likely did not deliver the promised results: diets that allowed you to eat whatever you wanted, as much as you wanted, or soap that reduces a double chin??

14. Wait, so skinny isn’t good either??

You have a few extra pounds, people make fun of you. You are too skinny, they make you feel bad. I’ve actually noticed a “trend” going on – overweight women making mean comments about skinny women, in their attempt to feel good in their own skin. Bullying can go both ways. If you don’t like people making fun of you, you probably shouldn’t make fun of others either.

These vintage ads from 1930-1950s are trying to convince skinny women to put on weight by suggesting that they would become popular, enjoy life more and get more dates. This medical science discovery, called Wate-On, promises to help you gain 5 pounds in 7 days. And as is the case with many other “cures” of that time, Wate-On also fixes numerous other issues.

One of the celebrities featured in a Wate-On ad was Raquel Welch who talked about the importance of having enough energy and being in good shape even when she didn’t have time to eat. All thanks to this life-saving product.

13. The tobacco deception

While cigarettes were never really healthy, when first health concerns were made public in the 1930s, tobacco companies panicked and decided to take measures. Not only did they try to hide the side effects of cigarettes, but they started using physicians in their ads, to reassure the public and convince them they were not harmful.

Lucky Strike was the first brand to use a physician in their advertisements. “20,679 physicians say ‘Luckies are less irritating,’” said one of their ads. It was not only important to convince people that cigarettes were not bad but to emphasize that their brand was better than other brands. Camel did not just sit and wait for Lucky to steal all their customers, but decided to strike back. “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!” claimed their ad.

The relationship between tobacco manufacturers and the health system was so tight that in 1933, Chesterfield began running ads in the New York State Journal of Medicine. And why should that come as a surprise since their cigarettes were “Just as pure as the water you drink.”

12. Soda…It’s good for you?

U.S. soda consumption is at its lowest level in 30 years, according to a new report. Finally some great news!

Soft drinks have been around a long time and they have always been very popular. Before they started being marketed as refreshing beverages, they were used to cure certain health issues, such as indigestion (ginger ale, anyone?), headaches and even impotence!?! The fizzy drinks were mixed with various medicines, to which flavoring was added to give them a pleasant taste. And this is how soda fountains became common in drugstores.

The oldest soft drink in America, Dr. Pepper, was created in 1885 by pharmacist Charles Alderton and was sold as an energy drink and brain tonic.

11. Guns and children – a match made in Hell

Whether you are a gun fanatic or you support gun control, I’m sure we can all agree on one thing: children should not have access to guns. At the beginning of the 20th century, though, nobody thought it was unusual to use an innocent child as the main character of Iver Johnson revolvers ad. Especially since the message was that they were very safe and accidental discharge was impossible.

Post-war America was a time to purchase a house, a car and start a new happy life with your family. And advertisers of the time saw this as a good opportunity to start marketing guns. And what better way to appeal to happy families than by using children. Both as the subject of ads and as a target.

Although this probably did not affect their sales and marketing approach, Iver Johnson guns were involved in several big stories: the assassinations of presidents Robert F. Kennedy and William F. McKinley.

10. Sexism at its worst

Ohh, where do I start? We like to think that we are modern and open-minded now, advocating for women’s rights and feminism. However, there are still many ads that objectify women, but things used to be a lot worse between the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s.

Most ads were targeting women because they did all the shopping. But even when they weren’t targeted for women, they still were the main character of ads. Van Heusen ties “tell her it’s a man’s world… and make her so happy it is”. Other ads offer us more samples of precious wisdom: “Successful marriages start in the kitchen!” (Pyrex), “The Chef does everything but cook – that’s what wives are for” (Kenwood), “A wife can blame herself if she loses love by getting middle-age skin” (Palmolive).

A Drummond sweaters ad informs us that indoors, women are useful and even pleasant (oh, aren’t they sweet?), but on a mountain, they are somewhat of a drag. I wonder what Junko Tabei, the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest, would have said about that.

And some of these ads really make you wonder if the advertisers were trying to be funny or just warn women of the trouble they would get into if they ever burnt the food or served their husbands stale coffee.

9. Cocaine for all your aches

Cocaine is the most frequently used illegal drug in the world, after cannabis. Between 14 and 21 million people use the drug each year. But there was a time when cocaine was not only legal but widely available in American drugstores.

According to New World Encyclopedia, in 1885, Parke-Davis (now a subsidiary of Pfizer) was selling cocaine in various forms: cigarettes, powder, and even a cocaine mixture that could be injected directly into the user’s veins with the included needle. The company promised that its cocaine products would “supply the place of food, make the coward brave, the silent eloquent and render the sufferer insensitive to pain.”

In 1863 a French chemist created Vin Marian, which was a combination of coca and wine, that was even enjoyed (in moderation, I hope) by Pope Leo XIII. The beverage was so popular, that it inspired Dr. John Stith Pemberton in Atlanta to create his own drink: Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. Prohibition forced Pemberton to remove alcohol from his drink, but it didn’t put an end to it. It was replaced with a mix of sugary syrup and caffeine and in 1886 Coca-Cola was born. It is rather amusing that alcohol was removed from the beverage, but cocaine remained a main ingredient for no less than 17 years, until 1903.

8. Heroin makes you heroic

Can’t breathe? Got a sore throat? Is that cough bothering you? You think it might be pneumonia? Heroin is the solution. Plus it might make you stronger. The name comes from the German word “heroisch”, which means “heroic, strong”. It is ironic, to say the least, because people that abuse this drug are anything but heroic.

At the end of the 19th century, morphine was a very popular recreational drug but was also used in cough suppressant medicine. Bayer needed an alternative that wasn’t going to cause addiction, so they developed heroin, which turned out to have one of the highest rates of addiction.

In spite of this, heroin, also known as diamorphine, is still used as medication in several countries, including U.K., where it is prescribed as pain medication for severe physical trauma, chronic pain, terminal illnesses. It is also used in maintenance therapy for patients who are fighting different drug addictions.

7. Asbestos – The Silent Killer

Asbestos might have protected buildings from fire, weather and wear in the past, but it sure did not protect people from cancer. From the numerous TV ads for Mesothelioma settlements, we now all know that asbestos is dangerous. But in the early 1900s, things were a bit different. Ads for products made with asbestos, such as cement, insulations, gaskets etc were very common. Although asbestos use dates back at least 4,500 years, it only started being used at a large scale in the mid-19th century.

You’re probably thinking, hey, it was the 1900s, they didn’t know any better. A lot of things popular back in the day are now known to be unhealthy, so this should be no different. Except that it is. In 1899, documents mentioned the negative health effects of asbestos and the first documented death related to asbestos was in 1906. It turns out that the asbestos industry was aware of the dangers since the 1930s, but kept it a secret for decades. Even though the connection between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma was discovered in the 1970s, it took the U.S. government 30 more years before they finally put an end to asbestos manufacturing. The U.S. government was criticized for not acting quickly enough to inform the public of dangers and to reduce public exposure.

6. Violence is never funny

Domestic violence has been an issue since the beginnings of time and unfortunately, it is still a very big problem.

While some of these ads are probably intended to be funny, domestic violence was a bigger issue than you might think. In the 60’s, doctors thought wife beating was a good thing and called it “violent, temporary therapy”. Whether it was alcohol, cheating or abuse, no matter what a man did, it was always his wife’s fault. Experts of the time were trying to convince women that by avoiding arguments, helping their husbands relax and sharing their burdens, would make for a happy and peaceful marriage.

According to some theories, TV shows of the 1950s may have encouraged the development of violent tendencies. Boys growing up at that time were raised to devalue women in order for themselves to appear more masculine.

5. Medical quackery

In the 18th and 19th centuries, there were many ads out there for medicines and devices that claimed to fix various problems: an electric belt that cured rheumatism, impotence, insomnia, poor memory; snake oil ointment that offered instant relief and cured headaches, toothaches, stiff joints, sore chest; Dr Oneal’s pain-free home treatments that prevented blindness and cured almost all diseases and defects of the eye.

One of them, though, stands out: Dr. Young’s rectal dilators – a medical device patented in 1892 by Frank E Young that guaranteed to cure even the worst cases of constipation. As it was the case with many other medical devices or substances of the time, Dr. Young got too greedy. In 1940 the government seized a shipment of the devices because of misbranding. By this point, the devices claimed to relieve bad breath (umm, very curious how that would work), acne, anemia, anorexia, headaches, diarrhea, indigestion, cold extremities and numerous other conditions.

After the federal food and drug legislation was introduced at the beginning of the 20th century, these ads started disappearing.

4. Sex sells

If you have looked through all these ads, you might think that all advertising companies used to have the same slogan: “When it comes to selling, anything goes!” There is no limit to what or who you can use in ads. We all know that sex sells, but using children to promote the idea of “sexy” is pretty outrageous to all of us. Unless you’re one of those people who thinks there’s nothing wrong with “Toddlers and Tiaras”. Yes, innocence (as in pure, unadulterated, natural beauty) is sexy, but how are these children supposed to keep their innocence when it gets exploited and used in a very inappropriate way?

While an ad like the one above might have passed without too much trouble in the previous century, such things don’t go unnoticed these days. Sadly, featuring children in inappropriate ads still happens every so often. American Apparel, who has been involved in numerous scandals over the years, had several ads that were banned for sexualizing child models.

3. Cringe-worthy Racism

The advertising business has a very long history of racism and unfortunately, some companies never learned from the past mistakes. Abercrombie & Fitch and Burger King are just two of the companies that have outraged consumers (more than once) with their racial stereotyping.

Back in the past, numerous brands featured stereotypes in their ads, which is not only disturbing and inappropriate but is not in the least funny and shows a lack of imagination.

Although African-Americans first appeared in ads in 1870, it wasn’t until the 1960s that most big companies started paying more attention to the black market. Before that, most ads were full of stereotypes that meant to draw smiles from white customers. Aunt Jemima, the first ready-made pancake mix was the first product to use a black person as a trademark and the character was inspired by a vaudeville song, “Old Aunt Jemima”. Uncle Bens was another well-known brand featuring a stereotypical character.

Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, while not featured very often in advertising, still got their share of bad representation. By the end of the 19th century, images of Native Americans had become very common in advertising. They weren’t an accurate representation of the Native American lifestyle and the products advertised weren’t even addressed to them. For advertising agencies, it was all a big joke, their only purpose being to incorporate colourful, exotic images.

2. Sweet, sweet lies

Although soda sales are down, Americans still like to indulge when it comes to candies. We now have access to more information than ever and we know that sugar is toxic, is the cause of many health issues, and is more addictive than cocaine.

Even though doctors and dentists have suspected for a long time that sugar might be harmful and unnecessary, during the 60s, the sugar industry association Sugar Information, Inc. was running ridiculous campaigns to convince consumers that sugar was healthy and could even help you eat less. And given the obesity epidemic in America, it is obvious their plan worked. And thus, the battle began. As health researchers started talking about the dangers of sugar in the 50s, the industry fought back and increased their advertising budget. Diet sodas started to gain more popularity in the 60s. The industry responded again by claiming that these drinks weren’t as satisfying or energizing as regular soda.

Consumers were deceived and misguided by these ads for years, until 1971, when the FTC finally stepped in and put an end to the campaign, since the advertisers could not back up their claims. No, silly, sugar does not help you curb your appetite or lose weight!

1. Oh, baby

In modern days we are used to seeing babies featured in diaper commercials, food and personal care products, marketed for babies. But during the 50s and the 60s, the advertising industry thought they should be put to some serious work: promoting cigarettes, soda and even Gillette razors, because who wouldn’t want baby soft skin?

Babies are innocent and adorable. So any product associated with a baby would obviously create a positive feeling. Tobacco companies used babies in their ads to convey the message that smoking is part of a respectable, happy family life.

In the 1950s, 7Up launched a campaign where an 11-month-old baby was enjoying his daily bottle… of soda. The ad claimed that the drink was “so pure, so wholesome, you can even give it to babies and feel good about it” and the cherry on top was their mind-blowing “hack”: if the baby doesn’t want to drink his milk, just mix it with 7Up for a wholesome combination.


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