Whenever we hear about the golden age of advertising, a romanticized image of Mad Men and Don Draper often comes to mind. Just like today, marketers back then were hard at work attempting to shape attitudes and behaviors of potential buyers—and they were good at it. Developing advertisements to sell products requires intelligence and creativity. However, reviewing these ads from the past might make you wonder how such bizarre material was ever deemed acceptable. At the very least, these vintage advertisements reveal just how much our society has changed in a mere matter of decades. Although there are plenty of weird and offensive advertisements today, these might still make you raise an eyebrow. Here are five strange vintage marketing campaigns that will make you glad some things have changed.
International Mutoscope Reel Company decided cockroach racing would be a good idea sometime in the 1940’s. Since most people are repulsed by the idea of playing with insects regularly associated with filth, it is perhaps not surprising that this idea did not go over too well with the general public; in fact, the company went bankrupt in 1949. This shining example of vintage marketing shows a group of young women having fun watching cockroaches run around, which should not only make you question their sanity, but also the sanity of whoever designed this ad. Luckily, cockroach racing is now (hopefully) a thing of the past. (1)
In 1955, 7-Up came out with this ad depicting an 11-month-old baby drinking soda right from the bottle. In the ad copy, 7-up claims that mixing milk with their product will help with fussy babies, even suggesting that it’s somehow healthy for them. Stating that 7-Up is fine for a baby to consume is just straight-up dangerous and irresponsible. There are so many things wrong with this example of vintage marketing, it’s hard to know where to begin. But, hey, maybe don’t let your newborn drink soda! Good thing the advertising industry has moved past these dangerous vintage marketing tactics and become a bit more concerned with the health of infants. (2)
This ad is older than the rest, dating from the late 1800’s, but you can be sure that this product would never fly today. For fifteen cents, you could load up your system with cocaine, morphine, and alcohol—all to cure a toothache! And let’s not forget that the main consumers of these toothache drops, if the ad’s illustration is any indication, are – you guessed it – children! Most of us know how terrible a toothache can be, but this treatment plan might be a tad excessive. Obviously, times have changed and we no longer allow the sale of cocaine, so you’d never see something like this on the shelves of your local pharmacy today. (3)
It should be no surprise that vintage ads were often quite sexist, considering they were designed in the context of an extremely sexist society, but this ad is off the charts. The ad insinuates that women are too dumb to function in an office environment, and even asks the question, “Is it always illegal to kill a woman?” The strangest thing about this vintage marketing campaign is that it’s promoting a postage meter, which seems completely unrelated to the ad’s content. Advertisements like this were very common in 1953, so while this ad seems pretty blatantly offensive nowadays, this is probably not the worst of them. Thankfully, it would be rare to see something like this today—especially with that headline. (4)
Max Factor is most likely a name you’d recognize in the make-up and beauty world today, but you’ve probably never seen an ad quite like this. A “beauty micrometer” that analyzes your facial flaws sounds terrifying, and most people probably wouldn’t be so happy about having that scary-looking contraption strapped to their head. The device was used to find flaws that could be reduced through the make-up process, most likely in an attempt to sell more beauty products. I’m not sure any make-up companies would dare to try this vintage marketing campaign today. (5)
Since these ads are a reflection of how our society used to be, it’s fascinating to see how certain social norms have evolved through vintage marketing. It is a marketer’s job to make you feel positively about their products, but whether or not these strange vintage ads accomplished that goal is still up for debate. Vintage marketing certainly paved the way for modern advertising, but perhaps some industry “innovations” should remain in the past.
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