5 Baffling Old Ads That Found Creative Ways to Shame Us

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5 Baffling Old Ads That Found Creative Ways to Shame Us

Everything you do, you do because ads made you too embarrassed to do anything else. Why, after showering, do you put on clothes, instead of parading about the neighborhood naked? Because of a stigma against genitals, created by Big Textile to sell underwear. Why, when someone insults you, do you not simply kill them where they stand? Because of a stigma against murder, created by Big Housing to sell retirement homes.

Okay, jokes aside, not all our shame comes from advertising. In addition to genuinely creating stigmas to sell products, ads often prey on insecurities that already exist. Either way, generations later, these insecurities vanish (replaced by different, unrelated insecurities). Now, we have only these truly confusing ads to remind us of a time when people were ashamed of...

Sissy-Sweet Gelatin

Seventy years ago, seemingly every American recipe consisted of mixing small amounts of real food with huge quantities of mayonnaise or gelatin. We’ve tried resurrecting a few of these old recipes, and while some are horrifying, some taste pretty good. Consider, for example, the following salad, which was popular right into the 1970s. It combines apple juice, vinegar, celery and Jell-O, along with other ingredients, and our verdict is it tastes awesome

Perfection salad

Evan Symon

Also nice and colorful!

People used to prepare gelatin salads out of necessity. They didn’t have a lot of access to fresh vegetables back then, and if they wanted substance with their salad, meat cost too much. Collagen boiled out of discarded cow organs was a more economical choice than sliced chicken breast. This reliance on gelatin created a now-forgotten debate. Should you use sweetened or unsweetened gelatin with your salad? Unsweetened, argued this 1938 ad from Knox:

Knox gelatin ad

Knox

You see some logic in this ad because you, too, agree that sweet Jell-O is dessert, not salad. But you don’t think the solution to that is to serve sour Jell-O salad. Also, salads today have dressings, and while many are tart, some are sweet. If you’re served a honey mustard dressing or strawberry vinaigrette, it would not occur to you to call this a dish for sissies, compared to Caesar salad. 

Knox gelatin ad

Knox

In the follow-up below, a new family looks at a previous ad from the same campaign. This is Inception-level complexity, so I can see why they needed to number the different panels in this story.

Knox gelatin ad

Knox

This man liking his “tart” is starting to sound awfully sexual. 

Today, ad campaigns still do sometimes shame you for adding needless sugar to your diet. They shame you because that sugar is bad for you and might be contributing to just about every natural cause of death out there. They’d never think to call sweet foods “sissy,” though — if anything, it’s those who pick sugar-free alternatives who are considered sissies. “Sissy-sweet” could be one stigma that health advocates would love to bring back. 

Dishpan Hands

The same year that Knox ad came out, 1938, Lux soap was warning housewives about what would happen if they washed dishes with the wrong soap. The result would be “ugly dishpan hands,” an embarrassing contrast to other women’s perfect manicures and soft skin.

Lux soap ad dishpan hands

Lux 

That gaudy ring is overcompensation for her hideous fingers. 

The campaign continued for years. As this 1944 ad showed, not only was your own pride at stake here, even more important is the pride of Bob. Why would you hurt Bob by mutilating yourself with harsh soap? Will no one think of Bob?

Lux soap ad dishpan hands

Lux 

“I served my country, and this is how I’m repaid?” — Bob

Indeed, your husband may lose interest in you altogether if dishwashing ravages your hands. This next ad takes the unusual step of saying men respect hands that have been scarred this way, but they don’t find them sexy. Dishpan hands will rub off your honeymoon bloom.

Lux soap ad dishpan hands

Lux 

Meaning, you’ll be left having to rub off your own honeymoon bloom, if you get our meaning. 

These ads feel alien today. It’s not because we’ve evolved beyond the love of pretty hands, and it’s not because we have automatic dishwashers now. It’s because now, if you want to wash dishes by hand, you can put on rubber gloves. Rubber gloves existed in the 1930s and 1940s but only for medical use. It would be another couple decades before gloves came to households.

With my hands safely gloved, I clean as hard as I want. My hands emerge afterward a little clammy but unblemished. Because of that, we don’t bother seeking out dish soap that’s gentle. You want powerful dish soap that hits crusted food without mercy. 

Looking Like You Have Your Shit Together

For a few years in the 2000s, Apple ran a campaign called “Get a Mac,” which people remember as the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” campaign. Justin Long represented Macs, while John Hodgman represented PCs. The message here wasn’t “be cool like Justin Long, not lame like John Hodgman” — if they tried that, that wouldn’t have worked, since everyone liked John Hodgman. Instead, the campaign just offered a bunch of (sometimes questionable) claims comparing Macs favorably against PCs, through funny skits. 

This campaign had a predecessor. The below ad from 1996 pitted a PC user against a Mac user, and this time, the message was mostly “Mac users are cooler than PC users.” That’s confusing looking back, because the definition of “cool” has changed a bit over the years.

Mac ad

Apple

I get that we’re supposed to laugh at the businessman for being uptight, and you might have some quibbles with the fit of his jacket or the height of his waistband. He’s still aged better than the 1990s character on the right. And even if you’ve remained a fan of denim-on-denim and novelty watches, the ad’s text, labeling these choices as deliberate attempts to look cool, ruin whatever attraction the getup otherwise held.

Other text here is equally baffling:

Mac ad

Apple

They're saying PC users are satisfied with little color? It’s still more color than the Mac guy has. Both of them wear blue trousers, a blue jacket (PC’s is darker) and a white shirt. 

Mac ad

Apple

This earring reference is confusing. First, because no clear earring is visible. Second, because if one were, it would conflict with the rest of the style they’re going for here. Whatever statement an earring used to make, this guy was never making it. Also, when you’re setting text, you should avoid inserting line breaks in the middle of words. It’s gauche. 

Mac ad

Apple

With this shoe comparison, again, I understand what they’re going for. We know all about the snobs-versus-slobs trope, in which we root for the slobs. It’s still jarring to see a brand associating themselves with cheapness and their competitor with quality. See also the contents of the Mac guy’s backpack, which include “transit schedules.” Are they really advertising that the ­Mac addict owns no car? That’s relatable for some people, but actually not relatable for a whole lot of other people. Even if it’s relatable, it’s hardly aspirational. Speaking of which:

Mac ad

Apple

 

No matter how popular Seinfeld was as a show, it’s hard to see Jerry as a fashion icon or someone whose example we should follow when it comes to technology. The actual Jerry Seinfeld, who turns 70 this year, would qualify more for either of those now than the character Jerry did. Let’s also question the claim the Jerry would never use a PC. Sure, characters in general used Macs, particularly in the 1990s, but Jerry…

Seinfeld at computer Windows 95

NBC

...ha! That’s Jerry with a copy of Windows 95. Clearly, Apple had no idea what they were talking about and were merely trying to appropriate sitcom culture. 

Hairspray That Looked Wet

That last ad was a reminder that men’s fashion exists and changes over time. And time has passed since the 1990s. The above ad is so old that even this article mocking it as a relic of the past is itself 16 years old. The following men’s ad dates to 1980, though it may look older than that:

Gillette Dry Look ad

Gillette

This hearkens back to an issue we’ve now truly forgotten. There was a time when hairspray was fashionable, and yet, a stigma existed against the sheen of visible product. The solution: a range of hairsprays marketed as “dry.” Which of the two images in the above ad do you think is supposed to depict the more attractive man? if you guessed the top one, you’re wrong.

The next ad, from circa 1972, has a woman invading a locker room to share in this hairspray, because that’s how much women like men with the dry look. 

Vitalis hairspray ad

Vitalis

Is the innuendo here that she’s about to do all of them? 

With so many of these ads offering double entendres, it’s interesting to see this one romanticizing dryness, and encouraging men not to be stiff. 

If you don’t want sprayed hair, you can just not use hairspray. That’s an option.

Gillette

If you don’t want visibly sprayed hair, you can just not use hairspray. That’s an option. 

A Delicious Ass

The most dramatically changed beauty standard from this century surely involves women’s butts. We currently still remember the question “do these pants make my butt big,” with the knowledge that the speaker wanted the answer to be “no,” while having to reconcile that with how we love butts today, and people now more often try to accentuate their butt than try to hide it. We also all know the song “Baby Got Back,” but we’ve forgotten that it was written as a body-positive celebration of a feature that other people didn’t like. “Of course you like big butts,” we say now, oblivious. “That should go without saying.”

For one strong illustration of this changing standard, look at the following ad from 2001. What do you think it’s trying to say? 

Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain ad

Kellogg’s 

Is it advertising cinnamon buns, by likening them to butts? Is it advertising butts, by likening them to cinnamon buns? Is it somehow advertising both? We ourselves often refer to big butts as cake. The association between buttocks and baked goods is a wholly positive one. 

Let me uncrop the ad a little more for you:

Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain ad

Kellogg’s 

“Respect yourself”? So, is the ad supposed to represent disrespect maybe? Is the viewer being shamed for ogling those buns? 

No, that’s not what’s happening. Here’s the full ad:

Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain ad

Kellogg’s 

It’s an ad for a healthy breakfast bar, an alternative to stuff like cinnamon buns. You’re supposed to respect yourself by eschewing cinnamon buns, lest they give you a big butt. The point of this ad campaign is the cinnamon-bun butt is supposed to repulse you. Every part of this model is supposed to be attractive, except for her imaginary huge ass. They then chose to represent the imaginary huge ass with something we’d all enjoy eating. 

Small asses really were idolized not so long ago. Take a look at this clip from True Lies, in which a guy extols the many selling points of the woman he’s dating, not realizing that he’s talking to her husband.

He says she has an “ass like a 10-year-old boy.” Today, that comes off as the crassest insult, to the point that you’d think Arnold is punching him out for mocking her, but that’s not what’s happening here. Small asses were so universally praised that when you compared a woman’s to a 10-year-old boy’s butt, that was oversexualizing her, but when you compared it to pastry, that was insulting her. 

The “10-year-old boy” quip wasn’t even unique to that movie. I heard the exact same line, again presented as complimenting a woman’s body, in an episode of Californication, a show that was still airing new episodes a decade ago. To track down the episode so I can show you a clip, I just have to search the web for “ass 10-year-old boy,” and... Hold on. There seem to be some uniformed men knocking at my door. 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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