5 Old Food Ads Whose Messages Are Totally Incomprehensible Today

Eat candy bars to lose weight. It makes sense, they assured us
5 Old Food Ads Whose Messages Are Totally Incomprehensible Today

The basic marketing pitch behind food has remained unchanged across history. “This food tastes good!” say ads (whether the food really does taste good or not). “This food will make you healthy!” they assure you. “Buying and eating it will induce feelings of joy!”

Dig a little further into these ideas, however, and stuff starts to look weird. In fact, some ads from the past don’t seem like they make sense at all. 

Keep Your Weight Down With Baby Ruth Candy Bars!

The Baby Ruth chocolate bar has a fascinating history, starting with unconvincing claims that they didn’t steal the name from Babe Ruth and somehow ending with the bombing of Hiroshima. You might describe the bar as delicious. You might describe the bar as filling. You probably would not describe the bar as great for weight loss. 

Baby Ruth ad 1938


Look at this thin star, who isn’t actually eating our product, not even in this sketch we drew

That ad claims that dextrose is “muscle sugar.” That’s not exactly bullshit. Dextrose is muscle sugar, because “dextrose” is another name for glucose. It’s the simplest sugar out there, the sugar that your body breaks all other carbs down into. Pure sugar is indeed a good source of energy. Whether sugar keeps you from feeling tired long-term, however, and therefore keeps you from eating more and putting on pounds, well, that’s a bit of a shakier claim. 

Baby Ruth ad 1938


This ad clearly enlarged this biker’s head to make her arms look slimmer.

The ad below describes how long you can type on the energy from one Baby Ruth candy bar. This strikes us as confusing on several levels. First, despite keyboards being so much more ubiquitous now than in the 1930s, we don’t picture workers having to type for an hour straight. Dictation and data entry were common even a couple decades ago but not so much today. Secondly, for those of us who do type for an hour, we don’t think of that as strenuous physical labor. It’s mentally taxing, if you must compose those words yourself. It’s emotionally draining, depending on exactly whom you’re replying to. But it’s not what most of us would consider aerobic exercise. 

Baby Ruth ad 1938


In the 1930s, parents told kids to go inside and type to stay in shape. 

Thirdly, though we’re very used to hearing about all the calories contained in one candy bar, this is always considered a point against candy, not for it. If you need an hour of labor to work off the sugar from one Baby Ruth, that sounds like a reason not to eat a Baby Ruth. 

That assumes, of course, that you already have access to all the food you need to sustain you through the day. This is not always a fair assumption, however. The ads we’ve been sharing with you are from 1938. During the Great Depression, few people were struggling to shed pounds. They were struggling not to starve.

And now the truth behind this ad campaign becomes clear. That image of that actress is aspirational — not because she keeps her weight down but because she’s in a position where she needs to. The second part of the ad’s text is what really resonated with the audience, the part about fighting fatigue. Calories fight fatigue, keeping death at bay. On a related note…

Make Your Kids Gain Weight — With Butter!

Candy bars really are a good source of energy, even today. If you go hiking, we recommend a backpack full of Snickers. A littler stranger was the 1940s assertion that people seeking energy should turn to dairy products. 

milk ad

American Dairy Farmers

This ad looks absurd. Where is her mustache?!

Yeah, milk does give you energy, but it gives you somewhat less energy than virtually any other drink, save water. It’s less than juice, less than soda and less than beer. Today, we advertise milk by pointing to its protein (also mentioned in the ad, in smaller print) and calcium, but when the public was hungry and tired, energy was the point you wanted to stick up there in big letters. 

dairy ad

American Dairy Farmers

Give your man manly food, such as buttered bread.

The above ad says butter gives “America’s workers the energy and natural vitamins they need.” That claim is technically true but still baffling to the modern ear. While butter contains some vitamin A, no one advertises that nowadays since so many other foods are fortified with vitamin A, to the point that no one needs to actively seek the vitamin out. And while butter contains energy, few people specifically want to consume energy in the form of pure fat.

For that same reason, it’s odd to see butter described in the ad below ­as an “abundant source of energy” for growing children. Also, maybe more importantly, why is that boy naked?

butter ad

American Dairy Farmers

Is this some pun linking butts with butter? That just makes it worse.

A naked adult’s okay, for the same reason that Baby Ruth actress is in underwear and heels. A naked baby’s okay, because whatever, it’s a baby. But the modern viewer isn’t okay with an eyeful of adolescent boy butt and is baffled at why it must be on display here. Even if he must strip to be weighed, did he really need to take his underpants off? (“Yes,” says the 1942 audience, “his being totally naked is what makes him so pure and angelic.”)

One thing hasn’t changed, however. The ad talks about how science has been unable to create any substitute for butter, and that remains true. Back in the 1940s, scientists were progressing in their century-long quest to improve margarine, and they probably assumed that by the 21st century, they’d finish the job. They never did. Today, we have all kinds of non-butter spreads, but none fully replicate the taste of butter. Butter still reigns supreme. 

Buy These Cans Because They’re NOT Recyclable!

People have recently become very concerned with single-use plastics, leading to a renewed call for recyclable packaging. Some products directly advertise that they’re recyclable. Other products aren’t meant to be recycled, and they obviously don’t directly market that shortcoming as a feature. Even if you oppose environmentalism on principle, you probably won’t go out of your way to specifically seek out a non-recyclable product, because you could achieve the same end result of “not recycling” by buying a recyclable product and refraining from recycling it.

In 1962, however, Bethlehem Steel urged you to buy cans instead of bottles, based on the logic that when you buy steel cans, you can throw them away.

Bethlehem Steel ad

 Bethlehem Steel

With cans, you get to play in the park, instead of hovering in an orange void.

This is different from ad campaigns that sold throwaway cups or tissues as hygienic and convenient. Single-use stuff has some advantages, but when you choose between cans and bottles, you use the container just once either way. The only difference, says this ad, is what happens to the container once you’re done with it. 

Of course, if you’re so keen to throw stuff away, you could throw bottles away instead of bringing them back to the store to be reused or recycled. But when you bought bottles, you paid a surcharge that would be paid back to you when you turned in the empty bottle at a store. In 1960, this deposit was two cents a bottle, which was a significant chunk of the full bottle’s five-cent price. 

Other ads for steel cans were a little less brazen, placing “no deposit, no returns” within a larger list of features:

Bethlehem Steel ad

 Bethlehem Steel

This is supposed to represent an airplane. We see how that might be confusing.

You’ll still be struck by the oddness of what it’s advertising here, which is the general concept of canned soft drinks. These aren’t ads for buying Coke or buying Pepsi. These are ads for buying whatever brand you like — just be sure to buy it in a can, so that the steel industry ultimately benefits.

Cans are convenient, conductive and opaque. Cool people use cans:

Bethlehem Steel ad

 Bethlehem Steel

Here’s some healthy torso, to clear the memory of that grinning butt boy.

Cans really did become the more popular way to package single-serving drinks. They’re usually made of aluminum now, though, not steel or tin. And the price of a can (as you surely know) now includes a deposit, just like bottles did back then, which makes the idea of buying cans to avoid deposits sound all the more alien today.

As for steel cans, they still exist, even if aluminum counterparts overtook them in usage. And steel cans, like aluminum cans, are usually recycled nowadays. Yeah, steel is a very easily recycled material. We’re pretty sure Bethlehem Steel knew that. 

Chop Up So Many Live Animals!

Are you tired of grasping at multiple tools for all the many foods that you want to chop? What you need is the Universal Food & Meat Chopper, from Landers, Frary & Clark. This one marvelous device is capable of chopping anything!

Universal Food & Meat Chopper

  Landers Frary & Clark

Including the human soul

The framing in this ad (first printed in 1899), of one versatile kitchen device, is a little dated now — some of you will only know it from parodies of infomercials from a few decades ago. The real issue, though, is the way it shows animals swirling toward the slaughter, as though this is an enticing image.

A cow looks ahead as it’s driven helplessly forward. Two lambs bump up against each other. Pigs, with their mouths open, squeal in terror. Overall, as a society, we eat as much pork and beef now as ever, but we advertise it by showing clean appetizing cuts of meat (or, occasionally, by showing animals running free and looking strong). No one advertises by showing animals getting butchered — at least, no one other than PETA. 

Universal Food & Meat Chopper

Landers Frary & Clark

This simple 1903 ad for the same product involves much less horror.

That spiral of food is a work of art. It’s magnificent to look at. But it really doesn’t capture the modern drive to cook. Today, we like turning ingredients to food. We don’t particularly like turning animals to ingredients. And in fact, the chopper is unable to slaughter whole cattle, so let’s add false advertising to the list of charges. We’d have to book it on false advertising anyway, since the device doesn’t chop at all. It grinds. 

Though, perhaps it was essential to appeal to people’s bloodier instincts, since food grinding can be a messy business. Keep in mind what a physical food chopper looks like:

Universal Food and Meta Chopper

May Family Finds

“It chops everything! Including your spouse! Mainly your spouse, actually.” 

Today, you’re more likely to associate cranks and meshing gears with Saw-style torture than poultry and carrots. Or, you may think of the “Another Brick in the Wall” music video, in which children are the ones being ground up in such a contraption. Meat’s as tasty as ever today, but no one wants to think about how the sausage is made. 

When Kids Want Something Sweet, Give Them Prunes!

There’s nothing objectively wrong with the following 1958 ad for prunes. Sure, only one of the kids is smiling, and the girl on the far right appears to be actively wincing, but that just adds to the authenticity. 

1958 prune ad

California Prune Advisory Board

Someone told the ad writer, “I need 100 words of copy, and 11 of then need to be ‘prunes.’” 

In fact, for years, it was possible to say the sentence “let’s have a prune party” while maintaining a straight face. For example, in the 1840s, one London photographer would tell all patrons posing for daguerreotypes to “say ‘prunes’” — not, as you might expect, because this forced them all to break out in smiles, but because this fixed their faces into tight expressions, as was the fashion at the time.

Then, in the 1990s, word spread that prune juice works as a laxative. Though prunes had unofficially had this reputation for much longer, 1990 was when the FDA issued a formal statement on the subject. Normally, when a food gains a reputation as medicinal, that’s great news for the people selling it. In this case, prunes’ new association with constipated grandparents (fostered mainly by comedians, who brought great joy to the masses with their prune jokes), ruined prunes for everyone else. 

1933 prune ad


No longer did kids pine for this “ready-to-eat” treat.

So, the prune industry sought FDA approval to market the fruit under a different name going forward, to change the conversation. The FDA granted the request. Prunes have therefore been known as “dried plums” during most of the 21st century, and few now think of prunes as something sweet, like the ad suggests. When kids crave sweet treats, you don’t give them prunes. You give them Baby Ruth bars, which fight fatigue through the power of dextrose. 

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

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