Today, let's have some more 1920's ephemera! Catherine DeVore collected ads if she liked the pictures.
Advertising is so ubiquitous in our world that we're generally blind to its tropes and skewed priorities, because we aren't consciously processing it. But several times in my life I've taken long breaks from media (lived without a TV, moved to a wilderness area with only one radio station and no internet, traveled abroad), and when I came back, even my "own" culture felt foreign and the ads obnoxiously stupid. I noticed all kinds of implied messages beyond the simple message to buy.
When we look at the ads of a former time, those implied messages are screams rather than whispers. This Thanksgiving, I am thankful that I don't live in the twenties, and here are a few reasons why. For each ad, try to bear in mind that the people who made it and the people who saw it each thought it was normal, and its messages unobjectionable.
THE DOCTOR KNOWS ALL
In this Fels-Naptha ad (Fels-Naptha is a laundry soap), the paternalistic doctor tells the meek woman how she should wash her clothes. 'Cause that's his business. And he knows more than her because he's a man and a doctor! Look at their poses! He's leaning forward agressively, jabbing and gesturing with his pince nez. He looks censorious. Both his hands are visible in the picture, a sign of agency. The woman is in a listening posture, head down and eyes up, like a scolded child. Her hands are under the table, because why would she have agency? Other people act for her, or tell her how to act.
Reading the text, there's an awkward volta after the doctor stops pontificating: he scoffing suggests that actual women foolishly choose their laundry soap by color or shape, and then the ad tells us that "millions of women" select their soap based not on color or shape but on the utilitarian criteria the doctor was talking about. So why is he scoffing? Buy Fels-Naptha, because that's what the doctor prescribes and millions of women already do!
IS SHE PRETTY?
The rest of the ad is cut off, so I'll never know what beauty method will bring me "the Enticement of a skin More Precious Than Personality or Cleverness"! I guess I'm doomed to have to settle for a man who wants depth of character or intellect or personality. Alas.
USE PALMOLIVE AND SUBJUGATE DARKER PEOPLE!
In this ad, the messages are all in the picture, not in the text. The text just says that Cleopatra used palm oil, and it's still the best, so you should use it too. "Your complexion is at stake when you are tempted to try a substitute for Palmolive"! But the picture... where do I start? We are meant to identify with the white woman--the dewy-skinned, well-dressed beauty stretching languorously and making doe-eyes at the viewer. We're supposed to want to be her, lovely and desirable. Now notice the black woman kneeling at her feet, offering her a bowl of olive oil to tend her dainty skin. Use Palmolive and you, too, can have this fantasy of white dominance and black service!
Just. So. Wrong.
Yet it's clear from the way it's presented, without apology, that this fantasy was assumed to be normal and would sell soap. Today, we have countless problems of race relations, and plenty of bastions of white supremacy still to be leveled... but it's at least encouraging to know that this fantasy is no longer considered normal or okay.
YOUR CHILDREN DON'T CHEW ENOUGH!
This text-heavy ad for Grape Nuts begins with a startling statement: children don't chew enough, and the result is a generation with weak chins! Heaven forbid! The two grown men pictured represent two possible futures for our cherubic lad. I think the smiling one is supposed to be the goal: a man with chiseled jaw and good teeth. The other man (who also looks fine to me) is meant to be the worse option. I'm not sure why you wouldn't want your son to look like that, but the ad lets us know that our goal is to avoid it!
There's a lot of text (click the pic to see it full size). Some highlights:
I happen to love Grape Nuts cereal, but it's hardly a child's first choice for breakfast!
I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving!
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