Stay Tuned/Changes In the Acceptable

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

Changes In the Acceptable
12 April 1998

I've just finished a book called The 100 Greatest Advertisements 1852-1958 by Julian Watkins. It's a very interesting book, and I don't disagree with his assessments of the ads, but for me the most interesting part is that the book stops at 1958. Most of Mr. Watkins' commentary, in fact, dates from 1949, when the original edition was published, and all but thirteen of the ads are from 1949 or before. Assuming Mr. Watkins worked on getting the book together for many months before its first publication, most of the book is about fifty years old.

It is difficult, even painful, to look at some of this advertising and realize that it was perfectly acceptable for the time period. Not just in matters of style and copy, but also social attitudes.

My favorite example of what I mean by the latter is a Cream of Wheat ad. In the ad, there is a billboard of the waiter from the Cream of Wheat box - that "nice colored man," as older folks in the south still say on occasion - smiling competently as usual.

Looking at the billboard is an old black gent (or, if you prefer, African-American) who has clearly seen better days: He wears a bunged-up top hat, a threadbare frock coat with tears at the elbows and shoulder seams, what looks like the top part of a union suit under that, and striped pants with both knees patched in checked cloth. He has a full white beard and is leaning heavily on a cane cut from a tree branch. A more cliche archetype has not been seen since the last heyday of the minstrel show.

He is saying (of the billboard): "Ah reckon as how he's de bes' known man in de worl'."

Now, I don't have a problem with the Cream of Wheat boxes themselves - the gent on the box was a real person, a waiter in Chicago who gave his permission to have his image used, way back in the 1900's. It doesn't strike me as a particularly negative portrayal (unlike some other black advertising images that have come and gone).

Nonetheless, if an ad like this appeared in a modern-day paper, I'd feel that the riot which would follow its appearance would be completely justified. Of course, an ad like this would never get run today, which is the point.

Here's an ad for a book of etiquette which intimidates women into thinking that their lack of marriage prospects, social calls, et cetera is due to their lack of deportment and refinement. Even worse is the famous "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride" advertisement for Listerine, which states - directly - that the reason the woman in the ad has never married is because she has bad breath!

It's not the truthfulness of either ad that bothers me. Fact is, I can easily picture someone never getting a return phone call or a second date because of bad breath; some of us are like that. The part that bothers me is the implication that if a woman is not on the marriage track, she is worthless.

Oddly enough, I'm not sure if attitudes have improved in this matter - they've just changed. I circulate among the university/academia crowd, and in that crowd I have observed a trend to ridicule women who are planning to settle down, get married, and raise a family. The exact reverse, in other words. Neither is acceptable in my book.

Another matter in the same vein: It seems like the member of a two-parent household who stays home with the kids gets no respect. Jokes are told about this all the time; there's a nationally syndicated cartoon, "Adam," centered around the premise that the man is staying home with the kids, and is a huge goof-off.

I don't think the fact that these days the man is just as likely to be the one at home as the woman is - or even that both parents might be the same sex - is a sign of increasing enlightenment. I'll believe we've become enlightened when "homemaker" is considered a real profession, and the jokes stop.

In other words, I don't consider it an advance when men and women are offered equal opportunity to be ridiculed.

Or to be exploited. I saw an ad for Chesterfield cigarettes in the book. The ad has a man and a woman sitting cozily - intimately, by the standards of the time - in a lovely outdoor setting at night. The man is lighting a cigarette and the woman is saying (in the ad's only copy) "Blow some my way."

All right, so it was unthinkable to sell cigarettes to women in those days (1926), and this was admittedly a clever way of sneaking past that barrier. So why am I not impressed?

I look at this book, in short, and I see that a lot of things truly have changed. We've become more open about a lot of biological functions, for example - you wouldn't believe the fuss which accompanied the first deodorant ad pitched to women! But I also see a lot which doesn't seem to have changed much in fifty years at all.

It's a little depressing. Is it real progress to be able to advertise tampons on television when we can't get rid of racism?


I'm feeling socially conscious this evening, but not especially long-winded.

The book, by the by, is a Dover reprint. You may already know that Dover Publications is one of the best things in the world, with who knows how many weird and rare books offered affordably in reprint. If you do not already know this, it is long past time to find out.

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