We tend to talk about earlier times as simpler and more pleasant. It’s easy to understand why – we didn’t have the burden of so much technology, and families seemed to spend more time together, thanks to fewer entertainment choices.
One of the funny things about the way things used to be is commercials. So many of the ads we watched on television as kids would never make it on the air today. Whether they played on ethnic stereotypes or the battle of the sexes, a lot of vintage commercials seem inappropriate today.
Here are eight of the most fascinating offenders. You don’t have to be a snowflake to see why these commercials wouldn’t fly today. Even though we can chuckle at them nowadays, it’s easy to see why they don’t exactly fit modern standards. Let’s get ready to have some retro fun!
Let’s start this one off with one that’s relatively mild. The couple in this ad seems like a fairly typical family – the wife is at home taking care of the kids, including taking them to the dentist, while the dad works late. They’re a lot like Don and Betty Draper on the first couple of seasons of Mad Men. No big deal, I guess.
The thing that catches your attention is the way the husband talks to the wife. Is the wife ditzy and forgetful in general, or did she just forget this one time? The way he speaks to her, it sounds like the former. These days, you wouldn’t dare portray a woman forgetting something like her husband having to work late, because dads are dolts in today’s media.
The fact that the husband is a jerk to his wife isn’t a huge deal, except for the fact that modern women in ads are superwomen who juggle everything and don’t forget, while men are the ones who don’t know what’s going on. Besides, you wouldn’t see conflict in a commercial these days unless it was for comic effect.
The ditsy secretary has been a comedy trope for as long as I can remember, and the sexy secretary was the catalyst for so many affairs in the ‘60s. So why not combine them for a hilarious Xerox commercial?
Once you get past the bad acting (and the agonizingly slow copy speeds), the premise of the ad is pretty funny: the secretary can’t do anything but make copies, and she’s such a dingbat that she claims she can’t tell the difference between the original and the copy. She makes a copy and then takes off for lunch.
“My boss says I’m indispensable,” she says, and I’d be willing to bet that it has less to do with her photocopying prowess than it does her skimpy outfits and propensity to flirt. If somebody made this commercial today, feminists would howl, and it’s mostly because they would miss the fact that the joke isn’t on hardworking administrative assistants but on this particular secretary and her, um, capabilities. Xerox machines – and their operators – have come a long way over the years.
This one used to get me even when I was a kid. Let’s start with the Chinese laundromat stereotype. Mr. Lee and his wife are obviously a modern couple, but he’s playing on the concept of the “ancient Chinese secret.” Sure, it’s for laughs, but even by ‘70s standards, it seems lame. It’s a weird use of the stereotype with a young, somewhat hip couple.
But then let’s dig into the deeper problem: Mr. Lee’s “secret” is a product that any of his customers can use. And his wife has given up the secret to one customer. How many other customers will learn about Mr. Lee’s secrets before it hurts the business? Then again, maybe Mrs. Lee is giving her husband a little comeuppance for trading on that cheesy stereotype.
A poor young wife can’t make good coffee, and her police officer husband hurts her feelings by telling her that the sergeant’s coffee at the station is better than hers. That’s the setup for this Folgers commercial that predates Mrs. Olson and “the best part of waking up.”
The young woman visits the grocery store in despair and explains her predicament to the grocer, who recommends instant coffee. (Her coffee must be horrible for instant coffee to be better.) I see plenty of folks these days hating on this ad because it sets up the idea that there’s nothing better for a wife to do than please her husband, but then again, don’t we all want to please the important people in our lives?
I think the most controversial thing about this commercial is the crime against coffee. Instead of relying on instant coffee, she should have worked on making her coffee better.
Fritos Corn Chips
Fritos Corn Chips featured a character in the late ‘60s called the Frito Bandito. The Bandito was a cartoon Mexican bandit who wanted to acquire the delicious snacks from unsuspecting Fritos customers. He fit every Mexican stereotype — from the accent to the traditional garb (complete with sombrero) to his theme song to the melody of the Mexican folk tune “Cielito Lindo.”
With talent like Tex Avery animating the Frito Bandito and Mel Blanc providing the voice, you’d think the character would be a hit. And he was. At the same time, the Mexican stereotypes made some people uncomfortable, and Frito-Lay bowed to pressure from activists to can the character in 1971, just four years after debuting him.
These days, we wouldn’t dream of seeing a character like the Frito Bandito on television, so ads like this seem almost shocking.
Cigarette commercials in general seem like relics of a totally different time. But when you add in the use of the Flintstones characters, this Winston ad seems even weirder than anything else. Can you imagine using cartoon characters to promote smoking – or even live-action sitcom characters?
Here’s another ad that feminists would go crazy over. Fred and Barney hang out at the fence between their yards – gasp, a physical barrier on the border – and then sneak around behind Fred’s house for a “Winston break” while Wilma and Betty do all the chores around the yard. Fred and Barney extol the values of the great taste of a Winston cigarette until Wilma and Barney catch them doing nothing and slap the boys with chores of their own.
It’s jarring to see the leads in a family show hocking cigarettes – in fact, Winston was a primary sponsor of the cartoon.
Asian stereotypes are some of the low-hanging fruit of the media landscape. From the awful Mr. Yunioshi from the otherwise beautiful classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s to the cringe-worthy Asian character type who popped up in so many ‘80s teen movies, it seems like Hollywood was satisfied with picking on Asians for many years.
Witness this ad for Jell-O from the ‘50s or early ‘60s. The whole thing is embarrassingly full of stereotypes, from the caricature-ish animation of a Chinese mom and baby to the “L” sound in place of “R”s. Black Laspberry? Glape? It’s about as bad as it can get. And does the baby really only eat with chopsticks? Come on, by the middle of the 20th century, even the Communist Chinese were aware of other utensils. It’s just bad – no two ways about it. Even if you think people are too sensitive about stereotypes, you can’t deny how terrible this one is.
All stereotypes aside – Jell-O, the great American delicacy? If that’s the case, no wonder other countries are suspicious of American culture.
We’ve already seen how weird it is to have cartoon characters selling cigarettes. But we can go even further back – to 1949 – to see the wildest cigarette commercial of all.
Can you imagine finding out that your doctor smoked? Camel cigarettes actually used a survey in their ads that claimed that more doctors smoked Camels than any other brand. If this seems incongruous, it’s totally understandable. I’m having a hard time picturing a doctor recommending a particular brand of smokes to his or her patients.
The commercial touts how “mild and good tasting” a Camel cigarette can be and challenges customers to try them for a month. And lest we forget how glamorous smoking appeared back before we knew how bad it was for your health, the ad features a comely woman lighting up a Camel. No wonder so many people fell for the lie that smoking was sexy and beneficial when they saw doctors and beautiful ladies puffing on Camels.
There’s the list! Do you remember any other bad ads from days gone by? Share them in the comments section below.