7 Groundbreaking And Controversial Vintage Ads That Challenged The Status Quo

I love checking out vintage advertising. Aside from being aesthetically pleasing, it’s basically like a little history lesson; you discover what was trendy, what the standard of beauty was, what issues people (consumers) were curious about, and–most interestingly–what the societal norms were. It’s that last bit that’s really telling, and often what we find most shocking about old ads. For example, the casual sexism in old ads is straight up shocking to us from a 21st century perspective. It’s not like sexism isn’t still a problem, but the fact that it was normal to have ads like this in a magazine is so cringeworthy.

leggs-nice-to-have-a-girl-around-the-house-sexist-vintage-ad sexist-vintage-ads-keep-her-where-she-belongs

And that doesn’t even begin to cover the casual racism that dominated the advertising field at the time, too. Looking back at vintage ads can remind us of how far we’ve come as a society, and how far we still have to go; remember, people were upset about a Cheerio’s commercial featuring an interracial couple and their child… in 2013. But what gives us even more perspective is when we take a look at ads that were actually controversial, groundbreaking, and status-quo busting for its time. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, check out these seven ads that challenged the advertising norms. From girls playing with Legos (gasp) to an ad featuring black people without being racist (DOUBLE GASP), find out what made people clutch their pearls back in the day.


Acknowledging The Pain Of Menstruation

If you look at a lot of vintage menstruation ads, you'll notice a common theme: Happy go lucky women prancing around without a care in the world despite the fact that they're bleeding out of their cooch. Of course, the ads were promoting feminity hygiene products that are supposed to make your period less of a hassle, but let's be real: tampons leak, cramps still happen, and nobody is really going to wear an all white dress on the second day of their period. So this ad telling mother nature to "drop dead" was one of the few ads at the time that expressed what so many folks really felt towards that time of the month: Contempt.

Ads Geared Towards A Black Audience

Black people were depicted in advertising for ages, but those depictions were often outwardly racist, derogatory, and laced in stereotypes. But around the '50s and '60s, advertisers realized, "Hey, black people buy things too!" Hm, maybe it would be a good idea for them to be able to see themselves in adverts so that they'd be more tempted to buy them. That's why it was a pretty big deal with a woman named Mary Alexander became the first black non-celebrity to appear in a Coca-Cola ad in 1955. Many other brands got the hint, especially in the '60s and '70s. Stereotypes were still a problem, but at last they weren't all Aunt Jemima: The Redux.

Women's Liberation...Commodified

Advertisers are really good at commodifying youth culture. You've probably witnessed this yourself: How many ads do you see throwing in words like "squad goals?" Advertisers were hip to that back in the '60s and '70s, too, when they wanted to appeal to that Baby Boomer coin. They even went to the lengths of commodifying political movements, like women's liberation. The perfect example of this can be seen in Virginia Slim's "You've Come A Long Way, Baby" ad campaign which evoked images of suffrage and business women to get young feminists to...buy cigarettes. Yikes. Still, appealing to female empowerment is a stark contrast to ads that depicted women as subservient to their husbands and boyfriends.

Women's Liberation...Commodified

Advertisers are really good at commodifying youth culture. You've probably witnessed this yourself: How many ads do you see throwing in words like "squad goals?" Advertisers were hip to that back in the '60s and '70s, too, when they wanted to appeal to that Baby Boomer coin. They even went to the lengths of commodifying political movements, like women's liberation. The perfect example of this can be seen in Virginia Slim's "You've Come A Long Way, Baby" ad campaign which evoked images of suffrage and business women to get young feminists to... buy cigarettes. Yikes. Still, appealing to female empowerment is a stark contrast to ads that depicted women as subservient to their husbands and boyfriends.

A Girl Playing With 'Boy' Toys

Believe it or not, this 1981 ad of a little girl playing with Legos was almost never made. A woman who led the ad agency that created this ad had to, allegedly, fight tooth and nail with her male coworkers who insisted that boys, not girls, like to build things. But she held strong and, voila, an ad emphasizing the fact that girls have a little thing called creativity, too. Oddly enough, despite the behind the scenes drama in the creation of this ad, Legos overall were a lot more gender neutral back then than they are now. Today, Legos that are geared toward girls are pink and purple, emphasizing shopping and dream houses. Hmmm...

Telling The World That Black Is Beautiful

Noxema was bold for coming out with an advertisement that featured nothing but black women--with various features, hairstyles, etc--and referring to their skin as the most beautiful in the world. In a society dominated by white supremacy, that was huge. Also, considering the fact that so many skin products featuring black people in the ads were for lightening creams, ads like this presented a much needed breath of fresh air.

Showing That Women Are Sporty Too

Nike was one of the first sportswear brands to deliver strong marketing campaigns towards women. Female strength, agility, and power were celebrated, not daintiness or glamour. The fact that this was edgy during the '70s, '80s, and even '90s might seem nuts, but consider this: The woman in this ad to the left is named Joan Benoit, the first woman's Olympic marathon winner in 1984, the first year that marathon running was open to women.

Advertising To The LGBTQ Community

Ads that depict the LGBTQ community are still, unfortunately, controversial. We're slowly getting there, what with a commercial here or there depicting gay couples with children, but for the most part? We have a long way to go. Still, Absolut was one of the first brands to deliberately advertise to the LGBTQ community back in the late 1980s. Though the ad only appeared in gay publications like The Advocate instead of, say, a mainstream magazine, it was considered a risky move. Let's also remember that the LGBTQ community was incredibly marginalized during the '80s due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. We can get into the ways that corporations pander to marginalized communities another time, but the fact that a brand actually acknowledged the fact that LGBTQ folks exist and are consumers just like everybody else was pretty huge.

Do you think any of these ads would still be controversial today? Tell us in the comments!

You can follow the author, Ashley Reese, on Twitter or Instagram. Don’t worry, she doesn’t bite!

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