The problem with laughing at vintage advertising

If there’s one thing beloved of bloggers and/or your distant aunt who’s fond of an attachment-laden group email, then - second only to bad album covers including The Louvin Brothers’ Satan Is Real, which I may one day get as a full back tattoo - it’s marvelling at the outrageous sexism of vintage advertising.

Perhaps it’s “the Mad Men effect” that has led us to devour anything with a vague whiff of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (RIP), but tear-outs from the ‘50s and ‘60s continue to be a source of amazement for those who like to think we live in a more enlightened age this side of Y2K.

The archives have given us such classics as Tipalet Cigarettes’ “Blow smoke in her face and she’ll follow you anywhere”, Van Heusen’s tie-related matrimonial slavery suggestions, Chase & Sanborn’s pro-battery violence coffee, Alcoa Aluminum’s revolutionary sauce bottle lid that can be opened by women, and Kenwood Chef’s cheery vision of domestic servitude.

Naturally, the fun of it all is letting rip with a roaring belly laugh, dabbing at your brow, and exclaiming, “Good thing it’s not the ‘60s anymore, eh? I’m so glad the sexual revolution happened!”


Except that - [pause for dramatic orchestral burst] - there is still so much sexist dross masquerading as “targeted marketing” and “advertising” around today, you could be forgiven for wondering if major corporations hadn’t invented a magical time-travelling fax machine that receives pitches for ad campaigns directly from 1963.

In December, we had CUB’s sensationally ill-advised trip back to the ‘50s with their “Laundry Nights” campaign, in which men prepared to chug back a few Carlton Draughts could have their ironing done IN THE PUB by a team of specially outfitted “Carlton Draught girls”. (I’ll keep my thoughts about how anyone who can stomach an entire pot of the stuff should get a medal, not their chores done, to myself.) The stunt went down on social media like a cup of cold sick (or, for that matter, a pot of Carlton - oh wait, I said I’d keep that to myself OOPS TOO LATE).

More recently, we’ve all rolled our eyes in the direction of Kayser, who thought it would be a good idea to attempt a social media viral campaign courtesy of the hashtag #KayserMaleInsider (because women’s underwear is all about what men think, don’t you know). Unfortunately for them, that ship went down to the old place as soon as whichever bright spark was running the social media campaign offered this as the inaugural #KayserMaleInsider tweet: "If a guy invites you over to watch a movie, you should know what they're expecting."

Not every sexist campaign necessarily involves menial “women’s chores” or chicks in bikinis, though; some of the most insidious advertising operates on a level that dictates cultural expectations of womanhood and notions of “classiness” or “beauty”.

Here in the States, nearly every woman I know has taken a photo of herself flipping the bird at the latest Baileys campaign (self included). The creamy liqueur, which is ostensibly geared towards female consumers, really kicked it out of the park with a dunderheaded series of ads so clearly dreamed up by some ex-frat drongo in poo-scooper shoes that I’m fairly certain it made an entire generation of women instantly allergic to Baileys: featuring taglines like “Be a woman for a cause, not applause” and “Be a girl with a mind, a woman with attitude, and a lady with class.”

Then there is the constant casual stereotypes and “all in good fun” sexism, a good deal of which I tallied last year, amazed that in 2012, women were still terrified that stains and skidmarks might betray the fact that they use their toilets not as, well, toilets, but as shiny white pieces of modern art.

And of course, how could any tally of modern sexism in advertising neglect the Super Bowl ads?

There are plenty of other examples, many of them more distressingly retrograde than Baileys telling women to be “classy” (classy? Sexy? Good at cleaning dunnies?? What else am I supposed to master in order to be a Real Woman?!); for every stunning ad with a Cinematic Orchestra soundtrack and lots of slow motion, there’s a pursed-lipped bikini babe sitting on a leather sofa flogging furniture.

So perhaps next time Aunty Gwen sends out a group email with the subject “OMG LOL check out these old ads!”, direct her attention to something a little more current. Laughing at the past is one thing; living in it, courtesy of inescapable advertising and marketing, is another thing altogether.