6 Old Ads That Look Like They’re Protesting Their Own Product

Heineken has an ad campaign out right now aimed at people who play video games. “Not All Nights Out Are Out,” it says, showing people at home, gaming with friends online while drinking beer. 

The ad appears to resonate just fine with audiences at this present time, when the video game industry is huge and it’s possible to socialize through games. But in a different era, associating a brand of beer with people who play on the computer at home might sound like you’re insulting it — or even making a serious statement about alcohol and isolation.

For more examples of those sort of changing perceptions, take a look at ads from the past. Now that culture and context have moved on, the following ads actually look more like PSAs warning you to stay as far from the product as possible. 

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6
‘Gee, Mommy. You Sure Enjoy Your Marlboro!’

Depending on how internet algorithms treat you, it’s possible you never see cigarette ads in your day-to-day life, but you do see frequent anti-smoking ads. As a result, when you see the following image of a baby confronting its mother about her smoking, you might assume the ad is saying that’s a bad thing. 

1951 Marlboro ad

Altria

Of course, any baby who starts talking belongs in a horror movie.
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You’re not supposed to smoke around children, you’re not supposed to smoke around babies, and the idea of babies and smoking also brings to mind smoking while pregnant, which is an especially big no-no. The tagline of the ad — “you need never feel over-smoked” — seems to further criticize smoking, until you realize what it really means. 

1951 Marlboro ad

Altria

This one suggests turning to cigarettes so you can neglect you child. 

Read further, and you’ll realize these ads are promoting smoking, not criticizing smoking. Even so, you might conclude that they are all parody. This looks like something out of Fallout, making fun of when smoking was more popular and smoking ads were less regulated. In the below ad, the baby asks, “Can you afford not to smoke?” That sounds like it’s mocking the common sales talking point by attaching it to smoking, which is not an investment, making the line nonsense. 

1951 Marlboro ad

Altria

Either that or the baby's straight-up asking, “Could you not smoke, please?”
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But every single one of these are real ads, made by Marlboro in 1951. This was a time when cigarettes were widely suspected to be bad for you, but the matter was still up for debate, and this campaign used the image of babies to sell smoking as wholesome and healthful. 

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The ads that were directed at mommy clearly targeted women, but the campaign did have ads for dad, too. These seemed slightly less ridiculous because the baby was talking about dad, not to him, so they didn’t evoke the image of the baby staring directly at the smoking parent. 

1951 Marlboro ad

Altria

They were still kind of ridiculous, just not as ridiculous.
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5
‘3 Out of 4 Males Want Truval Shirts’

“Cool kids like our product” is a perfectly fine message, and it works now as strongly as ever. But advertisers have to balance the idea that a product's popular with the idea that you are a discerning consumer, far smarter than average. Plus, in general, we’ve been taught that true coolness comes not from choosing what other people think are cool but from being a rebel. 

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So, products might say three out of four experts pick them, which offers some elite endorsement, and products might call themselves the top brand. But very rarely today do ads outright tell you to buy what the majority buys. 

Truval 1960 ad

Truval 

Don’t you want to be part of this three-way?

The above 1960 ad says that three out of four males want Truval shirts. That stat must be made-up— Truval did not have 75 percent of the shirt market, so at best, maybe they’re saying they offered free shifts to four guys and only one said no. But even if it were true, we today aren’t likely to respond to the message, “Join the supermajority of males, crammed on a single scooter.” 

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Our three chums in Truval shirts are supposed to be clean-cut, fun-loving guys, while the odd-man-out in the rear is supposed to be a slovenly beatnik. The ad’s text helpfully identifies the rear guy as a “character sneaking off the page.” But they also chose to identify him as a loser by giving him a book. While you’re still welcome to make fun of nerds for various reasons, it’s been generations since we’ve unironically insulted people for being readers. 

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If someone in a movie mocks someone else for reading, the point of that scene is to mark the first person as dumb and a bully — and only if the whole setting is cartoonish because that’s how ridiculous we treat the “he reads!” insult. Today, if you post this pic to your followers, you’re obligated to point to the fourth guy and say, “This is literally me.”

1960 Truval ad

Truval 

Because you’re not like the other girls.
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It doesn’t help that the men are illustrated, rather than photographed, making them all look so similar that it seems rebelling against them is the point. This clone imagery is less severe in the following ad from a couple years later, which uses photos, and shows our dashing trio now engaged in the apparently enviable hobby of playing with model cars. 

Truval 

This was never about cool kids vs. nerds. It was about purity vs. filth. 

4
‘Alas! My Poor Brother’

If an ad about beef products includes the sight of a sad cow weeping, the ad was probably made by PETA, and it probably wants you to forsake all meat. Not so with the following campaign for Bovril, where the bull in mourning serves to let you know that the weird black paste is made from a real animal.

Bovril ad

Unilever

Otherwise, you’d assume it’s some sort of salty tar.
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Bovril is meat extract. It’s made by liquifying beef and boiling it down, then mixing the result with cheaper yeast extract, the product you might know as Marmite. Bovril began, not (as you might think) as a low-cost substitute for fresh beef exactly but because beef needed to be stored long-term to feed the French military, and no other preservation methods existed. The product remained popular in peacetime. It was too concentrated and too precious to gobble up with a spoon, but you could add it to soup, or mix it with water to make beef tea. 

Bovril ad

Unilever

Here, one cow destined for tea warns another that death is imminent. 
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Today, we might signal the quality of some unnatural-looking product by using an illustration of prime cuts of meat — and perhaps some vegan descendants of ours would be just as baffled by that appeal as we are by these cow pics. We might even use some cartoon animal mascot. But we wouldn’t emphasize that these are fluffy creatures who fear death. That wouldn’t attract buyers to the product.

Sorrow. The key ingredient in every food’s ad.

The “Alas! My poor brother!” campaign began in 1896, and it continued for decades. It was a hit, and it got weird at times. The below ad features an articulate bull, on a train, heading for slaughter. Today, this looks not just like a PETA campaign, but one of those PETA campaigns that get everyone really angry. “Killing cows is not the same as killing people,” we might say. “How dare you evoke the Holocaust.”

Bovril ad

Unilever

This ad was so popular, they made playing cards out of it.
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3
‘We Invented the Transistor But Lost Your Dime’

“Did you know the transistor was invented by three dudes at Bell Labs in 1947?” someone says. “Gee, the folks at AT&T sound like real geniuses, huh? Well, then how come they can’t make a payphone that actually works? I stick a dime in, nothing happens and the dime’s lost forever. Come on!”

That sounds like a stand-up routine from a 1960s comedian. Not a very funny comedian, perhaps, but definitely a spiel from someone insulting AT&T, and you only nod along if you agree AT&T sucks. However, this observation was actually the premise behind an ad released by AT&T themselves in 1967. 

AT&T ad

AT&T

For context a dime in 1967 could buy a pound of bananas.
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It was part of a series they put out, each installment contrasting some obscure AT&T accomplishment with a frequent complaint you might have of the company. The ad below mentions AT&T sending wrong numbers your way. This was the telephone company’s fault, back in the days of human operators connecting calls, and they did not ask the model in this ad to look like a satisfied customer.

AT&T ad

AT&T

They did ask him to cover his boobs, as answering the phone topless is improper.

This next ad mentions Telstar, a communications satellite. At some point, it now dawns on you that these self-effacing taglines are really humblebrags. They’re saying, “We built Telstar but cut off your call to the hairdresser,” but they really mean, “We cut off your call to the hairdresser, but remember: We did build Telstar.” 

AT&T ad

AT&T

And honestly, how long does it take to set a hair appointment anyway? Hurry up. 
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The real baffling part about this campaign is that AT&T felt the need to put out a message at all. In 1967, AT&T held a monopoly over the telephone system — you had to go with them whether you liked it or not. And in fact, these ads each mention that monopoly, which just make them seem to us today all the more like anti-AT&T spoofs. 

AT&T ad

AT&T

This one’s set in a boxing ring, for reasons we clearly do not need to explain.

2
‘Our Improved Cages’

Here's something else that might come across as satire: any ad for prisons. Unless you personally are in the market for a prison, any list of a prison’s selling points might sound more like an exposé.

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The following ad from the 1890s, however, isn’t for a private prison company, but for jail cells, made by a manufacturer. The Van Dorn Iron Works was, for a few decades, the biggest maker of jail cells in the world. This ad of theirs is very straightforward and respectable. We just have to highlight one thing — the word CAGES, presented in inexplicable all-caps.

1890s jail ad

Van Dorn

Also the phrase “contemplating the erection,” which makes us giggle.

We don’t call cells “cages” anymore, not unless we’re protesting them. For example, if Border Control puts children crossing over from Mexico in detention facilities, someone might call that “putting kids in cages,” to condemn the practice. No one calls prisons “cages” if they like prison, not even people who like prisons for how terrible prisons are.

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Interestingly, we today don’t mind referring to barred enclosures as cages so long as we bar ourselves inside them voluntarily, in a “security cage.” But when someone is confined there, suddenly, a “cage” becomes something unacceptable for humans, fit only for animals. 

1880s jail ad

Van Dorn

But only stupid animals. Not sapient ones, like the Bovril cows. 

1
‘A Stewardess Can Get Grounded and Lose Flight Pay If She Gains Too Much Weight’

The below TV spot from the 1970s opens on a Pan Am aircraft. “Hi,” says a stewardess. “That’s me, Patricia Stewart, in our new tailored uniforms. You know, a stewardess can get grounded and lose flight pay if she gains too much weight.”

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Instantly, you do a double-take. Even if you know airlines sold themselves on the strength of their attractive flight staff, you know this is not how advertising works. They cannot be slipping you into the point-of-view of one of these stewardesses and then enticing you by telling you she risks losing her pay. Surely, they’re critiquing this policy.

You’d be half-right. Because this clip is not actually an ad for Pan Am at all. It’s an ad for Slender, a diet drink, which you can imbibe to satisfy that tough Pan Am policy.

The ad seems alien today, not just because of the Pan Am part but because diet drinks are no longer really a thing. Oh, diet soda is huge — a version of an existing drink, but with fewer calories — but we no longer turn to meal-replacement drinks in the name of dieting. Somewhere along the line, we learned they’re not terribly effective. Taking in 225 calories in the form of a drink rather than as food leaves you less full than if you ate, not more full. So, we now have meal-replacement drinks as supplements (protein shakes) or for convenience (Soylent) but not to cut calories. To cut calories, try filling yourself up with low-calorie food.

Slender ad 1973

Carnation

Shed enough calories, and you will attain this ideal body shape.
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The ad says that Slender has “no cyclamates,” which is another point that might confuse modern viewers. Sodium cyclamate is an artificial sweetener, which was eventually banned in the U.S. on suspicion of being carcinogenic. Like so many artificial sweeteners, this one’s properties were discovered when a scientist was trying to produce something else and then found that the chemical he’d made tasted sweet. With cyclamate, it was because chemist Michael Sveda was smoking an unfiltered cigarette in the lab, and when he brushed some of the loose tobacco from his lips, he tasted the sweetness of the cyclamate from his fingers. 

That sounds to us like a good reason to smoke in every lab. In fact, that story served as the greatest smoking ad ever — until Marlboro thought to hire spokesbabies. 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.