And now a word from our sponsor…
Those particular words didn’t come into play until the radio, but advertising has been around since the beginning of mankind. Cavemen painted billboards on rock walls and the ancient Romans printed advertisements for gladiatorial games on papyrus.
After the invention of the printing press, advertisements began appearing in newspapers and periodicals. Circulars were posted on chimneys, lamp posts, walls, wagons, fences—you name it. Since painting the town with ads was considered a public spectacle, men with buckets of paste worked mostly at night.
Ads were designed not only to sell products, but also to solve personal and social problems. In many cases, people were oblivious to such personal shame as body odor or halitosis until some thoughtful marketer pointed it out.
Looking back, we can’t help but laugh at some of the strange wording used to avoid offending customers. During the 1800s the word limb was used for leg and white meat for chicken breast. No one dare mention pants or trousers in polite company. This posed a challenge for marketers.
The Scott Company, embarrassed to advertise toilet paper in the 1880s, came up with a unique solution: they customized rolls for their clients. The Waldorf Hotel became a big name in toilet paper and when a customer walked into a general store and requested a roll of Waldorf, no questions were asked.
Speaking of toilet paper, Northern Tissue advertised “splinter-free” toilet paper in 1935. If that doesn’t want to make you go “ouch” consider this: the “cure” for a certain male condition currently blasted nightly from the TV was, in the late 1800s, thought to be electric belts.
The westward migration spurred advertisements for real estate, investments and tourism. In 1860 the Pony Express advertisement in California read: “Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”
The Civil War created a great need for clothes, shoes and readymade food and advertisements during the era reflected the new consumerism.
Writers hear a lot about “branding” today, and we can thank the patent medicine companies of yesteryear for that. By touting exotic ingredients, producers could distinguish themselves from competitors. Other companies followed suit and slogans like the “soap that floats” became increasingly popular.
It’s Wonderful, Amazing, Spectacular…
Exaggeration was the order of the day and no one was better at reeling off adjectives than Richard Sears. Eventually, Sears toned down the ads and was said to have concluded: “Honesty is the best policy. I know because I’ve tried it both ways.”
Honesty didn’t come easy for some advertisers and reform was needed. 1892, the Ladies’ Home Journal announced it would no longer accept patent medicine ads. The bogus potions were costing Americans millions of dollars per year, and were coming under heavy attack by commentators and consumers.
“In our factory,
we make lipstick.
In our advertising,
we sell hope.”
Women purchased most of the household goods and so it made sense to have women create the ads. As early as the 1900s advertisers welcomed female employees. The first advertisement to use sex was for Woodbury soap and was created by a woman. Tame by today’s standards, the advertisement featured a couple and the message “The skin you love to touch.” Not only did this raise eyebrows, but it promised sex, romance and love to anyone savvy enough to buy the product. It worked: Sales skyrocketed.
Studying advertisements is a great way to learn the customs, concerns, prejudices and history of earlier times. I shudder to think what future generations will learn from ours.
What are your favorite or least favorite ads?
Speaking of ads….