Book review: Beyond Belief

From sinister to sick, the most shocking promotional campaigns of the last century were often racist, crude, rude and downright dangerous, Richard Fitzpatrick checks out Charles Saatchi’s new book.

LIFE magazine was a pillar of America’s cultural life in the 1950s. The world’s best photographers, including Robert Capa, ran their photos in it. President Harry S Truman chose the magazine to serialise his memoirs. It was an arbiter of taste. Celebrities like Marilyn Monroe adorned its covers. It set the tone for the nation.

In 1952, the magazine ran an advertisement by Chase & Sanborn, a coffee company that later merged with Nabisco, about the merits of its product. It shows a man seated on a wooden kitchen chair. He’s dressed for the office in white shirt, braces, pants and tartan-patterned socks. He’s a man who might need a strong cup of coffee in the morning.

The man has his arm raised. He’s belting his wife, who is bent across his lap, on the backside. Her face is turned towards the camera. She’s clearly in distress. It seems she’s made a mistake. The tagline for the ad, which runs across the top of the page, reads: “If your husband ever finds out you’re not ‘store-testing’ for fresher coffee… if he discovers you’re still taking chances on getting flat, stale coffee … woe be unto you!”

The ad is one of over a hundred re-produced in Charles Saatchi’s Beyond Belief: Racist, Sexist, Rude, Crude and Dishonest – The Golden Age of Madison Avenue. 

The book is accompanied by text from Saatchi, who first made a name for himself as the co-founder of the ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi and latterly for his contemporary art collection. Its ads are eye-popping and provide a window on the neuroses and prejudices that defined the twentieth century in the western world.

It was a time when it wasn’t easy to be a gal. “She existed to please man,” writes Saatchi.

Advertisements were blatantly sexist. They suggested that women found it almost impossible to resist the allure of men. The Tipalet cigar company, for instance, ran an ad campaign in 1970 entitled “Blow in her face and she’ll follow you anywhere”. 

The ad shows a man puffing smoke at a beautiful, tanned model with a low-cup top. Her eyes are drinking in the man. The phallic cigar and the “blow in her face” tagline leave little to the imagination.

Ad men blew off criticism that they were misogynistic by dryly explaining, “Misogynists are men who don’t hate women as much as women hate each other,” writes Saatchi. It’s a refrain that would be familiar to fans of the exploits of the fictional Don Draper in Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men television series.

In the home, women were portrayed as domestic slaves so stupid and feeble they couldn’t even open a ketchup bottle “without a husband”, according to a 1953 ad by Alcoa Aluminium that was trying to push its easy-to-twist bottle cap. 

The ad’s creators, notes Saatchi wryly: “had apparently forgotten that women were perfectly capable of building tanks, bombs and machine guns in America’s munitions factories between 1941 and 1945.”

Ads preyed on women’s insecurities, particularly their appearance, with screaming headlines like “You are in a beauty contest every hour of every day!” In the 1930s and ’40s, as a result of America’s Great Depression, it was fashionable for women to have ample figures. Thin girls were sneered at in ads. They ended up “lonely”.

Remedies, including ironized yeast tablets, were on sale to alleviate them from the affliction of “scrawniness”, as the marketers put it, with suggestions in their advertisements that “If men hate the sight of you” you should buy their products.

There were no illusions. By growing old, you risked losing your man. An ad that Palmolive ran in 1938 to sell its soap maintained “a wife can blame herself if she loses love by getting ‘middle-age’ skin!” Aging was also going to affect your earnings. “Grey hair

cost her her job!” warned one ad, which ran with a picture of a depressed-looking woman hunched over a typewriter.

The book has some shockingly racist ads, which makes up one of seven sections in the book.

Particularly disturbing are the ones by soap companies suggesting black skin could be cleaned white. There is one, for example, by Pears’ Soap which implied that it was so effective it could rid a black boy of his “dirty” dark skin.

Saatchi’s narrative on the section that deals with smoking ads is interesting. At the turn of the last century, smoking by women was frowned upon. Only prostitutes dared to smoke in public.

Edward Bernays, who was a nephew of Sigmund Freud and the godfather of public relations, hit on a stunt to make smoking fashionable for women with his “torches of freedom” campaign. During New York’s Easter Parade in 1929, he hired hundreds of women to smoke as they made their way down 5th Avenue. Smoking for women soon became all the rage.

In the 1950s, ads suggested that cigarettes were good for keeping mom happy and calm at home. Before Marlboro became synonymous with its rugged cowboy “Marlboro Man”, it ran a campaign in 1951 using a talking baby which tried (successfully) to establish smoking as an appealing family activity with the homely talk bubble, “Gee, Mommy, you sure enjoy your Marlboro”.

It’s unsurprising that tobacco companies paid for celebrity endorsements from movie stars of the period like John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. A closer look at some of the claims they made, however, make for alarming reading. 

Camel, for example, ran adverts with bold, enlarged taglines claiming “more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!” based, it said, on “national surveys”. It turns out Camel based their claim on a questionnaire.

“At American Medical Association conferences,” writes Saatchi, “there would be cigarette-sponsored salons where doctors could pick up their free packets of cigarettes, the cartons of which would be monogrammed with their initials. Employees of Camel would stand on the door and ask each departing doctor which brand he had in his pocket. Lo and behold, it was Camels — they had just visited the Camel lounge to pick up their free packs.”

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to sneer at how mad (and dangerous) the advice proffered in some of the ads. Cocaine Toothache Drops were believed to be “an instantaneous cure!” Mothers were encouraged to give their babies lithium — which is a prescription today for clinical depression — to stop them crying.

The enterprising Bock Auto Bar Company from Milwaukee, Wisconsin once tried to make beer dispensers an enticing accessory for cars. Its ads depicted two smiling men pulling glasses of beer from a car’s dashboard.

“Does driving a car make you thirsty? Why, of course, it does! But no more dry, parched throats now! Simply have an AUTO BEER BAR installed in your car and laugh at dusty roads! Your favorite beverage on tap all the time. Invaluable in traffic jams or on Sundays.”

Tapeworm tablets, though, take the biscuit. They were advertised for “nutrient absorption” and promised to eat away at unwanted body fat: “No diet, no baths, no exercise. Fat — the enemy that is shortening your life — banished. How? With sanitised tapeworms — jar-packed.”

Beyond Belief Racist, Sexist, Rude, Crude and Dishonest: The Golden Age of Madison Avenue

Charles Saatchi

Booth-Clibborn Editions, €27


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