Important Marketing Lessons From Outrageous Vintage Advertisements

I absolutely love looking at old ads from the early to mid 20th century. The themes covered and claims that are made are often so completely outrageous that you wonder how they ever made it to print. Looking at these, you can’t help but marvel how far advertising has come.

How much advancement have we really made in this area though? Aren’t the advertising ploys of past generations still the same tricks used by marketers today? Follow along as we take a look at some truly ridiculous ads and how they really aren’t so different from advertising we see today.

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Nothing Sells Like Sex and Power

Advertisers have always known the two most powerful motivators for male customers: sex and power. As horribly misguided and inappropriate as these ads seem, they represent messages that we still see from advertisers every single day!

Spraying copious amounts of Axe body spray all over yourself will make you more irresistible to women, a Mercedes will earn you the respect that you deserve from you peers; sound familiar?

Women Love It When You Blow Smoke in Their Face

Yes men, the secret to impressing your lady is to get a big mouthful of smoke and exhale it right as she leans in for a kiss. What woman could possibly resist?


Image credit: Tumbleweed

It’s a Man’s World

Every man wants a magical tie that will transform women into slaves! It’s very interesting to note that this ad seems so completely sexist and ridiculous, but the core idea here is still fairly common, albeit with the roles reversed. How many television ads targeted towards women today depict a moron husband who “just doesn’t get it”? Giving someone a feeling of superiority can be a pretty sleazy tactic, but it’s marketing 101!


Image credit: Courtney Bolton

Snag Them Young

Every good branding specialist knows that marketing to kids is an excellent way to create lifelong customers. Fortunately, this is something that’s highly regulated these days so we never see such tactics, right?

Wrong. Walk into any Babies”R”Us and you’ll find this strategy being leveraged in every corner of the store. Why do you think Jeep sells strollers and Gucci sells baby shoes? Children don’t need this stuff, but it’s a way for parents to connect with brands on a more widespread level and hopefully pass that connection to the next generation.

Babies Love Soda

Baby formula is so expensive, I’m thrilled to learn I can just hit up Costco and buy a few cases of 7Up instead.


Image credit: Courtney Bolton

Fear Is a Powerful Motivator

Like sex and power, fear will never fail to make the list of go-to marketing tools. Both of the tactics below are used in almost the same exact fashion today. We still have public service announcements about practicing safe sex to prevent the spread of disease. There’s also almost no other way to sell life insurance than to give someone a frightening look ahead at what will happen if they don’t!

90% of Statistics Are Made Up on the Spot

Many interpret this ad to be worse than it is. It seems like it may mean that 90% of single women had VD, but in reality “Procurable women” is specifically a term that related to prostitutes. So really, the message is a good one at heart: don’t sleep with prostitutes. Now, what kind of research was done to ensure their claim was correct? I’m going to bet zero.


Image credit: Thomas Gardner

No Life Insurance? Your Kids Are Bound for the Orphanage

Cute kids make perfect spokesman, a tactic Welch’s Grape Juice, Life Cereal, and Jell-O brand know very well. Here Prudential leverages pity, fear and a poor orphan boy expertly enough to make any father think twice about skipping a life insurance payment.


Image credit: Thomas Gardner

A Healthy Vice is the Holy Grail

Nothing could be better than something delicious and enjoyable that also happens to be healthy! Too bad such a thing rarely exists in the real world. But that doesn’t stop marketers from trying to convince you otherwise.

Yet again, we see these ads and think that there’s no way marketers could get away with something like that today. A walk down any isle at your grocery store proves otherwise. We pump products full of sugar and call them fat free or boast that highly processed chemical ingredients are healthy alternatives to naturally sugary foods (like fruit). We say that milk has the nutrients that growing kids need and fill it with chocolate to get them to drink it. Believe it or not, we still have a very strong trust in advertising to tell us what is and isn’t good for us.

Want to Lose Weight? Eat Ice Cream

This tip is so good I think I just may try it. Not only does the ad recommend “undereating”, it suggests that staying skinny is as easy as eating loads of sugar before a meal. I always knew dessert was better when served first.


Image credit: Thomas Gardner

McDonald’s Is Healthy

The body of this ad contains many true statements, such as how the ingredients in McDonald’s cheeseburgers are recommended by the Department of Health. Obviously, if it has bread, meat, milk and potatoes, that combo meal must be healthy! I genuinely love McDonald’s and I almost miss a time when we could be convinced that it’s healthy.


Image credit: Thomas Gardner

Cigarettes Are Healthy

Good news, not only is McDonald’s healthy, smoking is too! You can make an afternoon of smoking and junk food. Relax and endulge as countless years are being added to your life.


Image credit: Tumbleweed

Cigarettes Help Asthma

My wife actually has asthma and I had no idea that cigarettes could help. I’m definitely going to pick up a carton and see what she thinks.


Image credit: Thomas Gardner

Find Alternative Uses for the Product

An age old marketing trick is to increase purchase behavior by helping customers find alternative uses for your product. The ads below spin soap as a weight loss product and listerine as deodorant! Who would believe such an obvious ploy?

The two products that come to my mind in this category are WD-40 and Duct Tape, both of which have entire books and websites devoted to their many unexpected uses. However, if you’re looking for a more modern example of an attempt to increase purchases, check out Gatorade’s current campaign. It’s not enough for athletes to merely drink Gatorade anymore, now there’s an ingenious three step process: Prime, Perform Recover. This convinces athletes to buy and drink three different types of Gatorade for a single event. Bravo Gatorade, bravo.

Being Skinny Just Takes the Right Soap

This product is surely dangerous, if you spend too much time in the shower, you could disappear completely!


Image credit: Thomas Gardner

Listerine Makes Great Deodorant

I can’t tell you how attractive it is when a girl smells like Listerine. Let’s put a teenage male Axe user in a room with a Listerine deodorant girl and see if anything explodes.


Image credit: jbcurio

What’s Your Point?

The point of this post is obviously mostly to poke fun of the ridiculous nature of the ads above. I have a strong affinity for not only the design and craftsmanship that went into advertising from bygone eras, but the boldness with which any claim at all was made.

Beyond being mere entertainment though, there is an important lesson here. With each crazy and offensive vintage ad we saw, we were able to draw a strong parallel to tactics used by designers and marketers like us today. It would be interesting to see how future generations look back and laugh at our work.

Remember that there is no such thing as a new marketing ploy. It’s all been done before, mostly because people today aren’t really that different from the people who the ads above were targeted towards. The next time you’re looking for your next brilliant idea, look back at what proved successful in previous generations and consider how you can combine the same techniques with modern practices.

While you’re at it, take time to consider the implications of your work. Whether you spend your time designing software websites or toothpaste print ads, you’re forced to walk a fine line between satisfying your client and maintaining a degree of integrity. Always maintain an awareness of this battle and make a conscious decision about which side of the line you want to be on.


Advertising is a fascinating industry. The designers, copywriters and marketers that sell products today appeal to the same core values, principles, instincts and desires of their predecessors decades before them.

Hopefully, we can learn both the positive and negative lessons that these past generations have to teach us.