A couple of months ago, my mom dusted off a bunch of vintage magazines she had stored in a large wooden box.
We spent over an hour flipping through them and pointing out many once-accepted misogynistic and racist advertisements.
Apart from those, I laughed at some of the weirdly-worded ads and discovered that some companies were ahead of their time in terms of advertising.
Here are 10 vintage magazine ads that I either laughed at or learned from (or both).
#1 Silver Foil Was A USP
Today, the unique selling point (USP) for many companies relates to how technology makes our lives easier or better. That was true in 1917 too—only their “technology” was apparently wrapping foil and it made your life better by protecting your beloved chocolate from dust and “handling.”
As the ad reminds us, it’s for our sake that it’s wrapped so spectacularly. Thank God for wrapping foil.
#2 Tins Were Also a New Technology
What has been the biggest invention in food preparation? Apparently, it’s the perfected Heinz tin of 1907: “No single step in the whole history of food preparation means so much to you as the perfection of the Heinz Improved Tin.”
As if a full ad describing the new can wasn’t enough, you could also get a free “handsome booklet” about the whole story of Heinz 57.
#3 Mail-Order Parrots For Only $5
I’m not sure how much a parrot costs today, but they’re definitely worth more than $5! If you weren’t sure which “guaranteed talker” you wanted, you could have ordered a free parrot catalog.
In 1915, these talkative pets apparently also came with “full directions and a written guarantee.” What a bonus!
#4 Today’s Creepy Craigslist Ads Are Yesterday’s Vaguely Suspicious Print Ads
You know those ads on Craigslist that promise you something really good with absolutely no details? Yet, no matter how good the offer, you get a sneaking suspicion that replying to it would be the worst decision of your life. Well, I’ve found where they originated!
This 1917 ad promises to make you into whatever woman you want to be. Although the ad lists over a dozen things that can be “cured”, they make no mention of how or what exactly is involved.
Feel skeptical? Maybe you’ll find this reassuring: “You thoroughly enjoy my simple directions and you feel so satisfied with yourself.”
Still don’t believe it? She has social proof: “80,000 women are my friends!”
#5 Advertisers Knew The Power of Promised Beauty
Today’s makeup and skincare products may have changed—but the way they are sold hasn’t.
- Step 1: Blow up the “problem” to lower self-confidence
- Step 2: Offer the solution to boost self-confidence
These two ads promise women that they’ll get rid of their one pesky problem and finally restore their beauty.
People must have really hated freckles in 1915 because there were so many ads for freckle creams in each magazine we looked at.
#6 Everyday Products Connected To Lifestyles
Today, most successful brands are connected to lifestyles and emotions. Corona is synonymous with relaxing on a beach. Axe Body Spay helps you get all the girls. And Dove finally makes you realize you’re naturally beautiful regardless of your size.
Often, people don’t buy products, they buy emotions. Maybe the reason Campbell’s has been around for so long is because they knew this early on.
The 1917 Campbell’s ad above is selling you the idea of being an efficient and therefore emotionally wholesome person.
“Your entire physical condition is improved …. and your mental attitude as well,” the ad reads. “Besides this, their use gives more time and energy for all the other enjoyments of the home.”
Looking to fill your emotional void? Try Campbell’s soup!
#7 Advertising Made Cost Less Important & Branding Relevant
This 1915 ad in McCall’s Magazine explains the importance of advertising and how it was changing business back then.
When faced with competition, the richest company would temporarily lower the price below cost. The poorer companies wouldn’t be able to afford such a price drop, so they’d be forced to either sell out or go bankrupt. The richest company would then have a monopoly. They’d then reduce the quality, hike the price and repeat the process for new competitors.
Advertising is a way to break that cycle, according to the ad. With advertising, it becomes less about price and more about your actual product and “trademark” AKA brand.
“…To-day one manufacturer stands as good a chance as another to win favor for his trade-mark, so long as he backs up his advertising with quality,” the ad reads.
As long as people can identify with your band and you have a quality product, you too also have a chance.
#8 We Needed A Lot of Words to Explain Simple Items
I remember being in high school and taking a lesson about concise writing from Ms. Sherrit. I watched surprised as she made my two-page essay into one.
It’s too bad these advertisers didn’t get the same lesson from Ms. Sherrit. As many old ads show, they were also in the habit of over-explaining.
Personally, I think calling a product “unusually good” evokes enough suspicion to be attention-grabbing; no need to say it in 100 different ways.
#9 Coke Was Always Ahead Of Its Time In Advertising
Most of the ads I looked at were crammed with text. As you’ll see in some of the photos above, instead of eliminating redundancy, the text size was simply reduced to fit within the ad space.
Today, ads are mostly visual and contain minimal text. Coke—always an advertising leader— discovered that this was more effective over 100 years ago.
#10 … And Dodge Also Learned Early On That Less Is More
By 1917, Dodge also learned that they didn’t need 200 words to describe what a car was.
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