Do You See the Stereotypes?

Product: American Optical Company
Date: 1948

It’s 1948. The war is over, but for many Americans Pearl Harbor is still a raw wound. Just a few years earlier, Japanese-Americans were rounded up by the thousands, robbed of their property and sent to internment camps. Anti-Asian sentiment still runs high.

1948 optician ad

Out comes this ad with the headline, Whose eyes are better?

Shocked? Surprised? Nope and nope. Racism (and other -isms) are par for the course in vintage advertising.

It’s the next line that’s the jawdropper:

Neither. American eyes are no better than others.

Wow. I was definitely not expecting that.

I’m pretty sure the American Optical Company knew exactly what it was doing when it ran a picture of an Asian woman and a white woman side by side with a provocative headline. I’d bet money they figured to catch a lot of people who were confident they knew the answer.

Then that little word: Neither.

Pow. Stereotypes exploded.

It probably caught a lot of people by surprise, just as it caught me by surprise more than 60 years later, albeit for different reasons. Whoever penned that ad was a savvy copywriter, skilled at eliciting reaction.


1948 optician ad

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Have a Party Hair-Do, A Yabba Dair-Do..

1950 bobby pin ad

Product: Gayla Bobby Pins
Date: 1950

Ever wanted to look like you were headed to a fancy evening soiree when, in fact, all you were doing was playing tennis? Now you can. All it takes is…wait for it…bobby pins!

Yes, magical bobby pins can transform you from sweaty athlete to coiffed princess in seconds. Well, not just any bobby pins, mind you. Only Gayla bobby pins are the ones that will make you feel like you’re wearing a ball gown and diamonds when driving that scorcher down the line. You’ll have a gay-la old time.


1950 bobby pin ad

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I’ll Have What She’s Having

Product: Listerine
Date: 1962

As the lady in the diner says after Meg Ryan’s famous O performance in When Harry Met Sally, “I’ll have what she’s having.” Honestly, who knew that gargling Listerine could be such a dreamy experience?


1962 Listerine Antiseptic ad

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When White Just Isn’t White Enough

Product: Derma-Royale
Date: 1895

So you have a freckle or two. Maybe a pimple or a blemish. A liver spot? A tan? Don’t pout. Your skin can be lily white again with the miraculous Derma-Royale!

Because like the ad says, “Nothing will cure, clear and whiten the skin so quickly as Derma-Royale.” Its “bleaching” and “brightening” properties (and who doesn’t want bleached skin?) are highly recommended by Physicians with a capital P — so you know it must be good.

1895 Derma-Royale beauty ad

And just in case you’re thinking that something so powerful must also be dangerous, never fear! Derma-Royale is “as harmless as dew,” so harmless that a “whole bottle may be drank without the least serious effect.” And since all you have to do is drink it, need it be said that the product is “so simple a child can use it”?

For all you hard-core doubters and nay-sayers, let’s dig into the guarantee. If Derma-Royale does not quickly remove and cure “any case of eczema, pimples, blotches, moth-patches, brown spots, liver spots, blackheads, ugly or muddy skin, unnatural redness, freckles, tan, or any other cutaneous discolorations or blemishes” the company will pay out $500.

What’s that? It must be the sound of a quack being run out of town.


1895 Derma-Royale beauty ad

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Nostrils as Nature Intended

Product: Universal Nebulizer
Date: 1907

1907 ad for nostril Nebulizer

The most disturbing thing about this ad is not the close-up of the vaguely obscene Nebulizer, the intimately detailed description of how to use it, or even the placid expression of the woman with one shoved up her nose.

No, the most disturbing thing about this ad is the offer to use the Nebulizer on trial for 10 days and then SEND IT BACK if you don’t like it.

Please tell me they didn’t re-sell the ones that were sent back. Or that they sterilized them. Or something. Please?


1907 ad for nostril Nebulizer

Click to enlarge

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