Thursday, October 2, 2014

Better Knowledge through Advertising?

As someone who majored in cultural anthropology some 40 years ago while going to college in New York City, I have always been fascinated by methods used to get insights into culture.

One thing my anthropology professors taught me was to step outside my own culture, and try to look at is as an outsider might.  You can't study other cultures, after all, until you understand how your own culture works.

Have you ever wondered at these little parts of American culture?  These were questions posed to me as part of my study of anthropology, and some of them are as true now as they were in my New York City college 40 plus years ago:

-why do doctors in our country traditionally wear white coats?

-why do we prefer square or rectagular rooms to round rooms?

-why do things have to come in three?  We believe that deaths of famous people come in threes.  Our jokes may demand three people involved to make it "feel right". For example, there are many variations of the genie granting three wishes to someone type joke.  Or, the "three people walk into a ____" type joke.  Or, even three legged animal jokes.

(I'll stop at three questions.  Most of you will feel better if I do.)

One of the best ways to learn about culture is through advertising.  I've always enjoyed vintage ads, which combines the study of anthropology with the study of history.  I own some World War II magazines, and my favorite parts are the ads.  They reflect both history and culture.

If you want a fascinating glimpse into what we as a people were like just a few years ago, check out these vintage ads.  An innocent ad for a tie shows a historic role of men and women.  Another ad promotes a product bragging it makes people as fat as pigs.  And still another ad promotes television watching for children. (Warning, at least one of the other vintage ads shown is not what you would call G or PG).

There are some ads in there so offensive to our modern cultural training that I dare not even describe them, especially the one featuring the man trying to get a female employee to try a new postage machine. 

Makes you wonder about some of our modern ads and what they show about our culture.

What do you think today's ads will teach about our world to those of tomorrow?


  1. Oh my goodness! What interesting ads! The one about the tie ... oh boy. Times sure have changed. Thankfully. It's an interesting thought, to study adds to learn about culture. I never thought of that. Thanks! I enjoyed your post.

  2. I had to giggle at the one claiming television is good for our children. What a great retrospective. I love vintage ads, too, especially as someone who owned a print magazine for years and sold advertising. Says a lot about how times have changed but also about how the media influences our thinking! Fun post.

  3. I had to laugh at most of them...It's amazing why we buy things...I'm also amaze when they do fashion (Clothing) and things a skirt is a bargain at $500 bucks,
    Coffee is on

  4. It is amazing that studying ads can tell us so much about its society, people's ways of thinking, and values. This is a great post.

  5. Loved the old ads!! now when I watch current ones I will look at them differently, our society has certainly changed a lot since those old ones and yes what will the ones now say about us in 20 or 30 years time?

  6. Your questions about established things made me think. I guess doctors wear white because it's easy to bleach and it would show the patient any previous operations they might not like. I don't see many old ads nowadays. I'll always remember one that used to be on the trams in Melbourne, Australia. It showed a female packed inside a carriage with many men, and squeezing past them to reach a seat with the caption: "That's why I eat Vitawheat."

  7. You blog made an interesting and thought provoking reading. In fact in India we are going through the pangs for the Americas in the 70's and 80's. What makes it doubly noteworthy is that it is at such an accelerated phase that it has left and entire generation confused and without an anchor.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Wow! Such interesting ads! I think it's great to see what society is like based on them. I haven't watched TV in years so am not as up to date with advertisements except on billboards and the occasional magazine. ;) <3


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