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Vintage Ads and How They Reflect Modern Times

By Jo Marshall
Share to PinterestVintage Ads and How They Reflect Modern Times
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Before we had the internet and its pop-ups and spam emails, radio and television advertisements ruled the airwaves, billboards, and the pages of popular magazines. They mirrored the culture, portraying fashion, language, and trends of the time while also luring consumers into purchasing the latest products available on the market. While those vintage ads may look or sound different from modern advertisements, their messages invoke a sense of nostalgia, and we realize that while times change, they also stay the same.

01

Campbell's Tomato Soup

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Easily the most popular flavor of soups in the Campbell Soup Company line, the familiar red-and-white-labeled cans first appeared on grocery shelves in 1898. The famous M'm! M'm! Good! jingle hit the radio waves in 1931, and soon after, everybody recognized the tune. By the 1950s, TV commercials appeared with the same message and tune. Campbell's soup was easy to make, nutritious, and satisfying. After World War II, school cafeterias started serving it with grilled cheese sandwiches, and a tradition was born. Who knew it would become the ultimate comfort food combination for generations to come?

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02

The importance of meat at noon

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Big players in the food industry have been grooming public opinion for decades. They've created enormously effective ads and, in the early days, often had the American Medical Association's stamp of approval. In 1940, cattle production was at its lowest. The meat industry put out a series of ads to boost sales, touting the importance of a meat-heavy lunch, which they claimed would create a "healthy and vigorous nation" by adding important B vitamins to the diet and improving the efficiency of workers. The campaign worked. The meat industry continued in later decades with their Beef. It's What's for Dinner ads in the late 1990s being the most popular, probably because they featured the iconic voice of Sam Elliot.

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03

Accounting machines changed how we do math

Electric adding machines were a marvel when they appeared on the scene in the early 1950s, and the Sensimatic was an exciting feat of technology for the time. Before these mechanical versions arrived, accounting and bookkeeping were very different professions, requiring long work hours, acute concentration, and attention to detail. This new generation of calculators allowed workers to post charges and credits to customer accounts on ledger cards faster, with higher accuracy. By the 1970s, however, these bulky machines gave way to pocket calculators, which were cheaper and better. Today, we no longer need a machine at all, thanks to the internet and computers, where the answer to any mathematical problem is a click away.

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04

The Tupperware legacy

In 1946, Earl Tupper, a college-educated inventor, created one of the most influential home products in history. He developed a more durable type of clear, non-toxic plastic and then created containers for serving and storing food. Tupper also devised an airtight seal that was super-effective yet required an extra step — one that fans later dubbed "burping" — to remove any excess air in the container. You could only get the products through home parties hosted by housewives and career women alike wanting to earn some extra cash.

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05

Swan Soap, a multi-purpose product

Most of us would cringe a bit today if a company advertised their products by filling a page with lots of bare-bottomed babies, but back in the day, company's were sure it was a great way to grab the attention of the women who purchased soap and other products for the family. Swan soap was a four-in-one product, suitable not only for bathing but also for dishes, washing clothes, and other household tasks. Though they'd probably avoid naked baby art images for advertising today, some companies are taking cues from these early products to create environmentally friendly, multi-purpose personal and home care products to cut back on packaging and resources.

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06

Public donates binoculars to the U.S. Navy

With a budget of over $700 billion, it's hard to imagine that the U.S. military would ever request equipment loans from the public. But that's just what happened during World War I and II. There was a higher demand for optical glass due to the increased use of submarines by enemies. Binoculars allowed more personnel the ability to keep an eye out for them. The government started an ad campaign asking to borrow Zeiss or Bausch and Lomb binoculars and spy glasses. In return, the government paid those who loaned their binoculars $1, along with a promise to return them if at all possible. The ads were effective. More than 51,000 people answered the military's appeal. The military had only one pair that they were unable to return to the owner at the end of the war.

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07

Building a better Pop-Tart

Kellogg's created its still-popular toaster pastry, Pop-Tarts, in the mid-1960s. A few years later, Nabisco released their version, Toastettes, which had a thinner crust. Soon after, Nabisco added a glaze on top and created its brown sugar and cinnamon version, followed by an orange marmalade and peach flavor. Unfortunately, the brand was discontinued in 2002. But nostalgia is a powerful thing, and a decade later, fans started an online petition to bring them back. Their efforts failed, but our love for the tasty treat shall not wane.

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08

Volkswagen: The ugly car with lots of fans

From the first moment it appeared in car dealerships around the world, drivers have had a love/hate relationship with Volkswagen Beetle. Some hated its rounded appearance, while others disliked the fact that the concept for their design came from Adolf Hitler. There was no shortage of nicknames for the car, from the Turtle to the Cockroach to the Ladybird and the Hitler Sled. But the VW found a dedicated fan base in America, and by 1968, became the top-selling car in the world. The company successfully released a new model in the late 1990s, but sales dropped in the late-2000s. Chances are, there are still thousands of dedicated fans around the globe.

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09

Kentucky Fried Chicken, a recipe for the world

Few people don't recognize the face of Colonel Sanders, the creator of what would become the world's second-largest fast-food enterprise, Kentucky Fried Chicken. He originally sold his chicken out of a gas station in 1930 and then moved across the street to a bigger location. Once the company went national, ads appeared in local newspapers, offering discount coupons and great deals on full meals to feed families. To this day, despite society leaning toward a more healthy diet, people just can't seem to get enough of the Colonel's recipe, especially in Japan. The company adapted menu items for Japanese culture, and it's even a common choice for holiday dinner.

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10

Mars, Incorporated and its many candies

Mars, Incorporated, is a massive global food and pet care company that has several subsidiaries, including Mars Wrigley, which produces popular candies like M&Ms, Snickers, Orbit, Skittles, Starburst, and a long list of other confections tied to our childhood memories. The company connected its marketing strategy for Starburst candy with the opening of the blockbuster movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, creating a new flavor, Royal Berry Punch. But it was the 2007 "Berries and Creme" television ad featuring an oddly clad character performing "The Little Lad Dance" that grabbed our attention, for better or for worse. It reappeared again in 2021, going viral on TikTok.

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11

Miller beer, driving, and drinking

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In the early 1980s, the Ad Council launched the first campaign to deter drinking and driving. Their first slogan, "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk," was successful. It allowed the public to feel bolder about stepping in and preventing someone who had one too many from getting behind the wheel. Beer companies, like Miller and Anheuser-Busch, got in on the action by the early '90s, launching ad campaigns to urge drinkers to call a cab. These campaigns seemed to work, and there was a 30% decline in the number of deaths by 1998. Today, however, drinking and driving are still an issue. In the U.S. alone, 30 people die every day in alcohol-related accidents.

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12

Pioneer Audio and visual appeal

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The stereo market exploded in the 1960s and 70s, especially among college-aged consumers, and Pioneer was one of the leading manufacturers. The technology that emerged continued getting more technical, but at the same time, more user-friendly. Soon after, the market expanded into higher-quality sound systems for cars. The ad describes the company's latest innovation released in 2000, a flashier control center for a vehicle's entertainment center. Pioneer added lights and full-motion graphics, taking the user interface and its visual appeal to a whole new level and giving people more buttons to play with in traffic jams.

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13

Holobyte: Tetris

A Russian software engineer developed the game in 1984 and had no other aspirations in the beginning other than creating a puzzle game for fun. He shared it with co-workers who copied it to floppy disks, and soon, the game was out in the world. It didn't take long for software companies to see Tetris' potential, and the greed commenced, with software and video execs vying for control. Yet, Tetris managed to survive, capturing the world's attention and becoming the addictive, straightforward, yet captivating game we love today.

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14

Sony personal TVs

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By the mid-1960s, the golden age of television had subsided, and a new era had begun. New TV genres were emerging. Syndicated sitcoms like "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "The Andy Griffith Show." Exciting sci-fi shows and a slew of westerns and crime dramas grabbed the nation's attention. And that's where the problems started. Households across the country clashed, arguing over what shows to watch. It was a dark time. Sony's solution was simple — the 500-U Personal Television. It had a five-inch screen with an optional, snap-on rechargeable battery pack so everyone could watch what they wanted, anywhere, anytime. Genius.

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15

Mister Donut and his Dunkin' brother

A doughnut isn't just any doughnut when it has a heart-shaped center, and Mister Donut offered 144 varieties of them. The 1960s was a decade of innovations and entrepreneurship when everyday people from the U.S. and Canada could become successful owners of a doughnut franchise for no more than a $25,000 investment. Mister Donut came about when two brothers-in-law broke off their partnership in 1955 to start two separate doughnut chains. One started the Mister Donut franchises; the other founded Dunkin' Donuts. Years later, the Dunkin' corporation took over as franchiser of all the Mister Donut stores in the U.S., most of which changed their name to Dunkin' Donuts.

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16

Big Frankie is elusive

Aurora Plastics Corporation, a toy, and hobby manufacturing company, created plastic model kits of airplanes and automobiles, along with TV and movie figures. They released Big Frankie the Gigantic Frankenstein, a popular monster model, in 1961. Once completed, it was 19 inches tall. The company stopped making them in 1964. It spurred a frenzy among toy, model, and monster collectors who scoured the globe to get their hands on what many still consider the grail of monster models. Although Moebius, another toy and hobby company, secured a license and reissued the earlier kits, don't count on finding one under your Christmas tree anytime soon.

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17

Pepsi, for the young at heart

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In the 1960s, one of the counterculture movement's catchphrases was, "Never trust anyone over 30." Big brands like Pepsi recognized that they needed to target teenagers and young adults with their advertising, reversing old tactics that relied on straightforward information about a product. The hipper Pepsi ads depicted beach scenes, hanging out with friends, partying, and being young and free. The soft drink bottler coined the term "Pepsi Generation" to describe their groovy new consumers.

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18

Camel cigarettes for better digestion

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, even doctors smoked. Cigarette companies battled with each other, insisting that their brand was the healthiest. RJ Reynolds, the maker of Camel cigarettes, declared that "more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette." In 1937, the company released a professional-looking ad featuring an Olympic hurdler, Glenn "Slats" Hardin, who declared that his smoking not only eased strain and tension but also helped his digestion. No research ever backed those claims, yet it did start connecting the dots between smoking and cancer by the 1950s.

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19

Smoke a pipe

In the 1930s and 40s, two-thirds of the top box office stars in Hollywood endorsed tobacco of some sort. Pipe companies were constantly scouting for young converts, luring them in with ads portraying adventurous or successful-looking men, puffing away, often with a woman sitting beside him, gazing at him in adoration. They also offered special prices on unique kits to get them started. For just $1, you could mail in a form and order a sampler kit, complete with your signature engraved on the pipe's stem, and also receive three trial packets of tobacco.

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20

Don't mix gas and whiskey

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935 during the Great Depression to put Americans to work. The WPA also sponsored actors, musicians, writers, and artists. One of the projects tasked artists to create motivational posters for the public, while others designed posters to warn workers about safety hazards on-the-job. Robert Lachanmann created the "Don't mix 'em" poster in 1937, a color lithograph, most likely warning workers to avoid drinking alcohol while driving, though it's a bit unclear. However, the warning is just as pertinent today.

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21

Nail polish allure

Some of the ads from long ago may have had some commonalities with modern times, but we'll likely find others to be shockingly offensive today. Many of the ads for popular products depicted women bending over backward to make their husbands happy. The ads sometimes showed repercussions, such as a man spanking his wife for not serving fresh coffee or, in this case, a husband ignoring his wife because she wasn't wearing the most alluring shade of nail polish. Historically, the advertising sector hasn't been too motivated to clean up the problem. Consumers continue to be exposed to problematic images and ideas through advertising, though the messages may not be as blatant as they were in the past.

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22

Wrigley's gum relevance

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Some brands stay relevant because they change with the times, while others are a comforting reminder that all's right with the world, for the moment at least. Wrigley's Juicy Fruit and Spearmint chewing gums have been around since 1893. Doublemint made its debut in 1914. Sure, the flavors may not last a long time, but opening the familiar wrapper and biting into the stick for that first refreshing burst of flavor is pure nostalgia.

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23

Jazz queen on a saxophone

Scroll through a list of famous saxophone players from the 1920s, and it will be a miracle if any women pop up. But, this 1926 ad depicts a woman playing the saxophone while also encouraging women to take up the instrument. It was a sign of the changing times. Women had earned the right to vote in 1920, and they were embracing new ways of dressing and expressing their personal freedoms in the Jazz Age.

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24

Boiler boss

Most people have no idea what boilers are today. We flip a switch or light a pilot, and we have heat. But boilers were a necessity in the 1920s, along with the literal tons of coal they required to heat homes and businesses through the winter. A coalman made the rounds by horse and wagon, delivering sacks of coal to customers. As the ad says, the boiler was boss and had an insatiable appetite. Shoveling coal into the furnace to keep the fires burning was a never-ending, dirty job. Thankfully, by the end of the decade, a majority of homes had electricity and could kiss the coalman and all that coal dust goodbye.

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25

Coca-Cola sing-alongs

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It's sort of reassuring for products that were popular decades ago to continue to be relevant favorites today. Most people have heard the story about Coca-Cola being invented by a pharmacist in the late 1880s. And, it's no secret that it may have contained a tad of cocaine extract at some point. The good news is, pharmacists, resolved that issue by 1929 and removed any traces. If there was ever a modern brand that benefitted from creative advertising, it's Coca-Cola. For decades, their catchy tunes have inspired a desire to lock arms and sing along with the world while enjoying a refreshing beverage, even if it was for just a moment or two.

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26

Wives needed in Canada!

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In 1910, the Canadian government initiated a drive to bring skilled farmers and laborers to settle the wilds of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Around the same time, ads appeared urging "nice girls" to head to the Canadian West to marry one of the 20,000 "shy" men needing wives. The ads bordered on desperation, with no flowery words of love or respect. What woman could resist such an attractive offer?

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27

Insurance: Plan for your next disaster

Disasters happen, and insurance company advertisements made sure that point was clear in the 1900s. Whether you found yourself on board a train during a massive crash or a loved one fell ill, insurance would swoop in and save you with a big check, much like the promises we hear from insurance ads today. Benjamin Franklin co-founded the first insurance company in the mid-1700s, and they've been going strong ever since, despite scandals and shady practices throughout their existence.

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28

Bock beer and a billy goat

In modern times, advertisers are careful not to show the entire anatomy of an animal, revealing whether it's male or female. In the late 19th century, that didn't seem to be the case. We can appreciate the beauty and artistic detail of the ad and the product being advertised, but the highly detailed drawing of the goat and his anatomy is a bit much.

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