Looking Back: Controversial Marketing in the ’50s

Marketing is an ever-changing industry. When the culture shifts, marketing shifts. As social media transforms, marketing transforms along with it. Looking back at the evolution of marketing and advertising over the last 50 years is like opening a history textbook; so much can be learned from the tactics, styles and strategies of mid-20th century advertisers.

Let’s step back in time. If you’ve seen Mad Men, you should have a vivid mental picture of an advertising agency in the late ’50s/early ’60s. In this memorable era, the industry was all about big-time male executives and heavy drinking over lunch hour (no, that’s not just a part of the show).

Some refer to the ’50s as “the advertiser’s dream decade.” Economically, World War II had ended, postwar frugality faded to the background, and Americans were ready to spend: A dream for marketers. In addition — socially and politically — the times were changing. As the media and newspapers reflected this, so did the controversially iconic ads that represent the “dream decade.”

Offensive.

Controversial Marketing in the 50's

The above advertisement’s theme was an extremely common marketing move in the ’50s. At the time, women were almost always the ones doing the shopping for the family, which resulted in ads tailored to humorously and sarcastically showcase something all women, as wives or mothers, were missing.

Controversial Marketing in the 50's

Obviously today you don’t see many ads quite like the openly sexist ads of the “dream decade,” but there is definitely still a lot of “evolving” to do. For now, 2014’s Always #LikeAGirl campaign was a good step in the right direction.

Dove’s 2004 Real Beauty campaign is also one of my favorites.

Lies

While some “dream decade” ads were offensive, others were downright lies: Actors were paid by advertisers to pose as doctors endorsing cigarette brands. The “doctors” were shown claiming certain cigarettes were better for you than others. Of course this eventually led to government regulations on tobacco industry advertising in 1965, so arguably those ads served an important purpose.

Controversial Marketing in the 50's

Today, in Europe, cigarette packs advertise death (literally) on all cigarette packaging — no matter the brand. It’s the law.

A Look Ahead

It’s nice to look back and see that this industry learns from mistakes. Views on gender and tobacco have changed and continue to change — and so has the advertising and marketing fields. Looking ahead, with social media prevalent and growing, it is — and will continue to be — easier for audiences and consumers to hold a seller accountable.

As marketers and advertisers, we get to capture and reflect history. It’s an exciting industry to be a part of; looking ahead is just as important as looking back.