13 Most Evil Vintage Ads in History

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Advertising? Badvertising – especially when it comes to certain products and ad campaigns from a bygone era. Business ethics often seem to go out the window when the will to sell is the bottom line, but who knew how bad things got? Heck, as this first image makes plain, even Santa Claus chugged away on Luckies, and if Santa did wouldn’t kids want to as well? Then even when lies about the commodities on display weren’t being sold, discrimination reared its ugly head, or simply the ghastly face of a red-and-yellow clown.

Camel Cigarettes

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Choosing the most evil ads from Camel is like picking sweets from a candy store. In the early 1990s the brand came under fire when it was alleged cartoon mascot Joe Camel was aimed at children, but further back in time its ads were even more sinister, insinuating that smoking is actually beneficial for one’s health. Oh the irony. Several 1930s ads urged consumers to smoke Camels ‘For Digestion’s Sake’, while our favourite is the pseudo-scientific campaign that reassured people: ‘More Doctors Smoke Camels than any Other Cigarette!’ Did more of those same doctors die younger too?

Lucky Strikes

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More evil from the mouth of yesterday’s cigarette advertisers with another classic from Lucky Strikes. This one again uses surveys conducted on doctors to sell the pernicious products, while implying in true fattist fashion that lighting up is the first step towards a healthy lifestyle. Even as reports that smoking cigarettes could cause lung cancer and other diseases began to emerge, the cigarette manufacturers stuck to their smoking guns, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that the weight of evidence began to tell, leading to laws requiring warning labels on tobacco products.

Marlboro Cigarettes

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Tobacco giant Marlboro’s most famous and successful advertising icon is probably the rugged Marlboro Man cowboy (conceived in the 1950s but with a legacy decades-long) which naturally appealed to ideals of outdoorsy, spittoon-pinging masculinity. Less well-known but more perverse by far were these ads, which appeared in 1950, featuring a doe-eyed bouncing baby talking to its parents and offering reasons why they should smoke the cursed cancer sticks. Unsurprisingly, passive smoking didn’t figure among the babbled endorsements.

Tipalet Cigarettes

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Playing, as so many cigarette ads have done, on the notion that smoking is sexy and – bad breath notwithstanding – sure to appeal to the opposite sex, we found this priceless ad from lesser-known flavored cigarette brand Tipalet. The suggestive slogan, ‘Blow in her face and she’ll follow you anywhere’ may as well have just erased the word ‘follow’ and repeated the opening word of the promise. These were the days when smoking caused sexual arousal more terminal than cancer.

Winston Cigarettes

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Winston cigarettes were onto winner in the 1950s when their ad agency came up with the enduringly catchy slogan, ‘Winston tastes good – like a cigarette should.’ It’s a pity the same can’t be said for the people who found the jingle tripping off their tongues too easily and buying into the deadly products, making Winston the best-selling cigarette brand in the US. Once again, smoke-flavored sex appeal was the ideal being sold. Just look at those teeth: not a nicotine stain in sight.

Chesterfield Cigarettes

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It’s nice to see the smiling face of a world leader in-waiting not only endorsing the old cancer sticks but sending them by the box load to friends and loved ones in the 50s: ‘That’s the merriest Christmas any smoker can have – Chesterfield mildness plus no unpleasant aftertaste.’ Still, it might leave a somewhat unpleasant aftertaste associated with the memory of the 40th (brightest?) US President. Reagan wasn’t alone though; the ‘Gipper’ was one of a long list of actors and athletes who lined up to convince the public that cigarettes weren’t harmful – despite the claims being made by science.

Schenley’s Bourbon Whiskey

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Inevitably an unhealthy amount of cigarette brands are going to make a list of the most evil vintage ads, but their alcoholic complements are almost as bad when it comes to deviously encouraging the consumption of substances with decidedly ill effects on our wellbeing. We’ve singled out this particular ad for Schenley’s Bourbon from yesteryear as it also reinforces some unsavoury racial stereotyping – that of the African American Uncle Tom figure obsequiously submissive to the white master whom he serves. Yessir.

N.K. Fairbank Fairy Soap

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This outrageously racist old time ad for N.K. Fairbank Co (the company of a Chicago industrialist which ceased operations in 1903) could hardly be any more prejudiced. Advertising Fairy soap, it portrays a white girl dressed in a pretty dress asking a black girl wearing rags and no shoes: ‘Why doesn’t your mamma wash you with fairy soap?’ Of course race relations in America were very different back then, but faced with institutional racism this ingrained you begin to see what sort of challenge the Civil Rights Movement faced.

Chrysler Plymouth

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The racism in this 1940s ad for the Chrysler Plymouth is painful to see, though as some have noted is also good historical evidence of America’s bigoted past. Would a black chauffeur really be so excited about driving this latest automobile model? Or in reality would he be too busy hauling baggage and keeping his mouth shut to be grinning so widely and sharing in America’s excitement ‘over the luxury ride’? Let’s be honest: the only reason the chauffeur is there is to reaffirm the social supremacy of the white folks ready to be driven in the background – and those with the cash to make the purchase.

Phillips-Van Heusen Shirts

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This ad for American apparel giants Van Heusen – the world’s largest shirt company – was created in 1952. The prejudice is patent: four white men and a fifth tribesman looking slightly out of place are colourfully illustrated, while the caption reads: ‘4 out of 5 men want Oxfords… in these new Van Heusen styles.’ Mind you, back then Van Heusen wasn’t shy about its sexism either; other ads of the time depicted women submissively serving their men tea (‘show her it’s a man’s world) and even comically being spanked. (No objections to the latter mind you.)

Macdonald’s Restaurants

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At first sight, there may not seem anything intrinsically bad about this ad, but knowing the impact the world’s largest purveyor of cardiovascular time-bombs has had on the world, and that benignly grinning clown looks more evil by the second. Apart from the homogenising effect the golden arches have had on the global cultural landscape, McDonald’s ethics have come under criticism for the way they treat suppliers, staff, customers and the environment. And even putting aside rational argument, aren’t clowns the most evil invention ever dreamt up to entertain kids?

Love’s Baby Soft Cosmetics

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In this last ad it’s less the product – soft fragrance products – than the delivery of the message that makes it morally wayward. The photo shows a girl infantile enough to be cradling a cuddly toy, yet made up like a Parisian madam, with the slogan: ‘Because innocence is sexier than you think’? Call us over-enlightened, but to us the sexualisation of one so young smacks of creepiness dressed in the dirtiest of raincoats. It’s disturbing what came out of 70s in the same cultural current as the Jodie Foster of Taxi Driver and the Brooke Shields of Pretty Baby. Somebody call the vigilante mob.

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