An old ad for Pep cereal says that “the harder a wife works, the cuter she looks.”
That ad shows the 1950s shirt-and-tie businessman doting on his apron-clad housewife, who holds a duster in her helpless little hand. She thrives on cooking, cleaning and dusting because “I always get my vitamins” from the cereal.
One ad for pants says “it’s nice to have a girl around the house” while a man rests his foot on a woman’s head, which is attached to a tiger rug. One ad for neckties urges readers to “show her it’s a man’s world;” a man wearing a shirt and tie sits upright in bed with hands behind his head, while his wife kneels at the bedside in her robe, holding a breakfast tray.
Another vintage ad reads “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” Then there’s one with Santa Claus smoking Lucky Strikes, or another in which Santa holds a carton of Camels by the caption “Merry Christmas for every smoker.” How about an ad for cocaine toothache drops, complete with two children playing next to a picket fence?
These actual ads, printed decades ago, are unacceptable today, whether in a magazine or on a billboard. Same goes with racist ads from the Jim Crow era, such as the Bull Durham tobacco series with unflattering caricatures of African Americans.
This brings us to a bus billboard that was banned last month by King County. Rather than sell a product, the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign wants to spread a message: “Israeli War Crimes: Your Tax Dollars at Work.” The non-commercial ad was slated to run 30 days on 12 buses in Seattle starting Dec. 27 — the two-year anniversary of Israeli military action in Gaza. The ad, which shows children looking at a pile of rubble, would have graced 1 percent of King County Metro’s total bus fleet.
The ad immediately stirred criticism and fear of violence. Some opponents accuse the ad of demonizing Israel. The Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign maintains the ad’s intent is to educate, not inflame.
While the ad certainly conveys an overt political message, any racist undertones are open to interpretation. King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer heightened the controversy by pushing a review of Metro advertising policies, saying the ad spreads a “message of hate” on public buses. Following a moratorium on Metro’s non-commercial advertising, the ACLU got involved. That tends to happen when the government challenges the right to free speech.
Considering the concerns generated by media reports, the county could not stand idle. By challenging the ad, King County fueled a fire that otherwise would have quickly flickered. In the end, the media attention ensured the ad’s message reached hundreds of thousands of people beyond those 12 bus routes. By that definition, the ad itself was a success.
The more fringe a political group, the more attention-seeking it must become, which is why this controversy carries a silver lining. Unlike those stereotypically sexist and racist ads of the past, this bus ad is recognized as an unsettling novelty, rather than reflecting mainstream public attitudes.
When it comes to cultural sensitivity in everyday advertising, the world really has come a long way, baby.