Last year, I wrote a rather angry article, Michelle Obama and Downton Abbey. It is well known that the First Lady is fond of the show, as I have been. But it allows people to look back at that time and say, “Oh, we are so superior!” You see, we don’t treat gays and former prostitutes quite as badly as we used to. Ain’t we great?! Meanwhile, we allow our own injustices to continue on. And I’m not talking about ones that are so ahead of our time that we don’t even know about them. I’m talking about things like the selective enforcement of cannabis laws that manages to label huge numbers of young black men as felons for the rest of their lives.
So it’s always dangerous to feel too smug about how enlightened you are. I totally agree that it is best that we no longer hang witches in this country. (But don’t consider it enlightened that we didn’t burn them; the Catholic Church made that illegal in 785.) So I was excited to see that Business Insider had published an article, 26 Shockingly Offensive Vintage Ads. Some of them aren’t actually so bad — more simply reflecting the times. There is, for example, a 1940 Plymouth ad that shows a white couple, and attending to them is a uniformed black man carrying suitcases — and very happy in his job! The ad is conflating owning a Plymouth with being rich (that is, having a uniformed black servant). Charles Howard is shown in the movie Seabiscuit as having a black servant, and I don’t recall anyone complaining that it was racist.
But most of the ads are horrible. There is a 1950s Schlitz beer ad (see above) that shows a kitchen. A woman is holding a skillet that has smoke floating out of it; with her other hand, she has a handkerchief up to her eyes. Here husband has his arm around her, smiling and pointing to two bottles of Schlitz on the table. He says, “Anyway, you didn’t burn the Schlitz!”
The best example is a 1950s Van Heusen ad. Now in a certain way, this isn’t really racist. It is highly ethnocentric. And it implies that all Americans are white. And that America is 80% of the planet. But what the ad is saying is that unless you are a tribal chieftain in the jungles of Africa, you wear Van Heusen shirts.
Okay, I was overstating above. The ad is racist. But it isn’t anywhere near as racist as all the photoshopped images of Obama as witch doctor that were so popular among conservatives from pretty much the moment he took office. It is not making a cultural comparison as in the Van Heusen ad; it is saying that our president is a primitive from another continent (and even time).
What was most striking about the Business Insider article is that right after it was, The 20 Most Hilarious And Clever Print Ads Ever. Mostly, I didn’t find them that great. But the two page DHL ad is nothing short of brilliant. However, it is quickly followed by the Bijouteries Natan: The first remote control ad. You’ve got to see this one:
I suppose I have no reason to complain. I was promised “clever” ads; there was no promise that they wouldn’t be offensive. But here’s the thing: I’m sure that the type of person who reads Business Insider today is the kind of person who would have found the Van Heusen ad “hilarious and clever” in the 1950s. And there is the point for Alyson Shontell and Kim Bhasin and Patricia Laya (the writers of those articles) and Michelle Obama and you and, most of all, me. We haven’t landed anywhere. In 20 years, that Bijouteries Natan ad is going to look totally sexist — unless we decide that sexual relationships are simply going to be pay-to-play. We must look to the future. We have come a long way, but on an infinite trip, that doesn’t mean much. Looking back at how awful we used to be is just a way of ignorantly showing how awful we now are.
In 2008, the people of “liberal” California voted to deny same-sex couples the right to marry. That was just six years ago.