The Norman Transcript

N-town stories

July 12, 2014

Ads you will never see again

OU journalism professor Fred Beard, author of “Humor in the Advertising Business: Theory, Practice, and Wit,” offered his take on a collection of ads taken from the archives of The Norman Transcript.

They don’t make ‘em like they used to.

When it comes to advertising, that’s probably a good thing.

There was a time when advertisers could make all sorts of wild claims without delivering on their promises.

Now, of course, that’s not the case.

Ads are the gold standard of trustworthiness ... O.K., well that’s not true, but at least advertisers are inclined to stay somewhat honest, if only to avoid a lawsuit.

Over the last 125 years the national culture has changed dramatically and the ads have evolved to meet consumers’ demands and sense of good taste.

Advertisers will always hunt for your attention and the money that follows.

Some things never change, but ads are a decent reflection of the society that spawned them.

With that in mind, let’s step back in time for a lighthearted look at ads that would never fly today.

OU journalism professor Fred Beard, author of “Humor in the Advertising Business: Theory, Practice, and Wit,” offered his take on a collection of ads taken from the archives of The Norman Transcript.

{Dodd’s Kidney Pills, 1906}

A 1906 edition of the paper offers three examples of patent medicine ads, including this one for Dodd’s Kidney Pills. It’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of patent medicine advertising in the history of advertising.,” Beard said.

From the 1870s to the 1920s, more money was spent on patent medicine advertising than any other product category. People had legitimate reasons for using patent medicines. Doctors were often few and far between (and often poorly trained) and many patent medicines did, in fact, make people feel better. Eighty proof will do that for you. It would be easy to write an entire book about the history of patent medicine advertising. Handbills for quack nostrums were among those first circulated in the streets of London in the 1500s.

I actually don’t know how common this non-display format was back in the early 20th century. I suspect the publisher and editors of The Transcript wouldn’t allow it today.

Ads for these types of products seem especially odd to us today but what passed for healthcare back then was very different. Doctors were often scarce and poorly trained, especially in rural areas and small towns. People had to treat their ailments as best they could, which explains the ubiquity of patent medicines.

It’s easy to conclude that people in the past were especially gullible when it comes to patent medicines. But before we’re too hard on them, it’s worth considering that “Dodd’s Backache Pills” (Extra Strength) are still available today on In addition, we were recently treated to the spectacle of Dr. Oz testifying before Congress regarding his alleged role in helping to hawk miracle diet pills and cure-alls.

{Larsh & Waggoner, 1906}

These proprietors knew something about effective newspaper advertising. What reader could ignore the compelling headline, short copy and emphasis on low price.

Local advertisers during this period often used a lot of white space to attract attention, partly because their visual options were very limited.

How successful they were with the “Undertakers Goods” is another issue.

{Horse ad, 1906}

Mr. Rhoades probably had the right idea advertising his horse for stud service and apparently a lot of confidence in his horse ($15 to “insure colt”).

{Donkey ad, 1906}

While it may seem a little odd to us that someone would advertise a stud service, ranching and farming were tremendously important in places like Oklahoma in 1906. Of course, this also explains Mr. McDaniel’s ad for “Young Henry.”

{Chesterfield, 1964}

The Chesterfield ad from 1964 is a great example of both a cigarette ad and the testimonial tactic. Advertising, of course, has a long history with tobacco overall and cigarettes, in particular.

The first display ad for tobacco ran in the New York Daily Advertiser in 1789. In 1964, the year this Chesterfield ad ran, more than forty percent of adults were smokers and that was the year the U.S. Surgeon General released the first report on cigarette smoking.

Obviously, society’s attitudes regarding cigarettes have changed a great deal since then and we’ll never again see cigarette ads in many media outlets, although cigarette marketers still spend a lot of advertising dollars in magazines and outdoor.

The testimonial tactic also has a long history in cigarette advertising. They were extremely common in the 1920s.

{Marlboro, 1974}

The 1974 Marlboro ad featuring the iconic “Marlboro Man” really captures what was happening by then in regards to cigarette consumption and advertising.

By then, cigarette ads had been banned from the broadcast media and tobacco marketers had lots of money to spend everywhere else, which helps explain this large-space ad.

The 1970s also saw all the tobacco marketers introduce low-tar versions of their brands, like the Marlboro Lights.

{Gordon’s Specialty Co., 1964}

The emphasis on “family” and “the homemaker” that we see in the 1964 ads for the Transcript and the GE kitchen range is quite consistent with both the 1950s and the 1960s.

The family unit was much more central to most people’s lives than it is today and gender roles were much more rigid and well defined.

By the end of the 1970s, the image of a pretty, perfectly coiffed and fashionably dressed homemaker like we see in the kitchen appliance ad would certainly lack the appeal that it had in the 1960s.

{Zenith, 1964}

A solid state color TV might not be much to brag about today, but in 1964 it was worth the asking price of nearly $600.

Technology changes, but the message here is a familiar one: You need a new TV.

{Motorola, 1994}

While cell phones are ubiquitous now, not long ago they were luxury items — Huge, cumbersome luxury items.

“Car phones” probably won’t be making a comeback, but these clunking Goliaths paved the way for the world of constant contact we live in today.

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