16 Vintage Makeup Ads That Were Beyond Sexist
Sexist advertising rarely flies these days, although it definitely still happens (cue Audi’s 2017 ad that suggested finding a wife was just like buying a car. It’s all property! Which men own!). Yes, that occurred in 2017 — well after ‘feminist’ had become a household term — even if some people still think of it as a “bad word”.
But when these flagrant displays of sexism do occur today, you can be sure that people will— thankfully! — speak out about it. Throughout time, though, many ads geared toward women or femme-presenting people have utilized straight-up shaming techniques to sell products.
It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: Many advertisements, devised by huge, money-hungry corporations, are designed to “manipulate our deepest fears and insecurities to make us part with our cash,” says The Independent. And they’re not wrong. The worst part? It’s been going on since, well, forever.
According to Cynthia Petrovic, an artist and collector of vintage advertisements, all the older adds geared toward women were crafted to make them feel bad about something — usually their physical appearance.
She says, “The most common premise is that a woman does not want to offend a man. These ads speculate about whether your husband is going to walk out on you because you’re not using a feminine hygiene product or your scalp smells when you’re dancing or you have undie odor.”
Today we deal with “woke ads” (which perhaps aren’t really woke at all) or ads that are sorely lacking in diversity — but vintage advertisements take the cake.
Says Petrovic, “I noticed a fever pitch building up during the 1930s. By the late ’30s, the advertisers were on a roll. You open up any of these magazines now, and you burst out laughing. But during World War II, I would say about 80 percent of those ads that manipulate you, the ones that say you stink or you’re not socially acceptable on some level, vanished.”
Maybe someone somewhere decided to figure out that shaming your customers isn’t the best idea? Just an idea.
Retro ads were not just sexist AF, they lacked total diversity.
Whether it came down to blaming women for their husband’s walking out or telling women that they’re not skinny enough, vintage ads were brutal — cruel, sexist, and mind-numbingly inaccurate.
Not to mention the fact that most of the ads are geared toward white women. So let’s look at some of the worst offenders out there, from about 1880-the 1960s.
Seeking high glamour? Try the “toilet” mask….
…because that sounds totally alluring.
The “toilet mask” is one of the most ridiculous names we’ve ever heard — but it’s not as absurd as the way it actually works. The toilet mask, which purifies the complexion (who knows, right?) is strapped to the head like a face glove a.k.a. Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Hard pass on the toilet face glove.
More “toilet” beauty…but this time, it’s for nuns!
Because even nuns need to feel about how they smell, apparently.
This isn’t a “makeup” ad per se, but this 1880s “Nicer nun” ad targets nuns who want to smell like “toilet soap, soap, and perfume.” All of which sounds weirdly…not super holy? We’re not sure what the difference between “toilet soap” and “soap” means but we’re not entirely sure we want to find out, either.
If men want a “natural look”…
Then give it to them. Because who cares what a woman wants?
In this creeptastic ad for Seventeen Cosmetics, we see the dauntingly absurd effects of patriarchal culture: Men approving the kind of looks they seek in a woman. This ad, which grossly advertises a “young” look, tells women to wear “natural” makeup. Because men like it better. Sigh.
Be “his” pinup girl…
…with this sexist face powder.
Nothing screams sexy like an ad that tells you to wear face powder so that a man can call you “his’ pinup girl. Obviously, pinup girls are glamorous — many of them representing sexual and aesthetic autonomy — but this ad represents anything but.
Sadly, this ad’s technique is like everything else: It sells you products to make you seem desirable…to men.
One more story about a man…
…and why you should buy four of Elizabeth Arden’s lipstick shades.
Today, this ad might seem downright vulgar, but to our mothers or grandmother’s this was par for the course. Imagine being inundated with messaging that tells you your red lipstick is what brings all the boys to the yard?
This ad goes right for it, with a length tome about a guy finding himself ‘fascinated’ with a woman because the “sensitive understatement” that is her lipstick.
Don’t let your beauty “dim”…
or else he won’t like you anymore.
When you’re chilling out, lounging outside in the sun or wind, talking to the judgemental AF menfolk, the LAST thing you want is for your beauty to “dim.” Oh, the horror!
To prevent that tragedy from happening, this ad posits that women use Manon Lescaut’s face powder, which helps ascertain that no man will walk out on you because of your ugly skin.
Want to measure all your flaws?
Simply slip this murder device onto your skull.
Lord knows only a man could have created such a horrifying “hellraiser nightmare” contraption. You can thank Max Factor for bringing this Frankenstein’s monster to life — and forcing women to wear it on their heads, all to find out how imperfect they are.
So that “corrective” makeup can be applied “promptly.”
Not only were these ads sexist, but they were also racist!
Take a look at this: This 1960s ad sings the praises of “beige” face makeup as if it’s a brilliant new idea that beauty technicians came up with.
Hint: “Beige” is an actual, natural skin-tone (huge shocker, we know!) — not some invented color used to make white women feel better. PS: It isn’t cool to glamorize or fetishize someone’s natural skin color.
Gee, men sure hate smelly hair…
So you’d better fix that, pronto.
In this ridiculous ad for “Gee, your hair smells terrific,” this lady hits the man jackpot when her That ’70s Show-looking boyfriend smells her hair — and APPROVES!
This ad is pretty ridiculous if we say so ourselves — precisely because it suggests you’ll find love if your hair smells good. Yet another way of saying, “You’re only good enough if you buy our products.”
Single and lonely?
You’re probably wearing too much makeup!
According to this ad, if you’re wearing “conspicuous makeup,” Dick just might not like you (and yes, we fully agree that there’s a major double entendre here).
The thing is, all of these vintage ads tell to different things — and they’re not very inconspicuous about it: They want you to wear more makeup OR less makeup, all in an effort to get a man.
What do your lips say about you?
Are they good enough to keep a man?
In this bizarre “lip tester” ad, women are told what sort of person they are — according to the lip imprint they make on a napkin.
Of course, no ad would be complete without men on standby, waiting to point out their failures or accomplishments as human beings! Also, take a peek at Hamburger lips, which says that ‘this girl usually looks something like a meatball.’ Oh, the levels of horror.
Do men hate the sight of you?
Try this “yeast.”
While this magical boob-growing yeast isn’t exactly a type of makeup, it is sold a physical ‘enhancement’ product, so we’re gonna count it.
What’s so blatantly cruel about this ad is that it not only insults a woman’s totally normal body type, it’s built on the idea that you have to change if men “hate the sight of you.” Damn. And we thought these were simpler times…
Are men not kissing you anymore?
Try this lipstick that magically changes everything.
If a man says things like “your lipstick is too red and smeary,” you should probably kick that guy out of your house. But in 1950s America, this sort of statement was totally normalized — at least by (presumably male) advertising agencies.
In this ad, a woman solves her man problem by switching her lipstick — and, well, sigh.
Pink is for girls.
So buy this pink product! …Ugh.
How many of you were told growing up that pink was “just for girls?” Yeah, us too.
Not only does this statement fully disregard any guy or non-binary person who happens to like pink — because it’s an amazing color! — it forces girls into one box, as if we are one entity, incapable of individual thought.
Also, pink was considered the “boy color” in the early 20th century, so what gives?
But there’s so much more to the sexism beyond makeup, like lingerie that is supposed to help you marry a millionnaire.
Or ads that straight-up violently attack the woman’s body, calling it “too fat.”
Women have fought a long battle against patriarchal standards and shaming advertising, and the war hasn’t ended yet.
At least it’s gotten a little, tiny bit better.
But if there’s one thing we can take away from this mess, it’s that no man deserves you if they don’t like your hair (and the way it smells) or your lips (no matter their color or shape). Here are even more offensive vintage ads that will make you want to keep fighting the good fight.