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Offensive Advertising _ Racist, Sexist Or Ageist _ Is an American Tradition

October 19, 1995

Calvin Klein is not alone.

True, the designer took an unusual step when he canceled ads featuring teenagers striking provocative poses _ a campaign that critics blasted as child pornography and that has drawn an inquiry from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

But Mr. Klein’s controversial campaign is merely the latest example of a long tradition of offensive advertising. Ads dating from the early 1900s with racist, sexist and ageist themes _ not to mention good old-fashioned obtuseness _ are on display this month in an exhibit at the Nostalgia Factory in Boston. The store, which collects and sells newspaper and magazine ads dating from the 1890s to the 1970s, has selected 300 invidious examples.

Marketers have long perpetuated ugly stereotypes to sell everything from soap to Scotch over the years. The difference is that in past decades, the ads, including a 1941 Shell Oil Corp. advertisement featuring a black boy eating watermelon, didn’t generate a storm of controversy.

``There was outrage against bad taste, but that rarely applied to racial stereotyping,″ says Jackson Lears, author of ``Fables of Abundance,″ a cultural history of advertising. In the 1930s and 1940s, ``stereotyping was acceptable, as long as it presented African-Americans as gleeful `Sambos’ or reassuring mammies.″

The offensive ads on display at the Nostalgia Factory were chosen primarily by Barbara Franchi, who owns the store with her husband, Rudy. In addition to ads that promote negative stereotypes, the exhibit includes materials that run afoul of other current tastes and standards.

Nowadays, for example, Philip Morris Cos. probably wouldn’t dream of using a young mother cradling a baby to sell cigarettes, as it did in 1956. A 1917 ad for Daisy Air Rifles (″It’s a natural instinct for every American boy to want a gun″) seems over the top in today’s gun-soaked culture. ``Gun ads are like PR for the Atlantic Ocean: they don’t need it,″ Mrs. Franchi says.

Of course, bad taste is in the eye of the beholder. Fur ads in the exhibit wouldn’t grate the nerves of mink coat devotees. Then there’s a 1945 Shell ad, promoting its penicillin production efforts, that shows a woman in a lab coat injecting fluid into the tail of a mouse that is entrapped in a glass vial. It’s an image certain to shock many people today _ but not everyone. ``That’s not offensive to me, but I’m a biology teacher,″ says one patron, Richard Ciappa, of Old Greenwich, Conn.

Visitors to the exhibit note that many individuals’ heightened sensitivity to offensive language and images is keeping Madison Avenue a bit more in line. ``Most of these ads are obviously not PC today,″ says Christina Miclat, a 24-year-old New Yorker.

What hasn’t changed significantly, though, is the ad industry’s depiction of women. A 1931 ad for Ivory soap depicts a woman washing dishes and scrubbing a floor. The caption reads: ``If they had it their way, we’d never have homemaking hands.″ But the exhibit also shows women in various states of undress or come-hither poses for cars, cameras, towels and other products, in much more recent ads. A 1971 ad for Johnnie Walker Red features a blond woman beneath the slogan: ``For the man who has me.″

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