The Most Hilariously Inappropriate Vintage Alcohol Ads

The Most Hilariously Inappropriate Vintage Alcohol Ads

By Paul Fuhr 06/01/17

These old ads provide a window into a world where the message is the same: alcohol can positively transform you and your universe from the inside out.

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Vintage 60s liquor ad with 3 women in colorful room
These companies are regretting what they did last century.

Near my alcoholic worst, I was a too-young college English instructor barely holding it together. Even with two classes per semester, it was a real challenge to remember what the hell I was teaching when I rolled out of the bed in the early afternoon, completely hungover. Every day, I faked my way through it all, free-associating my thoughts and dodging whatever assignment I’d handed out because, well, I hadn’t read it, either. And since I couldn’t exactly show a movie in class like my favorite lazy teachers, I had my students rip out alcohol advertisements from magazines. Bizarrely, it worked. Some of my laziest, most potent teaching was having my students analyze torn pages from Maxim and GQ and People, scotch-taped to the chalkboard. 

They became detectives, finding symbols hidden in plain sight. It didn’t blow my mind that they constantly uncovered messages. No, what completely melted my mind was just how many ads shamelessly touted a better, sleeker, sexier, more adventurous life, thanks to alcohol. (One report revealed that ad sales on alcohol soared by 400% in America in recent years—even though Americans weren’t necessarily drinking more.) And going back in time, without all the glossiness and the marketing savvy of a million focus-grouped campaigns, it’s downright shocking how simple and straightforward alcohol ads were. Brazen advertisements like this don’t exist today—and for good reason. Still, they provide a window into a world where the message is the same: alcohol can positively transform you and your universe from the inside out. Here are ten hilariously irresponsible, misguided, and downright awful advertisements about alcohol that not only say something about their eras, but how alcohol advertising hasn’t really evolved at all.


This ad from the 1950s shows a hopeless, pretty-perfect housewife holding a burning pan in one hand and a handkerchief in the other. She’s consoled by her breadwinner husband who gestures to a place setting where two Schlitz beers sit. “Anyway,” the husband tells her, “you didn’t burn the Schlitz!” It’s the most insipid, insulting Norman Rockwell painting Rockwell never drew.


Alcohol ads don’t get much more cloying than this ad, with a painted image of a brother, sister and dog expectantly waiting for the father to come home on the commuter bus. If that’s not enough, buried in the ad copy is the sexist “Advice to wives” nugget, which suggests that if they keep Budweiser in the fridge, their husbands will actually come home.


Words can’t quite convey what the sight of E.T. (wearing a sleeveless white T-shirt) does to the five-year-old in me who saw E.T.—The Extra Terrestrial in the theater. Yes, I know there’s a pivotal scene when E.T. gets drunk. Yes, I know Elliott has a mental bond with him and drunkenly lets all the frogs out. But that’s not what this insane poster is getting at. There are so many mixed messages it’s confusing where to look. For one, your bartender may be a famous homesick alien with a healing finger. And if you’d had one too many drinks, use E.T.’s catchphrase and call home. And, wait—is E.T. drunk again? Does he like Coors? The ad is as responsible as it is completely irresponsible for using a children’s movie protagonist push an anti-drinking message.


Two women, jogging too-close in fake ocean surf, act as confidants as they catch one another up on their love lives. One of them reveals that “He loves my mind” and she loves him because he drinks Johnny Walker. My, what standards we have. Nothing about the image seems real—it looks like they’re jogging in place, going nowhere—which might be the most authentic part of it all. (Let’s not forget the “asset” pun.)


The ad execs of this 1970s rum ad aimed for Brooding and Mysterious but ended up with something far more depressing and terrifying. “Last year I switched to rum,” the coiffed, vacant-eyed model says. “This year I graduated to Myers’s Rum.” He also apparently graduated to stalking, too. The overdressed Michael Knight lookalike doesn’t even look like he knows where he is, staring into the middle distance with a full glass of rum, as only a professional alcoholic might. It’s almost too spot-on a portrait of alcoholism.


I don’t even know where to start with this one. It’s bad enough that they’ve paired Budweiser with the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Turning a Budweiser can into a space station doesn’t exactly seem like they’re aiming for the heavens so much as some sort of marketing fever dream. It’s the sort of thing I’d envision when I was tortured by booze and a lack of sleep: an enormous beer can, spiraling toward the unknown.


The hundred-foot visages of Roosevelt and Lincoln on Mount Rushmore—both of them paragons of virtue and wisdom—seem to be telekinetically talking to one another about a President whose face will soon be joining them. Whose face will be carved into the mountain is less important than the fact that they approve of the fact that he drinks Johnny Walker. The ad somehow manages to reduce the enormity of their legacy to something far smaller and silly. 


 

As my kids’ babysitter often says: “I can’t even.” That’s how I feel about this gem, courtesy of Blatz Beer, trumpets not only the medical qualities of Blatz beer—but how it’s good in breastmilk. It’s good for the motherand baby, it says. “A case of Blatz Beer in your home means much to the young mother, and obviously baby participates in its benefits,” the ad says. Obviously, the malt and hops add up to something healthy and enervating. What could be easily dismissed as the artwork from a can of Gerber food belies something more sinister and naïve. 


You can airbrush the 70s, but you can’t airbrush out the era’s creepy overtones. Half of this ad is dedicated to hands cupping what we have to assume is a mistress’s face. At first glance, it’s a fairly simple, innocent image. That’s before you start to peel back the crazy layers of control and illicitness going on. And J&B implores you to be part of every extramarital affair. No judgment. J&B doesn’t care what you do or who you do it with. It just wants to be there. 


To me, the best part about this White Horse whisky ad isn’t its where-do-I-look-first 1970s chaos: pastels, flowers (both real and wallpaper variety), and clearly not enough sitting room. It’s not even the instruction “Never go to a bachelor’s pad alone,” which sits below three beautiful women shoehorned into their apartment. No, the ad hilariously calls you a “Good Guy” if you’re an available male who simply shows up to their apartment with a bottle of White Horse whisky tucked under your arm. Apparently, the only thing that turns these boozy bachelorettes from “nervous” to “purring” is alcohol instead of, say, more flowers. 


Alcohol ads don’t need to be wholesome or pure. No. But they don’t need to be artfully disgusting either. Someone thought it’d be sexy to have a woman commanding her boss’s chair, having “clean[ed] up the office party.” Thanks to the power of vodka, his tie is dangling from her homewrecking index finger. “I never realized that nice Mr. Smithers had such pretty green eyes,” she says while dressed in nightwear. It’s supposed to be sexy and taboo, but it’s really just as awkward, stilted and desperate as the real-life scenario would be.

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.

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