From flour bags to four-wheel drives, one hundred years of advertising in the Gazette reflects a changing world and a changing University alumni relationship.

By Susan Frith

Turning the brittle pages of the alumni magazine’s oldest issues, one notices many things: perhaps first, the headache-inducing fumes of the old binding glue, then maybe a curious photograph of men in white gymnasium suits performing a dance drill for physical-education class, and then, surely, at least one of the ads for burlap flour bags, photo-plays, or flat clasp garters.

From the florid copy of the Walnut Street Theatre in 1905, promising “great, flaming, glaring pictures” of the Chicago Board of Trade in its upcoming matinee, The Pit, to pronouncements during the Roaring Twenties that Penn’s athletes drink Gold Medal Milk while training, the old advertisements in their sum recall a different era for the world, the University, and the Gazette’s alumni readership.

Dr. Joseph Turow, professor of communications at the Annenberg School for Communication and an expert on advertising, agreed to peruse a sampling of ads from the Gazette’s earliest days to more contemporary times, and provide some impromptu comments. 

“One overarching kind of phenomenon I saw is a movement of Penn from being a kind of upscale, local university to a nationally important place with far-flung, upscale alumni. Also,” he says, “it seems the Gazette was very much a male-oriented magazine, with women basically being [looked upon as] ornamentation or the responsibility of the man to take care of. Despite the fact that women were at Penn” during the early 20th century, “one would read the Gazette as not having anything to do with them, at least from the ads.

In the magazine’s earlier days, he adds, “I believe many of the ads were put there to show support for the university and its alumni magazine rather than to sell products and services. I think you have less of that now. It’s a much more targeted medium for advertisers that’s designed to sell things. A sense of local community has been lost” with Penn’s entrance to the Ivy League Network, “and the assumption is that this is a much more cosmopolitan group of people”—both men and women—“whom major advertisers are interested in reaching.”

Fatima cigarettes, April 5, 1913: “This [illustrates] how the [magazine] really focused on men. What’s really interesting about the thesis ad is that a lot of cigarette companies saw cigarettes as a way to help your thinking and to get rid of stress. Also, the whole motif of Fatima cigarettes [including the depiction of a veiled woman on the package] was male-oriented, and it fits into the whole history of Orientalism in American society—the stereotypical idea of seduction and life’s secret pleasures coming from the Near East.”

Chesterfields, June 1, 1937: “In the 1930s it was more acceptable for a woman to be smoking. This is a more traditional kind of ad for cigarettes. You’re in a clear country atmosphere, which is ironic. And there’s this association of cigarettes with relaxation and fun and open air.”

Chevrolet, January 13, 1936; Lincoln Continental, December 1963; Range Rover, May 1987: “This, of course is the Depression, but it still amazes me that they use Chevrolet in the magazine. Presumably people who went to Penn were quite well off, and they’re still pushing a low-priced car. Here you get something more upscale with the Lincoln Continental and Range Rover ads. There is a very different sense of the 
readership’s capability. Also, this is very much family-oriented in the thirties. [In the later ads] there is nobody in these cars. The fact you can’t see that person [clearly] means you’re supposed to place yourself in the driver’s seat. This Chevrolet ad, on the other hand, is very specifically [about] a white family.”

A Local University—October 6, 1922; July 3, 1925; July 2, 1926; January 14, 1905: “Back in the earlier Gazettes[whose ads are shown here], the ad targeting was much more, ‘We’re a community, and we will support the university.’ Advertisers were saying, ‘Come to our local theater, come to our local store,’” or simply putting their business cards in the magazine. “Even General Electric was a relatively local company. They had offices and factories around here. There was a local relationship. Part of it is simply engendering good will. And some of the advertisers may well have been alumni.”

“Tut, tut, infant,” October 1947: “This [attitude towards women] is standard operating procedure for advertisers through the 1960s, in many ways. The ad for Penn Mutual Life is supposed to be cute with the [plays on] ensure and insure—and on infant, when they’re talking about having kids. But what’s really interesting about this is that stereotype that women in many ways were keepers of the budget at home. She’s saying essentially, ‘I don’t want to think about it,’ but also, ‘This is going to be expensive, and why do we want to pay the money for premiums on this?’ She’s actually in some ways being practical, but he’s showing her this is sort of short-term thinking. It’s horribly sexist and very standard of those days.”

American Airlines, May 1968: “It reminds me of The Graduate, which came out around that time—and she almost looks like Anne Bancroft (who played Mrs. Robinson). The idea was to sexualize air travel. What they’re doing is saying one thing with the text and another thing with the picture. If you see the picture as sexual and the text is not, it’s you that have the dirty mind, not them. This is clearly directed toward men. There’s no sense that women fly airplanes for business purposes, or even need a soft pillow and a warm blanket. A woman is not going to see this as her mother, clearly.”

Ballantine’s Scotch, April 1971:“Again, [the argument is] if you think about it that way, it’s your problem; they’re really talking about 12-year-old scotch. The 12-year-old is obviously being posed in a highly sexual way. It’s really offensive, but I can see all these male copywriters snickering.”

Dewar’s Profile, March 1986:“They have tried to go out of their way to have different types of people in their ads. They realize they’re reaching upscale women, as well as upscale men, and they don’t want to offend people. This is the post-feminist revolution kind of thing. They’re not trying to say that she’s not feminine, but they’re trying to say she has interests, she’s tenacious … It also is an appreciation for what an Ivy League student [or graduate] is about.”

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