If you’re interested in a snapshot of the changing roles for women in America, check out some of our vintage commercials. Commercials are a good indicator of what’s transpiring in society. They’re not necessarily leading indicators of the socioeconomic status. Instead they reflect what is already happening in the culture and time frame in which they’re made. Sponsors make a concerted effort never to offend the consumer; so what you see is usually already acceptable behavior – the norm.
This first commercial for Folgers was made sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s. It’s a perfect example of how the roles of women were not only rigidly defined, but also marginalized without compunction. Women had not entered the marketplace in large numbers yet; most women were still homemakers, and the achievement of independence through a career and an adequate or significant income still belonged largely to men, with only small numbers of women emerging as major income producers.
Though real women may not have obsessed over the quality of their coffee as much as the women in these commercials, there was an undeniable societal pressure on women to please their husbands, and sponsors played brilliantly into that insecurity. Notice how the husband in this commercial refers to the “girls” down at the office making the coffee.
This second series of commercials, airing first in the 1980s in the U.K. and later in the U.S. around 1990, demonstrates how vastly the world changed for women during the twenty-five to thirty years between these commercials. Though there was still room for improvement, by the 1980s and 1990s significant numbers of women had attended college, taken positions of authority in the workforce, and were experiencing a form of independence their mothers could not have imagined. They were now recognized as a demographic with purchasing power.
There’s an equality to the male/female relationship in this commercial that could never have existed during the unequal balance of power between men and women only a few decades before. We see a sexy and powerful man who appreciates an independent woman, and the one-dimensional role of the woman has now become multifaceted. She is clearly independent, intelligent and his equal in every way. It’s implicit – if not explicit – that she has a career, interests and needs of her own, and will even take the initiative in furthering her relationships.
First advertising Nescafe Gold Blend coffee in the U.K. and later Taster’s Choice in North America, the series ran over a period of several years, and presented little slices of a budding romance between two sophisticated and mutually respectful people. These ads reflected the emerging reality of a more level playing field on which men and women could negotiate their relationships.
As the public waited for each new episode of the friendly cat and mouse game of love between two evenly matched contestants, we saw notices heralding the next upcoming commercial in between our favorite shows. I believe it may have been the first time there was a commercial for a commercial, and definitely one of the first times we saw him making the coffee for her. Again, this was not about commercials leading the trend, but about commercials reflecting the trend.
I recall seeing the two actors, Anthony Head and Sharon Maughan, interviewed while these ads were running. They became known as “The Taster’s Choice Couple” in the U.S. These advertisements may read a little cheesy now, but after the first commercial aired in the U.S. in 1990, the public couldn’t wait for the next… and the next…