Is it an Offense to Offend?

racist cartoons illustration 1940s

In a time of heightened sensitivity over stereotypes, years of ethnic and racial labeling have fortunately largely been erased from advertising. Vintage White Rock Beverage Ad 1946

Being offended doesn’t mean going on the offensive.

In the same breath, publishing a controversial cartoon is not an offense.

The devastating, bloody massacre at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris is offensive to those who cherish freedom of expression.

Staffers were killed in what seemed retaliation for their mocking of Islam

Their only weapon was biting humor.

Charlie Hebdo is no stranger to controversy; indeed no person or institution no matter how revered was safe from being targeted by the magazine’s blistering satire.

It has a history of drawing outrage across the Muslim world with cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, believing that humor was the best weapon against extremism.

In a less enlightened time, ads featuring  racial and ethnic portrayals in questionable taste, caused nary a stir.

The Risk Of Offending

During the post-war years when it seemed the only risk of offending others was if we suffered the unforgivable shame of halitosis, a series of ads ran that would not only raise a politically correct eyebrow today, its offensive nature could very well spark angry, violent protestations….or worse.

vintage ads

(L) Vintage 1951 Listerine Ad. For many years Listerine ran a popular ad campaign of advertisements creating scenarios where romance or a good paying job could be yours for the asking, but for bad breath. The ads came with a strict warning: “Never risk offending others needlessly.” (R) The cartoon from a Vintage White Rock Ad 1951 certainly didn’t worry about the risk of offending: “This friendly chief gave me a wife/ If I said no, he’d end my life/ So I got going on my Safari/ To White Rock Land, by gosh, begorri!”

Victorious after WWII America saw itself as the model for the world, and American dreams were to become global ones.

With our sparkling minty fresh smiles and anti bacterial clean handshakes we would help underdeveloped countries improve their lives and know the real joy of good living by exporting American consumer goods.

With the conviction of a car salesmen selling a wouldn’t you really rather have a Cadillac we were convinced that America was the standard by which the worlds other countries were to be judged.

Among Friends

Vintage illustration Arab sheik, White Rock Psyche  and reporters

illustration Vintage White Rock Beverage Ad 1946


Naturally we would never risk offending others needlessly with unpleasant breath, since every American knew halitosis was the one unpardonable social fault.

But offending others through racial and ethnic stereotypes…no problem.

White Rock carbonated beverages, innocently ran a series of ads that were of questionable taste. In one ad, we are offered a portrayal of an Arab named Prince Ali who is being tempted by the American way.

The Arab Sheik, who is being interviewed by the American press, turns his head as his   eyes bulge out leeringly at the sight of shapely scantily clad Psyche, White Rocks trademark.

“By the beard of the Prophet,” he asks, “who’s SHE?”

Art & Advertising vintage illustration Psyche and Sheik

illustration Vintage White Rock Beverage Ad 1946

The dialogue continues”

“Prince Ali: Ah, a wonderful country! Never did I imagine the American girls like this!”

The snappy newsman retorts:

“Reporter: Keep your nightshirt on, Prince-I’ll introduce you to Psyche! But first I want a statement on the international situation…..

Ali: Not now, brother of a donkey! This lovely lady, this Psyche who is she?”

As the reporter explains how this luscious creature is the symbol of White Rock sparkling water, Psyche provides the headline for the newsman’s story “Prince Ali discovers White Rock Americas finest mixer.”

Art & Advertising, vintage illustration NYC bus, sheik, and psyche

illustration Vintage White Rock Beverage Ad 1946

The next morning ( wink, wink ) we catch the Prince and Psyche sharing a ride on a double decker bus going down Fifth Avenue

“Ali( the next morning) You spoke truly! We are how you say “riding high” after our gala evening, yes? Tell me, moon of delight will you share my throne?”

Psyche demurely declines this generous offer “You are too kind, Prince Ali! But until every American discovers White Rock , my place is on the White Rock label!”

With Friends Like These…

Vintage White Rock Beverage Ad 1951

Vintage White Rock Beverage Ad 1951

Another ad entitled How to tell if you’re Among Friends, seems to offend every third world country from the Middle East to Africa with its simplistic, stereotypic caricatures.

Art & Advertising Cartoon 1950s illustration

Illustration from Vintage White Rock Ad 1951
Copy reads:” These son’s o’ Prophets welcome me/ Urged me to stop indefinitely/ But with no White Rock Ginger Ale/ The desert was a thirsty trail”


Loss Of Innocence

In today’s  politically charged climate  when a novel,  or a 14 minute  offensive video, “The Innocence of Muslims”, a film denigrating the Prophet Muhammad posted on You Tube,  sparked angry protests in the Muslim world and a cartoon caused  the killing of 12 individuals, these vintage ads were clearly not on the radar of  innocent mid-century Americans except to provide a good chuckle.

Sensitivity training would be decades to come…so would sadly,  the violence.

© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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  1. Like Bob Dylan sings, “The times they are a-changing.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good post and a very interesting history of a lost innocence of tasteless and yes, offensive ads. Freedom to offend and be offended of course is something we all should cherish.


  3. Hi, thank you for an enlightened piece. Well written and thought provoking.


  4. Brilliant piece with excellent contrast and comparison. Bravo! Loved the history 🙂


  5. I appreciate your courage in running these appalling ads. They’re an excellent example of the ignorance that results from living in a self-imposed “gated community” of the mind, where everyone you know is just like you. I’m amazed that White Rock is still in business, since it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the company and its 1950’s ad executives that the Muslim world, which they depicted so offensively, was a natural market for refreshing non-alcoholic beverages like White Rock! Africa, the Middle East, India and South Asia: all have hot climates and many millions of teetotalers. I think Coca-Cola and Pepsi figured that out. (For some reason Chrome is telling me not to use your comment section. I never got that using my old Internet Explorer….) Anyhow, your work is always fascinating.


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  7. It’s interesting for people of my age to read something like this. I’ve only ever been brought up in a censored society where everyone is too scared to do or say anything ‘different’ unless they offend.

    Have a look at my latest post on free speech and thought, it might interest you, who knows?


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  9. White Rock 1951 ad – you could show “tits with nipples” back then?
    Facebook censors that now, in the year of 2015, when human (some of them) are on the verge to go for an (one-way) trip to Mars!?
    Small children could get a life-long trauma if exposed to naked women’s breasts!
    Breastfeeding babies shoud be blind-folded in the name of Decensy!
    God hates the sight of our bodies – because he designed and created them Himself.


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