Vintage cigarette ads like this one from Bored Panda make it too easy to reject the past, to dismiss it as a primitive and backwards place from which we have somehow miraculously escaped. They at once play into our nostalgia for what we like to think of as a simpler time, and our prejudice that our own cultural norms and modes of thinking are completely “modern” and “enlightened”–after all we know so much more now than we did then, the tempo of life has accelerated so dramatically, and cultural norms have changed so much.
Yet, this is a prejudice which I think has little basis in the facts. All the aesthetic clues in this image suggest that it was published in the late 1940’s or in the 50’s. How much has the world changed since then? Not so much it seems: people still get around in cars that run on gas, fly in planes, talk on telephones, keep checking and saving accounts that are regulated by the FDIC, buy their clothing from department stores, and so on. Of course, we fly in jets, talk on smart phones, and bank from home via our personal computers, any single one of which has more raw computing power than probably existed in the world when this ad came out–but still, the important things haven’t really changed. If you don’t believe me, think about the life of the man in this photo, who it is reasonable to assume was born in the early part of the century, or even in the late part of the one before. Consider the developments he witnessed during his life: the advent of aviation and television for one, but also the wide-spread adoption of electricity, automobiles, radio, cinema, and telephones into the life of ordinary Americans. That leaves out perhaps the greatest achievement of them all, that scientists in his day possessed the knowledge and technical sophistication to split an atom. Even then, his grandparents probably witnessed greater technological change–with the advent of the railroad and telegraph, which greatly accelerated transportation and communication throughout the country.
Given all this, how do we know our doctors today are so far superior to the one in this ad? For ages, doctors have done more to shorten the life of their patients than lengthen them, by, amongst other things, putting the imprimatur of good health on cigarette smoking. Certainly, our doctors would never now recommend that we smoke, but what habits do they tacitly allow, or even explicitly approve, that are secretly poisoning us? We can’t be sure there aren’t any, and indeed the weight of evidence suggests that in fifty years, people will likewise look back at our medical recommendations in horror. All of which is to say, maybe this vintage ad isn’t so vintage after all.