Sunday, April 6, 2014

Cultural Appropriation and the American Indian in Advertising

     The idea of cultural appropriation has been making the rounds these days brought to the forefront recently with sexy fashion events by Victoria’s Secrets and apparel from Urban Outfitters such as their tacky “Navajo Hipster” line of panties and flasks. The cultural appropriation of American Indian images and themes is not a new development in advertising. Throughout the 20th century, American Indian images have been used in print advertising for a diverse range of products that at times seemingly have no connection at all to American Indians (figure 1).
Fig. 1 – An advertisement for Palmer’s Patent Hammocks from 1896. 


 In many instances the advertisements are nothing short of cultural appropriation, defined as the adoption of specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. This practice involves the use of ideas, symbols, artifacts, images, objects, etc. derived from contact between different cultures and can sometimes imply a negative view towards the minority culture by the dominant one and are often culturally insensitive. So why have advertisers been so interested in associating their products with American Indians?

     This is a complicated question that can’t be fully explained in a blog posting such as this but we can at least try to reach some understanding of the practice.

     Throughout the Victorian period, many had a sentimentalized vision of Indian life derived from prints and magazine articles in which Native people were often inaccurately depicted as still living in quintessential harmony with nature. Indian encampment life was romanticized by some writers, such as a Mademoiselle Rouche, whose account appeared in an 1859 edition of the Lady’s Newspaper (see: Phillips 1998:218–221).  Although the camp in her narration was apocryphal, it advanced the exotic illusion that Native people and their creations were the end product of this idealized life.

     Until about the middle of the 19th century, America was still a rural, agricultural society but with the advent of the industrial age, Americans began moving to cities. Life there offered advantages such as better and higher paying jobs and access to services not available in rural areas but there were also serious disadvantages. Sanitary conditions in most cities were miserable to nonexistent and cities became unhealthy places to live and many were ravaged by epidemics such as cholera, influenza and typhoid.

     In view of this, the character of children, especially boys, was perceived by many at the turn of the 20th century to be imperiled by an effeminate, post frontier urbanism (Deloria 1998:96). Daniel Carter Beard, a cofounder of the Boy Scouts, believed that Indians offered patriotic role models for American youth and some businesses echoed these sentiments in their advertisements. In a 1920 ad for Indian bicycles for instance, the copy read in part; “The Indian most certainly is the bicycle for every healthy, manly American boy” (figure 2).
Fig. 2 – A 1920 advertisement for Indian bicycles from the Hendee Manufacturing Company in Springfield, Massachusetts, the same manufacturer who made the Indian motorcycle. 
     With few exceptions, ads from the late 19th century until about the 1930s displayed Native people in their advertisements in a positive light. This began during the period that Elizabeth Hutchinson refers to as the “Indian Craze” (Hutchinson 2009). Her book describes how American Indian blankets, baskets and other items could be purchased directly from department stores and a host of other venues. During this period, there was a widespread passion among the public for collecting American Indian art and both children and adults engaged in Indian play of some sort (figure 3). 

Fig. 3 – The two images at the top are real photo postcards from about 1910. The stereoview below them is also from the same period. During this period, both children and adults engaged in Indian play of some sort.
Hutchinson identifies this collecting fever as part of something larger that included the addition of American Indian objects in museum exhibits, World’s Fairs, and the use of “indigenous handcrafts as models for non-Native artists exploring formal abstraction and emerging notions of artistic subjectivity.” A cross-cultural interest developed during this period and the positive attitude towards Indians at the time is often reflected in product advertisements.

Some of the most remarkable and memorable art of the last 100 years was created by talented Illustrators for magazines print advertisements. Every item imaginable was displayed in print advertisements from toys, tools, clothing, beverages, automobiles, even vacation trips and American Indians themes and images were used to sell all of them.

     Beginning sometime in the 1930s representations of Indians in print advertisements begin to change and this continued through about the 1970s/1980s. During this period we begin to see advertisements in which native people promote alcohol or are depicted as caricatures, often in a less than positive light. What follows is a selection of advertisements from the late 19th century until the end of the 20th century that chronicles the use of Indian images in advertisements. This is just a small sampling as there were literally thousands of print advertisements during the 20 century that incorporated American Indian themes and subjects.

Fig. 4 – Two circa 1905 advertisements for Indian teepees. These were certainly a product that were aimed at children but the woman in figure 3 is also leaning on one. 

Fig. 5 – A 1903 advertisement for Gorham Manufacturing Company, who in addition to producing silver work, also produced bronze castings for such notable artists as Cyrus Dallin, Daniel Chester French, Harriet Frishmuth, Anna Hyatt Huntington, Alexander P. Proctor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and Mahonri Young.

Fig. 6 – A 1917 ad from the Automatic Flower Company of Boston which depicts the profile of an Indian as their logo. Advertisements connecting Indians with corn products are common during this period.

Fig. 7 – Another advertisement for a corn product, this one from Argo Corn Starch was from 1919. There are many ads from this period that utilize a variation of the corn maiden.

Fig. 8 – A 1917 advertisement for Cerealine, a toasted corn product from the American Hominy Company of Indianapolis, Indiana. 

Fig. 9 – There were many ads by the Seneca Camera Manufacturing Company of Rochester, NY. These three, from left to right, are from 1915-1917.

Fig. 10 – An ad for Nabisco sugar wafers from 1912.

Fig. 11 – Three circa 1907 ads for Hiawatha Spring Water.

Fig. 12 – The ad on the left, for Skookum Apples of Wenatchee, Washington is one of the few ads from this period that I’m familiar with that depicts an Indian as a caricature. The illustration on the right is a crate label from the same time period.

Fig. 13 – Two 1907 ads for the Kawanee Water Supply Co., a manufacturer of private water supplies for the home or business. There is no mention of Indians in advertisement yet their graphic depictions in the design were no doubt to convey naturalness of the water their product produced.

Fig. 14 – Two 1916 advertisements for the Santa Fe Railroad. 

Fig. 15. – This 1914 ad for Prince Albert Crimp Cut pipe tobacco prominently featured a portrait of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. This was one of many ads for this company that featured Native leaders. Tobacco product ads often employed Indian themes.

Fig. 16 – These are just three of many ads that were produced in the late 1920s by General Motors from Pontiac, Michigan. In many of the ads for their Pontiac automobile, Native people were prominently depicted.

Fig. 17 – Two more ads for the Santa Fe Railroad. The one on the right is from 1929, the one on the left from 1947.  Here the company seems to be associating themselves with the “noble character” of their subjects.

Fig. 18 – This less than gracious ad from 1937 for Dentyne gum makes the “savage” reference to the subject in their advertisement. 

Fig. 19 – By the 1940s we begin to see Native themes that associate hard alcohol with Native people. The three ads in this panel utilize the cigar store figure to sell their product. 

Fig. 20 – Here again, these 1940s alcohol advertisements associate their product with American Indians.

Fig. 21 – A less than praiseworthy design for a movie ad from 1940. Now we’re seeing Native people depicted as blood thirsty savages. I suspect that the western genera Hollywood films from this era played a pivotal role in shaping the public’s perception of Indians and advertisers followed suit.

Fig. 22 – This ad from 1949 for Esquire Socks is playing on this same theme.

Fig. 23 – The blood thirsty Indian is missing from this 1948 ad for Cheney Ties but when compared to the ads from three to four decades earlier, Native subjects are now routinely depicted as caricatures. 

Fig. 24 – Two more ads from the early 1950s that depict Native people as caricatures.

Fig. 25 – Few advertisers were exempt from depicting Native people this way as this 1953 ad for Bell Telephone illustrates. 

Fig. 26 – Two 1955 advertisements for Indian Motorcycles.

Fig. 27 – Advertisement for shoes changed over the years illustrated by the three ads in this panel. The one on the left is from 1933, the middle one from the 1940s and the Wahoo ad from the 1950s. At first it looks like the subject in the Goodrich ad is taking a whiff of the shoe but he is actually blowing smoke through it to illustrate how well it is ventilated. 

Fig. 28 – Soda manufacturers were not exempt from incorporating Native people or themes in their advertisement. The coke ad is from 1941, the 7-Up ad from 1951 and the Royal Crown Cola ad from 1955.

Fig. 29 – In this panel for Karo Syrup, you can see how depictions of native themes in advertisements changed over the years. The two ads on the left are from 1919, the one on the far right is from 1955.

Fig. 30 – It would seem that the cultural appropriation in sexy Victoria’s Secret’s lingerie ads are not so new as this ad from 1950 would indicate.

Fig. 31 – Not only is this 1955 ad for the Travelers Insurance Company culturally inappropriate but it’s also culturally insensitive.

Fig. 32 – The depiction of Native people as caricatures in print ads continued throughout the 1960s. This advertisement for Fram Air Filters is from 1960.

Fig. 33 – I wonder if the 2-year warranty in this 1963 ad is for the outboard motor or how long the wife will be around if she’s made to carry this thing one more time. 

Fig. 34 – By 1970 we still see advertisements that utilize American Indian images and themes. This ad, introducing the Ford Pinto, involves a mix of subjects along with Indians making comments such as a “Pinto cost a little wampum” and “If a pinto is good enough for Tonto, it’s good enough for me.”

Fig. 35 – In this 1974 ad from Australia, the advertising firm chose to sexually objectify women to sell their product.

Fig. 36 – No doubt one of the most culturally insensitive ads in recent times that incorporated an Indian theme was this piece of artwork by artist Beth Shively. It was submitted to Absolut Vodka for their Absolut Vodka Statehood Series in the 1990s. I’ve never seen the ad in print so hopefully the Absolut Vodka people had the foresight to nix this in the bud.

Fig. 37 – These last two ads present Native subjects in a more uplifting light.  The one on the left, from 1995, is promoting the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. The one on the right, from 2006, is from the American Indian College Fund.
References Cited:

Deloria, Philip J.
1998   Playing Indian. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Hutchinson, Elizabeth
2009   The Indian Craze. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Phillips, Ruth B.
1999   Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700-1900. Seattle: University of Washington Press.