16 May 2022

Vintage Bodybuilding Ads of Yesteryear

Or The Insult that Made a Man out of Mac - and other stories.  Or put simply, how the ad men of yesteryear attempted to persuade men to get muscles and their own back.  Here's a selection of bodybuilding ads from the publications of yesterday that they might not quite get away with today.

In the comics of fifties onwards, among the myriad of adverts for sea monkeys, X-Ray specs and other such dubious products the likes of Charles Atlas and Joe Weider exhorted the youth of the day to exchange with their cash in exchange for muscles, girls and getting their own back on the bully boy.  The psychology of the ads certainly seem somewhat dated now but do they give us an insight in to how the mind of the male of the species may once have worked (and possibly still does)?

It is fairly obvious from the ad above that adjectives, as a weapon had not been discovered yet.  Instead of answering the bully boy tactics with an array of withering words, as the metrosexual of today would be expected to do by his erstwhile dance partner, the secret here was to deal with the bully by – well, becoming one.  There is only one language that these types understand and that is the language they speak themselves – or so proclaims the advert.  Jack goes from being abandoned by his date to winning her back – and has a number of eager females willing to take her place should he so choose, simply by joining up to the Charles Atlas program and waiting until a little ‘later’ when he has the ability to beat the bully at his own game.

If the beat the bully tactic didn’t work then selling bodybuilding as fun was possibly the answer.  The age old before and after shots were de rigueur already – even though the before shot does picture Ken Grimm (the photo model with the huge ears, sorry muscles) at about the age of ten.  From skinny-shrimp to He-Man this advert promises that for a dollar (not a great amount of money in those days, but enough) he can add inches to his chest – and if the ‘red-blooded’ guarantee is anything to go by, elsewhere too.  It doesn’t take a genius to work out, however, that with a ‘a big book of photos of strong men’ free with the plan, then it may not have been an altogether heterosexual audience at which this advert was aimed. 

Joe Weider, the trainer of champions is still used today to sell all sorts of bodybuilding paraphernalia and his attempts to get the nation fit (and make a living) have been going on for decades.  Here, the promise is that a skinny young man can look like his muscle-bound buddy in, again no time frame given but that mysterious ‘later’.  The big blond friend is here called Rocky – so perhaps it happened in ‘just seven days’ as the song in the film declared.  As unsophisticated as these adverts seem today, they worked for many decades.

It gets better.  Poor old Harry, in the face of an armed robbery he turns tail and runs – even leaving his girl-friend behind in his rush to get to safety.  It would, perhaps, be the wrong advice to give today but way back then a little more muscle bulk had the ability to stop bullets in their tracks.  Charles Atlas, who started his company in 1929 was, despite the hyperbole of the advertisements, committed to wiping out the bullying culture of that era – having been bullied himself as a teenager. 

The muscle ad was already virtually an art form when the likes of the Arnold got involved.  Pre-Governator, he was always willing to use himself as a poster boy for the bodybuilding movement and make a little money too.  By the seventies, of course, the people at which the ads were aimed were becoming a little more sophisticated in their media savviness and this advert makes no preposterous promises.  However, there is still the subliminal message that more muscles equals more general popularity and – no doubt – more contact with the opposite sex.

This unintentionally funny (at least in terms of the title) ad from Popular Mechanic magazine reinforces the notion that in order to beat the bully, you have to, well, beat the bully.  Once more a fawning woman admires the new He-Man after he settles an old score and so wins her heart back.  The guarantee that he can get powerful muscles is only a ‘can’ and no doubt this canny wording was used to fend off a number of complaints from people who had not got the physique they desired at the point of the ever mysterious ‘later’.

Fame instead of shame – a neat little poetic device to get the till ringing.  The beach featured strongly in these advertisements.  Here we finally get to the crux of these adverts and the main feature by which they are remembered.  Yes, it is the classic ‘sand in the face’ motif, together (usually) with the withering put downs of a girl friend who is possibly only with you for your money.  After a few sessions in the bedroom (ahem) then the victim is finally ready to be the bully.  Hurrah!

The slogan which would launch a thousand parodies – ‘I can make you a new man too’.

It wasn’t just the Americans who bought in to this sort of advertising. Here is a thoroughly British take on the idea of gaining muscle to beat the bullies – of course the odd shrimp to the boys at the baths may have had nothing to do with his musculature at all… Who can say?