From green bean casserole on the Thanksgiving dinner table to the dutiful reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance by American school children, many of our cherished traditions and beliefs are actually based — at least in part — on good old-fashioned marketing and advertising. It’s part of what makes Capitalism fun!
Here are 13 examples of things we celebrate or habits we’ve developed simply because we were told we should.
Paul Bunyan has been sold to generations of kids as a traditional American folk hero born of our pioneering spirit and can-do attitude — but the gigantic lumberjack actually began as advertising icon like The Brawny Towel Guy or Kim Kardashian.
While there were a few early, “legit” tall tales featuring Bunyan, they were only known among a few (probably very weird) lumberjacks in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and the Northwest. But in 1916, W.B. Laughead, a Minnesota advertising guy, featured stories about Bunyan and blue ox Babe in pamphlets hawking products for the Red River Lumber Company. He caught on, and others added to the tales.
Green Bean Casserole at Thanksgiving
Green bean casserole is such a ubiquitous side dish at Thanksgiving, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was served at the first Thanksgiving in 1621 and each one after. But no. Green bean casserole was was invented in 1955, by Dorcas Reilly, an employee of the Campbell soup company. She was tasked with creating a dish that used cream of mushroom soup and frozen green beans, and it caught on. (God knows why: That shit is gross.)
Women shaving their armpits
While women removing their body hair dates back at least to ancient Egypt, in America, women had hairy pits right up until 1915 — the year sleeveless dresses came into fashion. With underarms now exposed, women were urged by magazine advertisements for depilatory creams to get rid of their unsightly pit-hair, Gillete introduced the first “women’s razor,” (the Milady Decolletee, a “dainty little Gillette used by the well-groomed woman to keep the underarm white and smooth”), and the rest is grooming history.
Women shaving their legs
Women in America also rocked hairy legs nearly universally until the 1920s: Skirts were long, so what difference did it make? But when hemlines went up in the 20s, shaving and depilatory advertisements admonished women to de-hair their stems. By the 1950s, leg-shaving was nearly universal. Exactly how much advertising and marketing affected this trend can’t be really be quantified, but I’d guess “a lot.”
Valentine’s Day (kind of)
I feel like I have to include this one because the mistaken belief that the Hallmark company invented Valentine’s day is so widespread. Exchanging cards for St. Valentine dates back to the 1400s and Shakespeare’s Ophelia even called herself Hamlet’s Valentine, saying: “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day/All in the morning betime, / And I a maid at your window, / To be your Valentine.” But still, Hallmark and other companies’ tireless efforts to push gift and card-giving keep the whole Valentine industry humming. For the record, though, Hallmark maintains it didn’t create Valentine’s day, and it didn’t create Grandparents Day, National Son’s Day, National Daughter’s Day, Sweetest Day, Boss’s Day, Administrative Professionals’ Day, Teacher Appreciation Day, or Clergy Appreciation Day, either.
The Pledge of Allegiance
Unlike the mistaken beliefs around Valentine’s day, The Pledge of Allegiance really was created to sell flags. Written in the late 1800s by Francis Bellamy, an assistant editor at Youth’s Companion magazine, the pledge was part of a larger program of patriotic demonstrations for kids to perform in schools on the 500th anniversary of Columbus reaching America that was included with flag purchases aimed at Youth’s Companion’s subscribers. The jingoist display was popular, the pledge caught on, and many flags were sold. God bless America!
Just as the Pledge of Allegiance was created to sell flags, Father’s Day was popularised to sell neckties. The day originated (arguably) in 1910 as a response to Mother’s Day — Sonora Dodd, raised by a single-father, was its first advocate. But Father’s Day was not widely celebrated and seen as kind of a joke by the public. It might have stayed that way if not for the efforts of the Father’s Day Committee. Formed in 1936 and funded by the New York Associated Menswear Retailers, the committee fought tirelessly for everyone to honour their father with annual gifts of neckties and nice shirts. It caught on, became a national holiday, and now you have to remember to have an awkward conversation with your dad once a year.
I can’t mention Father’s Day without insisting you listen to The Marx Brothers’ “Father’s Day.” It’s hilarious and mocks the whole “buy a tie for dear old Dad” trend of the time.
OK, this was more of an American fad of the early 2000s than a long-standing cultural tradition, but it’s my internet list, and I think it’s interesting. While the name “tantra” comes from a relatively obscure Indian spiritual practice, tantric sex, as understood in the West, has little to do with the exacting rituals practiced by adherents of Vajrayana Buddhism. It’s instead largely the creation of various new age entrepreneurs who borrowed a little Eastern spiritualism to promote more mindful sex — and make a few bucks along the way.
Originally cultivated in Peru, the potato was first imported to Europe in the 1500s. Some people ate them, but many believed they were poisonous or beneath their dignity. They were called “The Devil’s Apple” because they grew underground, and they were banned from large-scale cultivation in many places in Europe. However, after climate change during the Little Ice Age and famines in the early 1770s, the European Powers-That-Be realised the potato was heartier and more calorically dense than any other crop, and through a campaign of laws (plus potato-eating publicity stunts orchestrated by a pioneering nutritional chemist), managed to convince everyone that potatoes are actually super good — or better than starving, anyway.
Orange juice for breakfast
It might not surprise you to learn that drinking a glass of orange juice with your breakfast is the result of an advertising campaign, but what if I told you orange juice itself is the result of an advertising campaign? There was literally no such thing as orange juice until the early 1900s, when the greatest ad man in history, Albert Lasker, wanted to sell more oranges for Sunkist. He realised you needed two or three oranges for a glass of juice instead of eating just one, so he invented an orange juice extractor, and created the “drink an orange” campaign to give consumers a daily occasion to consume it. Clearly, it caught on.
Their defenders like to pretend the more than 700 confederate statues in the U.S. are about history, but most of them were erected long after the Civil War ended, and say more about the political climate of the time they were built than the Civil War. Spikes in Civil War statuary building and other pro-Confederacy nonsense coincide with the Jim Crow laws of the early 20th century, the return of Black soldiers from WWI in the early 1920s, and Brown v. Board of Education in the 1950s. Georgia waited until 1956 to redesign its state flag to include the Confederate battle flag, and it wasn’t until 1962 that South Carolina flew the flag atop its capitol building. On the plus side of the moral ledger: More than 80 statues have been destroyed, removed, or relocated since 2015.
Santa Claus (kind of)
The image of Santa Claus as a benevolent gift-giving Christmas demigod in red-and-white has a variety of sources, but the popularity of his red suit trimmed with white fur and beard look can at least be partially credited to the Coca-Cola Company. Red-and-white Santa was popular before 1931, but the iconic Coca-Cola ad campaign created that year by Haddon Sundblom solidified the image in the US. Before Sundblom’s ads, Santa often wore red, but he might also be portrayed as a fit guy wearing a tall hat and riding a donkey, or a guy in a blue snow suit covered in stars.
Diamond engagement rings
While annoying people have been exchanging rings to symbolise their annoying love for thousands of years, the diamond ring as the de-facto engagement token has a much more recent history. Giving a diamond ring for an engagement can be traced directly to a 1947 ad campaign from the De Beers company and the slogan, “A diamond is forever.”