There are some things about this modern world that I just do not agree with or understand. Tampon commercials, for instance. Not necessary. Also not at all necessary: the never-ending onslaught of male enhancement emails in my spam folder, and erectile dysfunction ads on TV.
For a long time, I assumed humans only had to put up with these things for the last fifty years or so. Perhaps a part of my fascination with history stems from nostalgia for a glorious time in the past when cringe-worthy commercials did not exist.
Well, today I am writing with the sad news that I have been completely wrong in thinking there was such a time. I recently found this ad in a small-town Indiana newspaper from 1897:
Further inspection of this newspaper revealed that the Erie Medical Company advertised in every single issue. Another ad promoted their “wonderful new medical book written for men only: Complete Manhood and How to Attain It.” Another variation:
“Vigor of men easily, quickly, permanently restored. Weakness, nervousness, debility, and all the train of evils from early errors or later excesses, the results of overwork, sickness, worry, etc. Full strength, development and tone given to every organ and portion of the body. Simple, natural methods. Immediate improvement seen. Failure impossible.”
So it would appear that these ads have pretty much always been around. The difference is that the Federal Trade Commission, regulating deceptive advertising, was not established until 1914, which is why the “Erie Medical Company” could make such ridiculous claims as “failure impossible.”
Another big difference is that, while these ads appeared in smaller type than the rest of the paper, usually near the bottom of the page, these kinds of ads appear today on television during prime time. I have witnessed firsthand how this can cause some serious awkwardness.
During my first year as a reference librarian, a mortified mother came into the library one day and explained to me that her 13-year-old son, who “never wants to talk about anything,” asked her this question while they were watching TV the night before: “What is erectile dysfunction?”
She was too embarrassed to talk about it with him, which is why she found herself standing in the middle of a public library talking about it with a complete stranger.
I get that this is tricky territory for me to tackle, since I am not a parent myself. But I was baffled during my time on the reference desk by the number of moms who asked me for a book to explain sex to their kids. Also baffling was that these moms were so picky about which information they wanted their kids to have.
This particular mother, while flipping through one book, came upon an illustration of a girl inserting a tampon alongside an explanation of menstruation. She immediately shut the book and deemed it inappropriate.
“He doesn’t need to know that,” she said.
It struck me then how nice it would be if 13-year-old boys did know a little bit more about what their female peers were dealing with. Perhaps they would be slightly more understanding of how hard it truly is to be a 13-year-old girl.
The moms I encountered also generally did not want their sex books to discuss contraception and/or protection of any kind. They wanted their kids to understand how to have sex, but not how to be smart about it. The books that usually won out included textbook explanations accompanied by cartoon animals, and very little actual information.
I always got the impression that these moms had no intention of discussing these issues with their children before they were forced to address them because of an uncomfortable, unexpected moment in front of the television. I personally do not remember these kinds of ads being on TV when I was growing up; however, I do remember when an episode of Roseanne prompted me to ask this unfortunate question: “Dad, what’s a period?”
His response: “Ask your sister.”
Luckily, my mom was more prepared. She gave my sister and I a book, So That’s How I Was Born, when we were very young. It did have cartoon illustrations, but they were completely age-appropriate at the time. The book was written by a doctor to make children feel comfortable asking their parents questions.
That day at the library, after the horrified mother left with a cartoon book for her teenage son, I pictured this boy at the lunch table the next day, or waiting for the bus in the morning, asking his buddy, “Uh, hey, Tommy, do you know what erectile dysfunction is?”
Tommy might know, but if he doesn’t he probably makes something up for fear of looking stupid, or he pulls the classic, “Yeah, don’t you?” which both ends the conversation and makes the kid feel like a total jackass. The kid’s either going to end up with factual information (highly unlikely), wrong information (quite possible), or no information at all, plus the added bonus of feeling stupid for seeking information in the first place.
Once he’s been shot down by both an adult and a peer, we all know where he will be turning for answers. Yes, the trusty Internet is guaranteed to provide him with plenty of information – and “illustrations” – on this topic.
Too bad mom didn’t just suck it up and answer the question.