How Marketers Got 1950’s Housewives Drunk
The Queen’s Gambit is one of the most popular Netflix productions of 2020. The miniseries isn’t just about a female chess protégée in a male-dominated environment. It is also about female alcoholism and substance abuse. What might appear surprising from today’s perspective is an accurate depiction of how women casually drowned their misery — and how marketers got housewives of the 1950’s and 1960’s drunk.
Alcohol as an Escape From Boring Lives and Social Pressure
Film and art have the great power to convey the spirit of an era. Matthew Winer’s Mad Men not only drew a picture of 1960’s madmen, but the series also showed how accepted daily day-time-drinking was. The leading men and the female characters drink. Elizabeth Moss’ Peggy Olson character drinks at work, just as Christina Hendrick’s Joan Holloway character hardly skips a drink when she’s offered one. However, “madmen” drinking mostly seemed fun, light, and even cool.
In 2020, The Queen’s Gambit portrayed hidden alcoholism in a much more uncomfortable way. The leading figure, Beth, has been suffering from issues with intoxicating substances since her childhood and is spiraling downward as an adult. Her adoptive mother, Alma, numbs her own pain with tranquilizers and martinis. Even the high school bully, Margaret, seems to be having a drinking problem after giving birth to her first child.
Women of the 1950s and early 1960s were supposed to be happy but often felt trapped. After World War II ended, the idea of Rosie the Riveter disappeared quickly and women were pushed into more traditional roles. Although women have been part of the war economy, it seemed abnormal to politicians and businesses to employ women outside of a state of crisis. They were expected to be loving housewives enjoying the perks of the booming post-war economy in suburban houses. Yet, lacking autonomy and agency, some women treated their boredom or despair with alcohol and wondered why they are not happy although they seemed to “have it all.”
Marketing Alcohol as a Solution to Your Problems
Interestingly enough, this toxic way of treating one’s misery has been fairly acceptable. It has been even marketed.
Let’s take an example from West Germany of that era: Frauengold. The name can be translated as “women’s gold” and it was a drink that was sold in pharmacies. It was advertised as an uplifting yet calming tonic water. However, it was basically an herbal liquor with 16.5% alcohol.
The target group in the 1950s were housewives. TV commercials depicted a stressed housewife who is irritated. She talks to herself in the mirror, remembering how she used to react calmly and lovingly even when he spilled a drink. Her mirror-self reminds her of the youthful glow and ease she had at the beginning of her marriage. This Frauengold spot with English subs shows the atmosphere of that era:
According to Angela Cantrup, who wrote her Ph.D. thesis on the nutritional supplements in family households, after World War II, female work has been perceived as a sign of poverty and misery. Therefore, various campaigns targeted women to seek a domestic role. However, the frustrations of this new life were real — this is where Frauengold was supposed to help.
In the 1960s, Frauengold marketing evolved and captured the new modern zeitgeist. Gradually, more and more women entered the labor market. Again, Frauengold showed everyday situations where women reacted rudely. For instance, in one commercial a secretary is being shown to react aggressively towards her manager. She receives advice from a colleague to drink Frauengold. Who doesn’t like a tipsy employee?
In 1981, Frauengold was banned from the market after scientists identified ingredients that were potentially carcinogenic and damaging to the kidneys.
A Successful Brand With a Questionable Heritage
Was Frauengold successful? From a marketing standpoint, it was. Two decades after the drink was banned, nearly every 10th German still knew the brand. Frauengold had left a mark in pop culture.
The brand has paved the way for casual female alcoholism. The toxic and damaging idea that drinking could be a solution to one’s problems has prevailed for decades.
Clearly, the product has been harmful and downplayed any risk of alcohol consumption. Instead of openly addressing the issues women faced in that era, marketers instead chose to sell a product to numb and silence them.
In the case of Frauengold, there has never been a real debate about corporate responsibility or the conflicts within marketing when advertising damaging products. Critics highlighted the hidden tradition of housewife alcoholism, but no real consequences followed.
It appeared as if the marketing industry didn’t have moral boundaries and anything was allowed as long as it would sell. Such examples have damaged the reputation of marketers and advertisers. This heritage is still present. Yet, with growing consciousness and public awareness, damaging products are a lot less likely to be sold nowadays.