Thursday, September 2, 2021

The serpent in advertising – from ancient Greece to the 20th century - Part 2

 Matthias Kuechler

The abuse prevention of the harmful drug alcohol is fairly often advertised with snakes as the symbol of that evil "liquid. (Fig. 13–15). Snakes are generally regarded as dangerous and therefore are an ideal metaphor for the sad results of the abuse of alcohol. But to their rescue of honor now an example of their more positive properties (Fig. 16). Here people think more of cuddling than of killing. Snakes have earned this, even if it goes beyond the time scope of this article. 

Finally, within the field of medicine, there is the infamous snake oil. For this product, snakes are not only the advertising icon but also supply the main ingredient. At least on the bottle label. Snake oil supposedly originate with Chinese immigrant laborers constructing the transcontinental railway during the 1860s. It was shared with their American counterparts, who were more than happy with its pain–relieving effects. And some advertising (Fig. 17–19) certainly helped its success American wide. But the advertised real snake oil contained in most cases everything except snake oil. Here are the results of the laboratory testing of such a mixture mineral oil, 1% fatty oil (assumed to be tallow), capsaicin from chili peppers, turpentine, and camphor. If you survive that cocktail, no other illness can harm you! And there is a strange and rare example where snakes (or better one snake: the Aesculapian Snake – Zamenis longissimus) are used for promoting tourism (Fig. 20–21). 

The small German village Bad Schlangenbad was – and still is – famous for its thermal springs and mild climate. And it is one of the three isolated habitats in Germany where the Aesculapian Snake occurs. Today, it is certain that this snake is an autochthonous relic and has not been introduced by the Romans. And I was not yet able to find additional examples – before the 1950s – of snakes posing for touristic ads. It is not surprising that politicians have jumped on the possibilities serpents offer to them to advertise them as representatives for evil and dangerous opponents. In that context, it does not matter what kind of political belief (left or right) is behind (Fig. 22–24). In 90% of the cases, the snake stands for the opposing party / the villains. The observant reader will have noticed that the artist of the American war poster has added a toad for good measure—the complete herpetology under the boot. To my astonishment, the theme of eroticism was near completely absent. (That changed drastically during the second half of the 20th century. But that's another story.) Apart from some decent ads with snake charmers (Fig. 25–26) in sideshows and circus events, there were no further commercial ads with that background. And finally, two examples for using elegant snake symbols (and the addition of pretty women certainly helps, okay a bit of eroticism creeps in) for advertising a product that leads to severe addiction and, in the end, will cause damage to your body. Tobacco! (Fig. 27–28). Here the serpent functions as a temptress for leading people astray. And that works, as I have experienced myself 50 years ago. But in the market for tobacco products, snakes play only a minor role. Their herp relations – especially frogs and crocodiles/alligators – are featured there more than10 times as often. I hope that this angle of looking at herps in general and here focused on snakes, even if it is not based on serious science, will show an interesting and fascinating aspect of herpetology. I started my research, when I saw a wine label with a nice frog on it during a dinner meeting. I didn't expect to find much more, but I found more than 2,000 herpetological motives for all kind of products and services. And it continues.

Fig. 13. Russian “War Against Alcohol“ campaign poster 1954 - 1958.

Fig. 14.  Cinema poster ( Germany / Berlin ) 1920. At the time the Marmorhaus ( house of marble) was closed down in 2001, it was the oldest movie theater (opened 1913) in Berlin.

Fig. 15. A newspaper ad in the San Francisco 1903. At her time that lady was quite popular.

Fig. 16. Pharmacy sign, Friedberg in Germany, approx. 2005.

Fig. 17.  St. Jacobs Oil was a turpentine-ether-alcohol tincture with 2% of Aconite. Production was started 1845 in the US by the German immigrant August Vogeler and distributed US wide under A. Vogeler & Co., Baltimore. It was used for pain relief.

Fig. 18.  Just one of many “Pure Snake Oil” ointment ads. This one is from Portland, Oregon, approx. 1890.

Fig. 19. Another example of the (in-)famous „Pure Snake Oil“ cure-all patent medicines, early 1900s.

Fig. 20-22. And there is a strange and rare example where snakes ( or better one snake: the Aesulapian Snake - Zamenis longissimus ) are used for promoting tourism. See the 3 postcards from 1903, 1927 and 1950s respectively. The small German village Bad Schlangenbad was - and still is - famous for its thermal springs and mild climate. And it is one of the three isolated habitats in Germany, where the Aesculapian Snake occurs. Today it is quite certain, that this snake is an autochthonous relic and has not been introduced by the Romans.

Fig.23.  “Down with Bolshevism“ propaganda poster ( right wing parties and military ) during the German revolution 1919. The revolution finally led to the abdication of the German emperor.

Fig. 24. American war poster 1942 - 1945. The two snakes are representing Germany and Japan, the toad stands for Italy. Source : UNT Libraries Government Doc. Dept.

Fig. 25. Cartoon published by Harper's Weekly1863. It shows the attack of the Peace Democrats - also called Copperheads - who opposed the war policy of the Union strongly.

Fig. 26. Austrian picture postcard (1898) of Semona, the famous snake charmer also known as “Fire Amazon“.

Fig. 27. Poster ad for the snake charmer Nala Damajanti performing in the famous Folies Bergere ( variety theater ), Paris 1887

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