Aye, there’s the nose rub

How Madison Avenue reinvented the Inuit



“I dreamed I was an eskimo in my Maidenform bra. Guess whose figure is going around in Arctic circles? It’s mine and it’s marvelous – so sleek and smooth, so fabulously curved. Here on top of the world we know what makes the world go round … it’s Maidenform.”

A women in a fur hat and fur-trimmed mittens – topless, except for her “sleek, smooth, fabulously curved” undergarment – attracts the attention of a giddy polar bear in a 1954 Maidenform ad.

It’s a mystery, though, where the ad’s creators got the idea that “Eskimo” women walk around topless playing peek-a-boo with polar bears, or why depicting them in this way would help sell bras.

The ad is one of more than 100 examples of Eskimos in advertising on display at the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit.

“Some are positive, some are negative,” said Madeleine Redfern, who compiled the collection over the past 10 years with her husband Jae.

“Sometimes the connection to the product is instantly recognizable. Other times, you wonder why.”

“The stereotypical eskimo wears a fur parka and lives in an igloo. They spend their time hunting seals and polar bears, eating raw meat and rubbing noses,” the Redferns write in an introduction to the exhibit, which opened on Feb. 14 and runs until early March.

Their collection contains a variety of examples of the stereotypical happy, hardy Eskimo as a mascot for antifreeze and ice cream bars. In one image, by American artist Norman Rockwell, an enthusiastic refrigerator salesman makes a pitch to an Inuit family.

“Often, Eskimos were thought of as very simple people. The complexity of technology was often missed, as our way of life was compared to that of the civilized world,” Madeleine said.

“But after a couple of unsuccessful and highly publicized Arctic expeditions, in which crews were lost, and even search-and-rescue expeditions failed to return, people began to realize that these northerners had a wealth of knowledge about their land.”

Then, a different stereotype began to emerge.

“You had these noble savages, these ingenious Inuit who could survive in the harsh cold,” Madeleine said.

“The stereotype is not of Inuit creation, but of advertisers, or of the audience they are reaching out to.”

The Redferns acquired their collection – which ranges from Eskimo Barbie to a four-foot-tall smiling eskimo mannequin used as a window display for Clicoquot Club soda – mainly by searching the Internet. Ads for Soapine soap and Eskimo Safety Matches date back to the 1890s. Their earliest ad, for McLaughlin’s, is from 1889.

They also picked up more recent ads in international magazines and newspapers they found on their travels. One panel of the exhibit displays five ads for C&G Mortgages that ran in publications in the United Kingdom in the 1990s.

“It was shocking to us that a British financial institution would use Eskimos – especially when we have such a housing crisis here in Nunavut.”

Of course, except for one 1967 ad for TransCanada Telephone Systems, which featured the late Naki Ekho, the ads don’t represent Inuit at all.

“Any Asian or person with fur will do,” Madeleine said.

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