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Classic Commercials




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Copyright © 2004 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 22, 2004.


The very first television commercial was broadcast on July 1, 1941, during a Dodgers-Pirates game on Ebbets Field. It consisted simply of the face of a Bulova clock, with a voice announcing the time. This cost the Bulova company a whole nine dollars.

Of course, it was all downhill from there. However, as much as we hate them, disregard them, zap past them, or swear that they don’t influence us, television commercials are a small slice of our lives. And as much as we do our best to avoid the contemporary ones as we channel surf or head to the refrigerator, nothing shows us our cultural family album like a good old classic commercial. Advertising on television says more about us than any history book. Let’s face it: beer, cars, ice pops, and deodorant are pretty much life as we know it.

This classic collection of over 200 TV commercials (from the 1950s through the 1970s) does not include that first Bulova ad (lost to the ages); however there is plenty here to entice, enchant and annoy and enjoy. You get just about everything you would expect and less – and if you’re old enough, you’ll be surprised at how much of these jingles, slogans and running characters your subconscious has retained.

The most curious samplings from the volume are the most obvious examples of the banality of evil: cigarette commercials. After a decade of corporate/government bargaining, pending legislation and stalled time, the very last cigarette commercial on television, for Virginia Slims, was broadcast during The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on January 1, 1971. Before that last puff was drawn from the pouty lips of a liberated woman who had come a long way, baby, there were literally thousands of cigarette commercials broadcast over the previous twenty years, influencing generations of otherwise healthy people to be glamorous, exciting, youthful and reckless with their health. These ads, as pleasant as a field of spring daisies, had gone as far as reassuring their victims that doctors recommended a certain brand for mildness on the throat, or that specially formulated filters actually prevented a cancer risk. 

The tobacco market was the most competitive of almost all advertised products, and the fight for their share of your lung was knock down and drag-out. Cigarettes didn’t just dance (Old Gold)  but square dance (Lucky Strikes); and they made their filthy appeal to all ages and – eventually, thanks to the civil rights movement – all races. Arguably, the Phillip Morris Company, calling their brand “America’s Finest Cigarette,” possibly even killed the very celebrity endorsers who urged America to “buy ‘em by the carton:” Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who both eventually died of smoking-related ailments.

The pre-cowboy Marlboro Man was just a “guy who likes to work on my car.” He tells us that he gets so engrossed in what he’s doing that he forgets to eat (but he never forgets to smoke). He adds that he is very taken with the new Marlboro “flip-top” box, calling it “interesting and practical.” It didn’t take much to impress the Marlboro Man.

There was a cigarette or cigar message for every segment of the population, and a less-than-subtle sexual innuendo for all who gave in to the temptation. An animated Muriel cigar, dressed like Mae West, purred, “Why don’t you pick me up and smoke me sometime?” Meanwhile, Chesterfields’ message was a bit more homoerotic: “The taste you’ve been missing – the length you’ve learned to like.”

By the late 70s, John Wayne, who was suffering from cancer himself, made this plea on behalf of the American Cancer Society: “We are asking you for help again this year. You’re lucky – it could be the other way around.” His is the most powerful of the celebrity endorsements, but there are others, of course.

Elizabeth Montgomery, as Samantha Stevens, pimps new Kindness Conditioner Hair Spray for your 60s ‘do, with a multi-stepped, complicated explanation of how to spray it on hot curlers that would baffle even a nuclear physicist, let alone a common hausfrau (“spray it on, roll it up, and the heat activates the protein conditioner to give you extra body.” Huh?). And Ozzie Nelson shows you the glorious wonders of his Kodak color slides – in a black and white commercial!

Groucho Marx suggests that you visit your DeSoto dealer (obviously he didn’t suggest it strongly enough) and a pre-Charlie’s Angels Jaclyn Smith proves that she is one of the most beautiful and confident women ever to lather up for Camay. Like DeSotos, they don’t make ‘em like Jaclyn Smith anymore. She was the pinnacle of the celebrity endorser, both before and after her celebrity.

Lovable, trustworthy, dependable characters endorsing products became so popular that they became celebrities themselves. Mr. Whipple, for instance, has a recurring phobia about his supermarket customers orgasmically squeezing rolls of toilet paper. This disorder is so prevalent that his obsessive-compulsive dilemma repeats itself over and over again during the course of decades. In the end, though, Whipple is a troubled hypocrite: he is repeatedly caught doing the dirty deed he so despises in others.

Mrs. Olsen, either widowed or not on good terms with her husband, spends many hours in the kitchens of younger couples, advising the culinarily challenged housewives of the relationship-healing power of mountain-grown coffee. This is so that the young pretties could at last please their snotty husbands, who are always at the ready with a nasty comment about the way their currently putrid coffee tastes.

The most baffling character of all is the strangely cheerful and sexually ambiguous Josephine the Plumber.  Not only does her plumbing career seem to revolve around the trusty Comet cleanser – her entire life (both inner and social) does as well. Could it be that Josephine is actually the embodiment of Comet cleanser itself: abrasive, tough and a bit green?  Her idea of a sense of humor involves telling her customers, with the urgency of the Emergency Alert System, not to use Comet. Once the innocent sap hears this and nearly faints from the irony, Josephine clarifies the comment by instructing them to instead use “new, improved Comet!” With this, the customer breathes a sigh of relief and willingly proceeds to learn more.

The most curious aspect of these character-driven commercials is that the conversations and situations that relay the message are practically identical and, a la Groundhog’s Day, take place over and over and over again, without anybody getting even the slightest feeling of déjà vu (except you, the viewer). The most cloying of these situations is brought to you by Crest toothpaste, whose catchphrase comes (without exception) from an excited child making a beeline from his/her dental exam, exclaiming, “I only had one cavity!” Over the course of a generation, this throwaway line has been carefully sewn into every situation known to man (and woman): a child, barely containing his/her excitement, runs to the parent, appearing as anything from a college professor, a bus driver, a football coach, a heterosexual theatrical actor and a helicopter pilot. In every situation, a curious bystander, barely masking a bubbling curiosity, asks, “how did you do it?” and the parent of the day would reply, as seriously as a priest from a pulpit, “We use Crest now.”

TV commercial characters come in all forms – even animation. We remember that Frankenberry and Count Chocula were the cause of colored stools in millions of baby boomers. However, at least during television’s first two decades, non-animated characters did not come in colors. Although Wisk laundry detergent bravely but briefly introduced the first “integrated” commercial in 1963 (a little league team very quickly included an African American boy), most ads before the late sixties were aimed at upper-middle-class white Americans.

It’s the way we never were: “Where there’s life, there’s Bud,” goes the jazzy beer commercial, as ‘60s WASPs frolic on the beach; a fifties-era Dodge car is put together by an all-Caucasian assembly line; Chevrolet introduces their new line of ‘58’s (“fun to see! Fun to drive!” But they leave out: “Fun to pay for!”) in which a crew-cutted frat boy is allowed the privilege of foregoing the “jalopy” for dad’s new Impala. And Manners the Butler, who for no reason happens to be four-inches tall, politely advises lily-white housewives about Kleenex napkins and how they eliminate the universal problem of napkins falling off your lap (“they cling like cloth!”). Now that this problem is solved, it’s on to cure cancer.

Stereotypes took their good old time going away. An animated “Oriental” baby cries for “glape” Jell-O, but eventually even minorities are welcomed to be as manipulated as Caucasians. One small victory concerned Hispanic watchdog groups working hard to eliminate the Frito Bandito, and good for them. Still, white people were urged to tan (QT) – and even Malibu Barbie turned a chocolate brown (accessories and batteries not included). 

No matter what color, TV commercials were never short of Stepford Wives. Here we see seemingly brainless (or brainwashed) women dreamily hanging their laundry on a clothesline placed conveniently on the beach for Tide detergent (“the cleanest clean under the sun!”); they enthusiastically remove their makeup with Puff’s tissues and marvel a little too much at its absorbent qualities. In addition, the fact that Dove is a dishwashing liquid that thinks it’s a hand lotion is not as fascinating as the housewives who are passionately arguing this fact with an animated dove. For Dole bananas, a Stepford Wife erotically dances in circles as a jingle encourages her: “if you feel it, peel it.” And, as we all know, choosy Stepford Wives choose Jif because they care deeply about their children.

The most sixties of all TV commercials is awarded to Hai Karate, the aftershave that allegedly drives sixties babes mad with desire with one mere whiff. In fact, the contents are supposedly so dangerous that instructions for self-defense are included in every package. Here, we watch a nerdy playboy in his bachelor pad fending off an out-of-control young girl after she exclaims, “What’s that after shave you’re wearing?” The narrator soberly warns a terrified male audience, “Wear too much Hai Karate and women can be a problem.”

An advertising habit that was mercifully put out of its misery in the 1950s (but continues on radio even today) is the live commercial. In the hands of a lesser talent, this format is pure agony, but handled by a master, like Arthur Godfrey for Lipton Instant Soup (his live commercial is almost seven minutes long!), it’s strangely compelling. Here you can watch Godfrey talk about soup for almost as long as it takes for the water to boil, and then he practically has an on-air orgasm over how delicious powdered broth can be.

Not so lucky is the brilliant Betty Furness, who in a classic live TV moment, attempts to show the wonders of a Westinghouse refrigerator even though the door of the contraption refuses to open (“somebody’s playing games,” she says sternly to no one in particular, but never forgets that the show must go on.). However, you can’t help but wonder whose head rolled once that live demonstration was over. She handles it so smoothly that you want to give her a big hug when she finishes, but you feel sorry for the poor schmuck who is about to lose his job.

Finally, the collection contains three total mindblowers. The first, and least lethal, is a commercial for the Ford Edsel, the most unsuccessful car in the history of automobiles. After seeing this monstrosity on wheels, you can see why. Be a witness to history when the ugliest car ever made lunges toward you and the announcer warns us, “they’ll know you’ve arrived.” No kidding.

The second mindblower is the classic public service announcement from the seventies alerting a newly sexually liberated culture about the dangers of venereal disease. In it, a montage of seemingly normal people, from doctors to teachers to babies to moms to nerds to librarians to a lady riding a horse happily floats by your screen, as an old-fashioned crooner sings, “VD is for everybody, not just for the few. Anyone can share VD, with someone as nice as you.” It’s powerful as hell – the absolutely perfect example of how chillingly effective the medium can be when it wants to be.

However, the grandpappy of all mindblowers, the absolute motherfucker of all TV commercials, is Fred Flintstone for Winston cigarettes. Hard to believe now, but in 1960, Winston was The Flintstones’first sponsor. Week after week, Fred, Barney, and even the gals happily smoked their brains out in between “yabba-dabba-doo’s.” You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Fred and Wilma sprawled out on the hard-as-a-rock couch, indulging in a cigarette break. Fred reassures us that, even millions of years ago, Winston still tastes good like a cigarette should.

Of course, too much of any good thing is possibly too much, and you may have to take this experience in small doses. Three hours of TV commercials, even classic ones, are a long time. The exaggerated facial expressions, the outdated technology, the cloying jingles, the fuss over failed products (Screaming Yellow Zonkers anyone?) and the merciless lack of subtlety can get tiresome. Plus, this DVD makes it impossible to maneuver between commercials so that you can zap right to your favorites. This is in contrast to the early sixties ad for the Renault Daphene, in which an attempt is made to sell America a French car because it’s small and easy to maneuver (unlike this collection). However, like this DVD, the biggest selling point of the Renault is that it’s “fun!” And, it has a “city horn” and a “country horn.”

We’re sold!

 Ronald Sklar

Copyright © 2004 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 22, 2004.