October 13, 2019

The Commercials That Made Us (Or at Least Me)


Like every other kid then and now, when I was young I had my share of TV shows I watched religiously. Back in those days before cable and the Internet and all those gizmos designed to let you watch things whenever you like, you had one chance and one chance only to see the latest episode of a favorite series or a made-for-TV movie. Miss it and you were out of luck, at least until re-runs began over the summer, and even then it was a crapshoot. So I would arrange my schedule accordingly, to ensure I was in front of the TV at the appointed time every week. There was Kolchak: The Night Stalker, In Search Of, the ninety-minute cluster of Looney Tunes shorts every Saturday morning, and, ummm . . . Well, I’m sure there were other favorite shows I never missed back then, but they aren’t coming to me now.

            To me, actual television programming wasn’t the issue. Shows were fine, sure, but it was the commercials that obsessed me. I think part of that was commercials, unlike the shows they bracketed, were re-run so often, were so damned ubiquitous, that I had the opportunity to study them much more closely. Over time I came to recognize small, unintentional weirdness, strange line readings, incongruities and the simply bizarre details that led to obsession. So much so that I now recall the commercials from that era much more clearly than the hugely popular TV shows themselves. I haven’t watched regular TV in over a decade now, so can’t speak to what the commercials are like anymore. Back in the Seventies, particularly the locally-produced ads you encountered in a relatively small town produced a treasure trove of the mind-boggling, if you looked at things the right way.

            I didn’t give a toss about the big national ad campaigns everyone talked about—Coke’s “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” or the Oscar Meyer bologna ad with the curly-headed kid fishing on a dock, or that “Borgasmord” thing, whatever that was for. Most of the ads that obsessed me seemed to go unnoticed by the masses. That said, I should note that all the following are based on nearly half-century-old memories. Although none of these commercials seem to have been posted online, I remain confident in the accuracy of the descriptions.

            Green Bay boasted a local fast food burger chain called Mars. I think they had two or three outlets. The food was third-rate, but I loved the Mars-themed decor, and the chain’s sorely underused lumpy little Martian mascot. Weird thing is, it was a fast food chain with, as I recall, dark wood-paneled walls, red leatherette booths, and shag carpeting in the dining room, almost as if they originally intended to be a real restaurant, but failed. Although my family didn’t go there very often, I was brought there on a field trip when I was in fourth or fifth grade, I guess to illustrate where half of us would be working ten years down the line.

            Anyway, to promote their new roast beef sandwich—this was likely around 1974—they shot a little no-budget commercial that ran eight or nine times a day for six months. As spaghetti Western music plays on the soundtrack, a gawky, unsmiling sixteen-year-old dressed like a cowboy saunters into Mars, takes a seat in a booth and peruses a menu until he’s approached by an awkward and self-conscious teenage waitress. (I don’t recall Mars having table service. But I could be wrong.) The film was grainy, the colors washed out, and it had clearly been shot silent, likely on Super-8, with all the voices dubbed in clumsily afterward.

            A disembodied female voice that was almost synched up with the actress asks, “Can I take your order?”

            The gawky kid in the cowboy get up turns to the camera and opens his mouth. Instead of a dorky teenage voice, a deep, rumbling, phlegmy adult voice announces, “Mars . . . Roast Beef.”

            At that point the announcer kicked in, extolling the virtues of the new sandwich, but by that time I’d stopped listening. That’s what got me, that wholly incongruous voice coming out of that dorky kid’s mouth. It was very unsettling to my young mind. It sounded like he was going to be sick. In the commercial’s final shot, we see the kid, still unsmiling, eating the most unappetizing sandwich you can imagine—just a pile of brown gray slop on a bun. That shot and the voice led me to refer to that sandwich as “Mars . . . Roast Barf,” which would go on to be the subject of many a dumb comic strip scratched out in the back of my notebook at school.

            Around the same time, in and amongst the iconic Iron Eyes Cody ad and big pushes for solar power, recycling, and clean-running cars, the ecologically-minded also began urging major beverage companies to stop using tin cans with pull tops. At the time discarded tin cans had become as much an environmental scourge as plastic water bottles are today. A year or two before the industry was pressured into switching over to recyclable aluminum cans with pop tops, Green Bay’s local Pepsi Cola bottler (one of the bigger industries in town) went on the offensive, releasing an animated commercial aimed directly at kids and set to air ceaselessly during after-school cartoon shows.

            I use the term “animated” very loosely here. It was just a string of crudely drawn pictures, each different from the rest, all strung together to give the illusion of animation. The thirty-second spot featured what I believe was meant to be a kangaroo. In an exaggerated cartoon kangaroo voice, the narration went like this:

            “Hi! I’m [I forget the kangaroo’s name]. And I’m a happy critter. But Dumpy Digby makes me mad, ‘cause all he does is litter. We don’t like him either, and want everyone to know it. So do not let people tell you that cans are not good things—it’s Dumpy Digby’s littering! It isn’t cans that we should ban—it’s Dumpy Digby’s littering! This Love America message brought to you by your local Pepsi Cola bottler.”

            It only occurs to me now that this was apparently intended to be a little poem, but whoever wrote it gave up after the first couplet, resorting at the end to rhyming “littering” with “littering.” I’d also never caught that weird shift from “I” to “We.” What the hell’s that? Was the kangaroo suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder?

            Well, whatever. That was the whole ad. At the time I hadn’t been aware of the push to get rid of tin cans, but I could sense there was something insidious going on here. I knew I shouldn’t trust public service ads put out by major corporations and aimed at kids. What really got me, though, was that last line, especially the way the kangaroo had a glottal stop that left him pronouncing “bottler” “bah-ler.” Drove me nuts.

            Now back then, being an obnoxious kid with a tape recorder, I decided I wanted evidence of just how ubiquitous this ad was in the afternoons. So one day after school I waited by the TV and the first time it came on I taped the ad in its entirety, and with every subsequent airing, I only taped the last line. I had no idea what a tape loop was back then, but accidentally created one by filling the side of a cassette with thirty or forty repetitions of “This Love America message brought to you by your local Pepsi Cola bah-ler,” all recorded over a two-day stretch. PepsiCo, I’m telling you, must have been pretty desperate to not only dump that much money into air time, but to put their faith in local eight-year-olds to stop tin can legislation.

            God, and then there were the cautionary ads aimed at kids. Does anyone remember the spots warning kids to stay away from blasting caps? I had no idea what blasting caps were, but they sounded like something fun you’d set off on the Fourth of July. The ad consisted of a series of ominous shots of what I presumed were different configurations of blasting caps, each punctuated by a sharp flash of light and the rumble of a massive explosion. Apparently if you sneezed around one, walked past one, looked at one, it would detonate. Clearly these things could blow off hands and legs, but the only thing the ad said was that it could leave you blind. I’ve still never encountered a blasting cap in my life, but should I run into one now I guess I have nothing to worry about.

            Then there were the American Lung Association’s “Like Father, Like Son,” spots. To the light tinkle of a commonly-used bit of bouncy piano jazz, we get a series of shots of a dad and his young son doing things together. In each, we see the son mimicking his dad in some cute and charming way—the dad washes the car, as the kid washes the hubcaps with a squirt gun, etc. With each scene, an announcer, his heart obviously warmed by the images, says, “like father, like son.” In the final shot, the two, relaxing after a long day of wholesome activities, are sitting under a tree. The dad lights up a cigarette and tosses the pack on the grass between them. As the commercial closes, the music turns dark and the narrator returns with a grim and ominous, “Like father . . . like son,” and the whole thing ends with a freeze frame of a tiny hand reaching for the pack of cigarettes.

            When I was a kid, that ad always made me want to start smoking. I’m not sure why.

            I forget when they first began airing, but TV spots for a mail-order Slim Whitman album became a national joke, thanks not only to Whitman’s trademark yodel and sequined blue suit, but the ad’s claim that Whitman—whom precious few had ever heard of prior to this, had “sold more records in England than Elvis or The Beatles.” The Slim Whitman ad never interested me much, probably because it became such a national phenomenon. What interested me were the other aging artists who tried to cash in on the Whitman hype with low-budget mail-order ads of their own. Upstate New York-born Polka band leader Jimmy Sturr announced, in a heavy Wisconsin accent, “Our last album was so popular, we decided to record another!” The spot for a Connie Francis album was brilliantly parodied in a shot-by-shot recreation on SCTV. And then there was Boxcar Willie. I didn’t know until that ad started running that he’d been in the Air Force with my dad, and that they were old friends. It came on the TV one night, and out of nowhere my dad said, “That man has never been on a train in his life.” But that’s another story.

            The Boxcar Willie ad was reasonably slick when compared with the others. Except for one shot, and it took half a dozen viewings before I caught this. We see Boxcar from behind as he performs some lively hobo tune or another in front of a live audience. The crowd seems enthusiastic, and in fact they’re all clapping in time together with the song. But only when you looked closely did you notice that none of the people in the audience were clapping in unison.

            For my money, the king of all the sad mail-order album commercials predated the Slim Whitman ad by at least five years. “Candlelight Music Proudly presents . . . ” the excited announcer declares, “the living legend of Roy Orbison!” A snippet of “Dream Baby” kicks in over a shot of a marble bust of Orbison in someone’s garden.

            That may well have been the very first commercial that deeply, seriously obsessed me, and certainly marked the beginning of my lifelong obsession with Orbison himself. At the time, over a decade before his comeback thanks to David Lynch and Blue Velvet, Orbison’s career was on the skids. He hadn’t had a hit since 1969, was playing shabby little clubs, and though he was still releasing albums, no one noticed. Hence the need for a TV spot to remind people he was still alive.

            The real magic of the commercial was that each song clip was matched visually with a short bit of clunky cardboard cut out animation. The strident guitar strumming during “Running Scared” was paired with a cardboard arm mechanically strumming a cardboard guitar. For “Blue Angel,” we see a, well, cardboard blue angel floating toward the screen. And of course the ad ends with Orbison’s soaring epic of hopelessness, “It’s Over.” It was all cheap quick cuts that stepped beyond the obvious into the Dada, and may well be the Greatest Commercial Ever Made.

            But there were others that struck me. I never understood how Doan’s Pills could be engineered to specifically target back muscles and nothing else, but as their ad clearly illustrated, that may be an irrelevant concern. In the ad, we are presented with a man in silhouette standing in front of a semicircle lined with hash marks like the face of a clock. Although it’s never stated, viewers were to presume the man is suffering from serious back pain. He raises his right arm to about the two o’clock mark on that semi-circle, apparently to illustrate his limited range of motion before swallowing some Doan’s Pills. In the “After” scene, he again raises his arm to illustrate his newfound freedom of motion—except that his arm only goes up to the exact same hash mark he reached while in excruciating pain.

            There was also the commercial for Glad kitchen trash bags in which a stern mother and her obnoxious thirteen-year-old whiner of a son show us why paper grocery bags are not ideal for kitchen garbage. And there was that deeply disturbing ad for Off mosquito repellent, in which a man sticks his bare arm, sans Off, into a clear Plexiglas box filled with a reported ten thousand mosquitoes, which of course immediately attack the bare flesh. Then after a dose of Off, the man once again sticks his arm in the box where, if you watch closely, just as many mosquitoes attack him. I’m guessing the marketing people at Off, perhaps the same ones behind that Doan’s Pills ad, were hoping viewer psychology would kick in, and they’d see what they were expected to see—namely mosquitoes avoiding the protected arm—instead of what actually appeared on the screen. My theory was always that they simply reused the same shot and hoped no one would notice, because the actor refused to stick his arm back inside that fucking box a second time.

            Oh! And then there was the ad for some laundry detergent or another—I forget what brand—in which a housewife illustrates all the horrific stains she encounters over the course of the average week. She holds up a pair of boy’s pants covered in mud and grass stains. This is followed by a young girl’s party dress stained with what we’re told is chocolate ice cream. Finally she holds up her husband’s work shirt, which is completely soaked in blood. Wait, what? The whole thing was soaked in fucking blood! Now of course I understand the point they were quietly trying to make, but Jesus Christ! I was always waiting for the sequel to that one, in which we learn the detergent saved the day when the police came around looking for evidence after the woman’s husband was found stabbed thirty-two times: “And this was the shirt he was wearing, officers,” holding it up to reveal it’s clean as can be.

            Ah, but to my young and easily amused brain, the only commercial that came close to touching that Roy Orbison ad for endless entertainment value was the Mister Salty Pretzel spot. Do they even make Mister Salty Pretzels anymore, or have they been forced to change the name to “Mister Healthy Pretzels”?

            For those unfamiliar, Mister Salty was a little oval-headed man made of thin pretzels who stands with legs apart, his arms akimbo. He wears a sailor cap tilted at a jaunty angle, his broad smile revealing he has only one enormous tooth filling his mouth. He’s also been cursed with some kind of horrible skin disease. As the commercial opens, a 3D-animated Mister Salty leaps off the front of the box and begins dancing around a kitchen table as he sings:

No matter what you pour

You’ll like it even more

With a Mister Salty pretzel!

No matter what you pour

You’ll like it even more

With a Mister Salty Pretzel

Lots of wholesome taste for you

They’re oven baked all through and through

They’ve got the crunch you’ll wanna tryyyy…


No matter what you pour

You’ll like it even more

With a Mister Salty Pretzel—that’s me!

From Nabisco [TING!]

            Not only did that ad inspire countless notebook comic strips in which Mister Salty comes to assorted untimely, gruesome but hilarious ends—it also inspired my friend Gary and me to record a dozen different variations of the jingle, including country, gospel, and heavy metal versions.

            Christ, then there was the ad for Whee-Lo (“when you’ve got a Whee-Lo, what’ve you got? A super-magnetic mystery top!”) in which a kid plays with a Whee-Lo as another kid who’s watching him gets WAY too excited, and Silly Sand (“Silly Sand, Silly Sand, here’s how you use Silly Sand/Mix the sand with water and squeeze it out the tube…”), and, oh, fuck it.

            Oh, what a completely wasted youth I had, lost in the corrupt minutiae of global marketing. But on the bright side I think I did come away from it all with a healthy skepticism, and a seriously critical eye when it came to matters of advertising. All of which reminds me yet again I went into the wrong fucking business. Even when I was nine I could’ve written a better poem about littering for a fucking corporate shill of a sort-of animated kangaroo.


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