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11 Shameless Comic Book Ads That Cost Us Our Allowance

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If today's Generation Y and Z-ers accuse us Baby Boomers of being cynical and distrustful, well, I for one blame it all on comic books. How many of us who grew up in the 1960s and early '70s were lured by those enticing ads promising everything from X-Ray vision to frolicking, crown-wearing sea monkey pets for a mere couple of bucks? It took (in my case) a best friend with a generous weekly allowance and two parents who worked outside of the home to open my young eyes to the sad fact that advertisements didn't always tell the truth.

1. X-Ray Specs

I supposed the "optical illusion" disclaimer should've been a tip-off, but hey, who paid attention to fine print when the prospect of seeing through unsuspecting people's clothes was at your nose tip? In reality, the Specs weren't particularly discreet; they were pieces of cardboard printed with red and white hypnotic spirals and the words "X-Ray Vision" where the lenses should have been. Did they work? Well, if you studied your hand long enough against a bright light it kinda sorta looked as if you were seeing a blurry X-ray image, thanks to a feather glued inside each of the cardboard "lenses."

2. Sea Monkeys


It's not surprising to learn that the man who patented X-Ray Specs, Harold von Braunhut, was the same entrepreneur who passed off brine shrimp as trainable pets. Those of us who parted with a hard-earned buck and a quarter learned not only that the "happiness" displayed in the bowlful was only observable through a magnifying glass, but also that the little creatures looked more like creepy flagellating bacteria than the Seuss-like cartoon characters featured in the ads.

3. Frontier Cabin


My friend (and co-conspirator in most of my mail-order mischief) Mary and I spent longer arguing over whose name should be on the free nameplate (she finally agreed with my logic that if they supplied a "Kara" tag it proved that these cabins really were made to order!) than we did playing with the stupid thing. Imagine our disappointment as we waited at her front door every day that summer when we heard the UPS truck rumbling down the street, only to have the mailman eventually hand us a padded 9"x14" manila envelope. Inside the package was a tightly folded vinyl sheet that had the design of a Frontier Cabin printed on it. It assumed cabin shape only after it was draped over a card table or some similar piece of furniture. And it was impossible to spend much time huddled inside the thing lest we became asphyxiated by the plastic-y vinyl fumes that clung to it.

4. Ventriloquist Device


For only a quarter you could annoy your teachers and confound your parents?! I couldn't slap that six-cent postage stamp on the envelope fast enough! The gadget I received in exchange for that hard-earned 31 cents was something professional ventriloquists call a "swazzle." It was basically a modified tiny kazoo that you could (after much practice to avoid gagging on or swallowing the thing) conceal in your mouth and make squeaky, whistling high-pitched noises. (Back in the days of Punch and Judy shows, the puppeteer who worked Mr. Punch used a swazzle to create the screechy incomprehensible vocalizations associated with the character.) Oh, and that tiny pamphlet that taught you "How to Become a Ventriloquist" did not mention the use of the swazzle at all, it simply gave hints on how to articulate words without moving your lips.

5. Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension

Since I never felt the need to have Mr. Universe-sized biceps, I never sent away for the Charles Atlas program, but many millions of other comic book readers did. Who doesn't remember the full-page ad featuring the humiliation of the 97 lb. weakling named Mac getting sand kicked in his face at the beach? Said scrawny lad eventually returns to the beach with a newly buff physique after subscribing to the Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension program of exercise. The advertisement was based on the allegedly true story of Charles Atlas, who'd claimed to have sand kicked in his scrawny face at Coney Island by a husky lifeguard. As is often the case, truth is more boring than fiction. In reality, Angelo Siciliano (Atlas' birth name) had always been a strong child, and when he and his divorced mom moved from Italy to Brooklyn, New York, he lifted weights to further improve his physique. As a teen, he got a job demonstrating a chest expander in a department store window. He went on to win a bodybuilding contest and attempted to start his own mail-order business. However, his strengths didn't extend to marketing savvy, so he struggled until he hooked up with advertising exec Charles Roman. Roman re-christened Siciliano "Charles Atlas" and came up with the backstory of the puny guy losing his girl to a more muscular specimen.

6. Kryptonite Rocks

For the low price of $2.50 you could earn Superman's eternal gratitude by purchasing these Kryptonite rocks and keeping them out of the hands of the Forces of Evil. Skeptics in the audience might posit that these were nothing more than regular rocks painted glow-in-the-dark green, but how would they prove it? After all, if Superman never showed up at your house, the Kryptonite was obviously doing its job, right?

7. Fake Facial Hair


Looking suave didn't come cheaply; at three bucks for either a Van Dyke or set of mutton chop sideburns, a happenin' dude with a limited income had to decide between "cool" or "distinguished." Luckily this paste-on facial fuzz came with a "complete guide" on how to properly wear your hair, lest some folks unclear on the concept glue a 'stache to their foreheads by mistake.

8. Free Miniature Monkey


Once in a while, there is some justice to be found in the world. The above ad (sometimes a miniature dog was offered instead of the monkey) was placed by a mail order photo finishing company in Iowa called Dean Studios. In order to win a miniature animal, you had to not only distribute 20 coupons for Dean's services, those 20 people also had to place a minimum order with the company. The Federal Trade Commission got involved in 1960 and discovered that the company not only had never awarded a prize, they didn't even have access to any of the tiny creatures. An official Cease and Desist Letter was eventually issued.

9. P.F. Flyers

P.F. Flyers were the Air Jordans of the 1960s. The brand advertised heavily in comic books and on TV and led many unsuspecting un-athletic kids to believe that all they needed to not be chosen last in gym class was a pair of expensive sneakers. Even though (for a limited time only!) the shoes came with a free Johnny Quest Magic Ring (equipped with a magnifying glass, secret compartment, and code flasher), they still probably weren't your best line of defense in the event of a bear attack.

10. Hypno-Coin


*Sigh* A whole buck for nothing more than a swirly pattern on a wiggle badge. That money back guarantee was also a sham, since you had to pay for the return postage (properly packaged and insured).

11. Polaris Submarine


Obviously, since this puppy cost a whopping seven dollars (compared to the 10 and 50 cent items advertised), it had to be on the level. Living very near Lake St. Clair, Mary and I had all sorts of plans for our sub when it arrived – "we can sneak across to Canada without paying the toll!" Alas, chalk up one more childhood dream dashed; the "nuclear sub" was made of cardboard (which was shipped flat in a box and required assembly). The torpedo and rocket launchers? Rubber bands. I still can't decide which hurt most – the submarine that was water-soluble, or the parents who tsked and lectured "Maybe you've learned your lesson this time..."
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What about you? Did you ever sell Grit or order 200 plastic army men? Share your mail-order memories with the rest of us!

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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The iMac Was Almost Called the MacMan
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John G. Mabanglo/Getty Images

After breaking out with its Macintosh line of personal computers in the 1980s, Apple was in a slump. Sales had flagged as Microsoft's Windows operating system made waves. In 1998, the company was set to unveil a product that it hoped would reinvigorate its brand.

And they almost blew it.

According to Ken Segall, the advertising genius behind their "Think Different" campaign, Apple founder Steve Jobs was expecting the iMac to reverse the company's ailing fortunes. Where older Macs had been boxy, beige, and bland, the iMac came in an assortment of colors and had a transparent chassis that showed off its circuitry. The problem, as Segall writes in his new book, Insanely Simple, was that Jobs didn't want to call it the iMac. He wanted to call it the MacMan.

"While that frightening name is banging around in your head, I'd like you to think for a moment about the art of product naming," Segall writes. "Because of all the things in this world that cry out for simplicity, product naming probably contains the most glaring examples of right and wrong. From some companies, you see names like 'iPhone.' From others you see names like ‘Casio G'zOne Commando' or the ‘Sony DVP SR200P/B' DVD player."

According to Segall, Jobs liked the fact that MacMan was slightly reminiscent of Sony's Walkman branding concept for its line of cassette players. (Later, Sony had a Discman, Pressman, and Talkman.) But Segall, who named products for a living, feared the name would take away from Apple's identity as being original. It was also gender-biased, and alienating an entire demographic of consumers was never a good thing.

Instead, Segall suggested "iMac," with the "i" for internet, because the unit was designed to connect easily to the web. Jobs "hated" the idea, along with other suggestions, even though Segall felt the iMac could provide a foundation to name other devices, just as Sony's Walkman had. Segall kept suggesting it, and Jobs eventually had it printed on a prototype model to see how it would look. After encouragement from his staff, he dropped MacMan. With this key contribution, Segall made sure no one would be lining up to buy a PhoneMan 10 years later. 

[h/t FastCoDesign]

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