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11 Shameless Comic Book Ads That Cost Us Our Allowance

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..."
* * *
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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John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu
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#TBT
The Highs and Lows of the Dell Dude
John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu
John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu

Benjamin Curtis was just 19 years old when he went to the open audition that would change his life, but he still felt like a senior citizen. He was surrounded by child actors from the ages of 12 to 17, most of them accompanied by their mothers. The group was part of a casting call for Dell, the personal computing company well-known to business and educational customers but an unproven commodity for the home market.

Dell’s ad agency, Lowe Worldwide, hoped to change that reputation by introducing the character of Steven, a sharp, tech-savvy teen who would extol the virtues of Dell’s desktop and laptop offerings in a charmingly goofy manner. Even though he was two years outside the age range, Curtis’s agent believed he had a shot.

He read. And read again. And then read a third time. By December 2000, Curtis had gotten the part and was quickly becoming known as the “Dell Dude,” a pitchman who rivaled the Maytag Man in terms of commercial popularity. But by 2003, the character would disappear, victimized by a peculiar kind of corporate hypocrisy. While the Dell Dude’s stoner wisdom was good for laughs and increased sales, Curtis being arrested for actual marijuana possession was not.

In 1984, Michael Dell was a pre-med student at the University of Texas when he began tinkering with home computing hardware. A serial entrepreneur—he once made $18,000 as a teenager collecting data to find new subscribers for the Houston Post—Dell figured that custom machines and aggressive customer support would help fill a niche in the growing PC market.

He was right. Dell racked up $1 million in sales that year and spent the next decade and a half expanding into a billion-dollar enterprise. But a lot of Dell’s business consisted of commercial accounts like schools and government offices, leaving direct-to-consumer sales largely untapped. To help introduce Dell to those users, the company hired Lowe Worldwide to create a campaign that would appeal to people who felt intimidated by the personal computing phenomenon.

Lowe conceived of a precocious kid who could rattle off Dell’s specs and lend a human face to their line of hardware. But the “Dell Dude” wasn’t fully realized until Curtis walked in the door.

Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Curtis grew up interested in performing magic and drifted toward theater in an attempt to strengthen his stage presence. He went on to earn an acting scholarship to New York University and had a roommate who knew a commercial talent agent. Having been introduced to her, he began going out on casting calls. One of them was for Dell.

Embodied by Curtis, the Steven character morphed into a Jeff Spicoli-esque surfer archetype, fast-talking and charming. In his first appearance, Steven makes a videotaped appeal to his father for an $849 Dell desktop “with a free DVD upgrade” because he knows his dad “likes free stuff.” In another, he encourages a friend’s family to gift his buddy with a Dell for $799, complete with an Intel Pentium III processor.

The commercials debuted in 2000, but it wasn’t until DDB, the Chicago ad agency that took over Dell’s account, introduced a catchphrase that Steven acquired his nickname. In his fourth commercial, he announced to his friend, “Dude you’re getting a Dell!”

From that point on, Dell’s splash into residential home computing was guaranteed. Sales rose 100 percent, with Dell’s market share growing by 16.5 percent. The awareness was almost exclusively the result of Curtis’s popularity, which grew to include numerous online fan pages and calls for personal appearances. Younger viewers wrote in and wondered if he was available for dates; older viewers considered him a non-threatening presence.

By 2002, Steven had starred in more than two dozen Dell spots. In some of the later ads, he took a back seat, appearing toward the end of the ads. The cameos prompted some concern among fans that Dell would be sidelining Curtis, but company representatives denied it. In early 2003, however, the Dell Dude found himself out of a job.

“Dude, you’re getting a cell” was the headline in media accounts of Curtis’s arrest in February 2003 on suspicion of attempting to purchase marijuana. Curtis was on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and sporting a kilt he recently acquired in Scotland when an undercover officer spotted him purchasing the drug from a dealer. After being held in custody overnight, Curtis was released and the case was adjourned. If he stayed out of trouble for a year, his record would be expunged.

The New York Times compared the relative innocuousness of his arrest to that of actor Robert Mitchum, who was arrested on a marijuana-related charge in 1948. Despite living in a more conservative era, Mitchum’s career was largely unaffected. The same didn’t hold true for Curtis, however; he was promptly dropped by Dell as their spokesperson. According to Curtis, the company had a strict no-drugs policy for employees, and one strike was all it took to force his dismissal.

Feeling ostracized from commercial work and typecast by the role, Curtis juggled gigs while working at a Mexican restaurant in New York and enduring daily recognition from customers. “They’ll get really drunk, and they’ll start yelling things at me,” he told Grub Street in 2007. “I either ignore them, or if it’s way out of hand, I go up and say, ‘I appreciate your support, but my name is Ben.’ That usually doesn’t work so I smile and ignore them.”

Dell never found a mascot as well-liked as Curtis. They hired singer Sheryl Crow to appear in spots beginning in 2005, but she didn't sway consumers as much as Steven had. In 2010, the company attempted to battle back from negative press over selling defective computers to customers between 2003 and 2005. Today, they typically occupy a list of the top three PC companies, trailing Lenovo and HP.

Curtis, meanwhile, made a segue into off-Broadway performing and now operates Soul Fit NYC, a holistic wellness center in New York that offers yoga, massage, personal training, and life coaching services. Although he’s expressed interest in coming back to Dell as a spokesperson, the company may not appreciate his latest indiscretion: In 2013, he admitted to owning a MacBook.

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Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
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History
Why Lucky the Leprechaun Was Missing From Some Lucky Charms Boxes in 1975
Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

It’s hard to picture a box of Lucky Charms without a smiling leprechaun plastered on the front of it. But cereal fans living in New England in the 1970s may remember a brief period when Lucky was nowhere to be seen. In his place was a forgetful wizard who was barely given a chance to make a blip in cereal mascot history.

As Atlas Obscura shared in a recent story, Waldo the Wizard became the face of Lucky Charms in select stores in 1975. At that point, Lucky had been representing the brand since it was introduced over a decade earlier, but General Mills was toying with going in a different direction with the marketing.

Lucky’s shtick hasn’t changed much since Lucky Charms was introduced in 1964: In commercials, the leprechaun is enjoying his treasured cereal when a group of hungry kids comes along. Instead of offering to share, Lucky plots to keep his Lucky Charms to himself and always fails. It’s not exactly controversial as far as kids' ads go, but in the mid-1970s, executives worried that the mascot's unfriendly attitude towards children would rub consumers the wrong way.

Enter Waldo: a wizard who wore a green cloak spangled with hearts, stars, clovers, and moons, and, like Lucky, adored Lucky Charms. But unlike Lucky, Waldo was always warm with kids and never hesitated to share his breakfast. Instead of running away, his gag was that he was always forgetting where he put his box of Lucky Charms, to which the kids responded by reminding him that he could just conjure some up with magic.

Shoppers responded positively to Waldo during his trial run in New England stores, but after less than a year, General Mills pulled the plug on the experiment. It turned out that having a slightly more innocuous character wasn’t worth abandoning the original mascot after spending so much time and money promoting him.

While he’s undergone a few redesigns in the past 50 years, Lucky is still prominently displayed on every box of Lucky Charms. His cereal-hoarding tendencies have also remained the same, though Lucky was written to be a bit friendlier following Waldo’s short-lived era.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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