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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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Jug Life: A History of the Kool-Aid Man
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Kraft

When Robert Skollar joined the General Foods marketing team at Grey Advertising in 1988, it didn’t take him long to realize that there were certain perks that came with the job. As the executive behind the Kool-Aid ad campaign, Skollar inherited the Kool-Aid Man, the anthropomorphic pitcher of sugar water that had been a staple of the brand for more than a decade.

Two stories stand out: The first, Skollar says, is when he was working late one night and decided to try on the Kool-Aid Man’s fiberglass costume for himself. It was like being inside a Christmas ornament. “It’s hard to hear anything in there,” Skollar tells Mental Floss. “You just hope you don’t fall down.”

The second was when Skollar got caught up in the trend of New York professionals putting on elaborate birthday parties for their kids. Skollar asked Richard Berg, the voice of Kool-Aid Man’s “Oh, Yeah!” catchphrase, to actually wear the costume for a personal appearance at his son’s sixth birthday party. (Normally, Berg just recorded the line.) “It was the voice in the costume, which was a first,” Skollar says. “And half the kids were frightened to death.”

Fortunately, that was hardly the typical reaction. Introduced in 1975, Kool-Aid Man became one of the most beloved characters in advertising history, with a recognition factor that sometimes outpaced that of Ronald McDonald. He got his own video game, his own comic book, and his own museum display in Hastings, Nebraska.

Not bad for someone who started out as a disembodied head.

By the time advertising executive Marvin Potts created a sentient pitcher of Kool-Aid in 1954, the powdered soft drink mix had been on shelves for 27 years. Conceived by Edwin Perkins in Hastings, Nebraska, as an alternative to glass bottle drinks—which were expensive to ship—what was then known as “Kool-Ade” became a cheap, popular way to flavor water.

When Perkins sold the brand to General Foods in 1953, their contracted advertising firm of Foote, Cone & Belding trialed a few different television spots. Potts’s idea—a large, bulbous container of Kool-Aid with an animated mouth and eyes named Pitcher Man—was the most popular. (Company lore says Perkins came up with the idea after watching his kid draw a smiley face on the condensation of a window.)

In the 1960s, Kool-Aid opted for celebrity spokespeople like The Monkees and Bugs Bunny, relegating Pitcher Man to the sidelines. “I think they found out Bugs was overwhelming the whole campaign,” Skollar says. “Kids would remember him but forget the ad was for Kool-Aid.”

That ceased to be a problem in 1975, when Alan Kupchick and Harold Karp at Grey Advertising developed the idea for Kool-Aid Man, an evolution of Pitcher Man. His face stopped moving, but the addition of arms and legs gave the character a more bombastic personality. It also allowed him to commit sensational acts of property destruction.

Skollar recalls that the iconic breaking-through-the-wall sequence wasn’t necessarily planned. “From what I’ve heard, someone on set said that Kool-Aid Man really had to make an entrance, and someone else, maybe a producer, suggested he come through the wall.” Breakaway bricks were set up, and the character's fiberglass shell—“the same material used for a Corvette Stingray,” Skollar says—effectively became a wrecking ball.

Although he was never officially named Kool-Aid Man at the time, the mascot helped propel sales of the drink mix. “It was a phenomenon,” Skollar says. “Here you had this 50-year-old product that’s not really convenient and not particularly healthy, and it’s huge.”

As Kool-Aid Man’s star grew, so did his opportunities to branch out. The property got its own Marvel comic—The Adventures of Kool-Aid Man—as well as an Atari 2600 video game. The latter could be redeemed with 125 points earned from purchasing Kool-Aid, which amounts to about 62.5 gallons of sugar water. (You could also send $10 with 30 points.)

When Skollar was handed control of the campaign in 1988, the advice was pretty clear. “It was basically: Don’t screw it up,” he says, “and make it more contemporary.”

Skollar says he took inspiration from Pee-wee’s Playhouse and the Peter Gabriel music video for "Sledgehammer" to conceive of an entire Kool-Aid Man universe—one bursting with frenetic activity that kids would find exciting and adults would find impenetrable.

“Most kid ads had a storyline at the time,” he says. “This didn’t. It was just surreal.”

This Lynchian Kool-Aid Man was no longer 7 years old, as previous marketing campaigns had implied, but 14 years old—old enough to play guitar and surf. Once naked, he now sported jeans and cool shirts. Skollar believes that the kinetic spots helped usher in a new wave of kid advertising that relied more on visceral, MTV-style cuts.

Not all of Kool-Aid’s efforts were focused on hyperactive kids, however. The drink mix was not without its controversies, having once been associated with the Jonestown massacre in 1978, where cult leader Jim Jones coerced his followers into drinking Kool-Aid and Flavor Ade laced with cyanide. There was also the matter of Kool-Aid suggesting gobs of sugar be added to the drink for flavor.

“We did a campaign targeted to moms, ‘Having Kids Means Having Kool-Aid,’” Skollar says. “And we told them they could control the amount of sugar they used. We also pushed that Kool-Aid had Vitamin C.”

Under Skollar, Kool-Aid sales shot to third place in the soft drink category—behind only Coke and Pepsi.

Kool-Aid Man makes an appearance at the NASDAQ
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Skollar stayed on the Kool-Aid campaign through 1994, at which point the account was passed to Ogilvy & Mather. Eventually, the fiberglass costume became nylon and computer effects began to enhance his features.

CG was something Skollar had already started to experiment with, but eventually discarded it for the analog outfit. “There was something about that rawness, that awkward-looking pitcher breaking through walls,” he says.

One of the original costumes from 1975 sits in the Hastings Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Hastings, Nebraska, a testament to the character’s enduring appeal. Skollar says he once had research data supporting the fact that over 90 percent of kids could recognize Kool-Aid Man on sight.

The same wasn’t necessarily true of adults. “I remember one time we were shooting an ad where Kool-Aid Man was walking over a hill at sunset, holding hands with a little girl,” he says. “And a junior brand executive taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘We can’t see his face. How will we know who he is?’”

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Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, YouTube
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The Most Famous Anti-Drug Ad Turns 30. Any Questions?
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Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, YouTube

Without realizing it, Paul Keye had made the American Egg Board very unhappy. A creative director at the ad agency Keye/Donna/Pearlstein, Keye (it rhymes with “high”) had been partly responsible for a public service announcement in tandem with the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. In it, actor John Roselius expertly cracked an egg into a searing hot frying pan, watched it sizzle, and proclaimed the scene a metaphor for what happens to your neurons when you use illegal narcotics.

“This is your brain,” Roselius intoned. “This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs.” Then, rhetorically: “Any questions?”

The spot premiered in 1987 and was lauded for its simple, direct, and effective approach to communicating the dangers of street drugs to teenagers. It’s been parodied, revisited, and credited with an actual decline in drug use. But spokespeople for the Egg Board complained that their protein-filled product was being unfairly connected with dangerous and addictive substances.

“Had I heard that,” Keye tells Mental Floss, “I would’ve told the guy to get a good night’s sleep.”

According to Keye, the spot was born out of the advertising world’s desire to “un-sell” something. “The ad world has a guild, the American Association of Ad Agencies,” he says. “One of the board members, Phil Joanou, went to a meeting and said, ‘I think we should put together some kind of effort [against] hard drugs.’”

Everyone at the table nodded. This was the 1980s, when Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign was in full force and crack cocaine was becoming an epidemic. Under the volunteer ad coalition named the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, Joanou and the agencies got together and convinced television and radio stations to donate airtime to public service messages. The value of the spots was in excess of $300 million.

The problem was that no one was creating any content to fill those empty spaces. “Big ad agencies move very slowly,” Keye says. Eventually, Joanou came to Keye and asked if his firm could come up with a concept before that valuable airtime was taken away by impatient station operators.

Keye agreed. At the time, the drug being targeted by the Partnership was cocaine. “It was the new, 'wonderful,' no-problem drug,” Keye says. “All up, no down. We knew we didn’t want to feature addicts, but put it out there for young adults and teenagers. The message was, there could be irreversible damage.”

At Keye/Donna/Pearlstein, copywriter Larre Johnson and art director Scot Fletcher came up with the fried egg scenario; Keye got an agreement from director Joe Pytka (who later directed the 1996 Michael Jordan movie Space Jam) to film it at no cost. Actor John Roselius was paid $360 to practice cracking an egg with one hand so the yolk wouldn’t break.

“He doesn’t say it, but you get the impression he’s talking to his younger brother or his son,” Keye says of the simple dialogue. “We got razzed a little about it, like it was almost Victorian, or not very hip.”

Once it was edited, Keye brought the tape over to the Partnership’s newly-opened New York City offices. “They didn’t have a playback machine,” Keye says, “so we went into an electronics store and asked the salesman to play it.” Across a dozen or so televisions, Roselius cracked the egg, let it fry, and delivered his line. The Partnership had no questions. “The client was very pleased.”

The ad began airing in 1987 in both 30- and 10-second versions—heavy repetition, Keye says, was responsible for the ad’s longevity. “It ran all day long for three or four months. The Partnership didn’t have [another commercial] ready. In advertising, it’s about repetition.”

And it worked, or at least it appeared to. In 1990, the Partnership announced that market research indicated 88 percent of teenagers believed even occasional use of cocaine was dangerous, up from 78 percent before the ads began airing. (At one point, it was believed 92 percent of teens had seen some version of the ad, and so had a lot of dealers. “Let’s go fry an egg” became slang for using.)

While Keye/Donna/Pearlstein benefited indirectly from the ad’s success—it helped them land a lucrative California anti-smoking campaign two years later—they didn’t own the ads. “The Partnership owned it, and they did another one 10 years later” about heroin, Keye says. A newer spot, which began circulating online in 2016, follows up the “Any Questions?” tag with child actors asking lots of questions.

Last year, the face of the campaign—Roselius, now 72 years old—told Rooster Magazine that passersby will still refer to him as “Egg Guy.” He garnered some ironic press when he voted to legalize recreational marijuana in California and made a curious admission: He had tried cocaine a couple of times in the ‘80s.

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