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The Internet Archive (Art By Normal Rockwell)

20 Wacky Ads from Boys' Life Magazine, May 1915

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The Internet Archive (Art By Normal Rockwell)

Boys' Life magazine is targeted at Boy Scouts. It began publication in 1911, and is still running today. When I was a kid (and a member of the Webelos), I'd read the magazine—but not for the articles. I was there for the ads in the back. They were a little nutty, often encouraging kids to sell things door-to-door in exchange for prizes. Many also advertised knives, bike repair kits, exotic pets, magic kits, wrestling outfits, and all manner of things I wanted but couldn't afford.

So I decided to see what the ads in the magazine were like precisely 100 years ago—the issue from May 1915 (you can read it online). I suppose it's not a surprise that this wacky ad thing has been going on for a century. Here are my favorites.

1. Money—Lots Of It

Well, if 87 Boy Scouts succeeded in making $2.34 selling gliding casters, why not be the 88th?

2. Money In Pigeons!

Jumbo Pigeons with dollar signs on them!

3. Lawn Swing for Selling Soap

Earn this lawn swing (of unspecified size) in exchange for selling 210 bars of soap. Seems downright easy. It says right there: "You can earn it in an hour or two." Sure.

4. Hey, Free Pony! Or... Wait...

"The Pony Man will send you pony pictures and tell you all about the other boys and girls who have won ponies in the past." I think your odds of getting the actual pony are slim to none.

5. $250/Month Repairing Tires

"Each auto sold means more tires to mend." Still true. Also: "Be the first to start. Experience unnecessary. You learn quick. Simply follow directions. Business comes fast and easy."

6. All the Spending Money You Need!

Again, this one suggests you might want a pony (or a canoe, camping kit, or gun). What's up with ponies? Anyway, this silver-cleaning business is a surefire winner. What wealthy aristocrat doesn't want some little kid cleaning the silver?

7. Amazing Profits in Mushrooms

The profit claims made in these ads are kind of extreme. Up to $60 per week (in 1915!) selling mushrooms? I guess it's technically possible, but I'm not sure the local door-to-door mushroom saleskid is gonna make that kind of dough.

8. Boys, It's Your Ammunition!

"They hit where you aim." I certainly hope so!

9. Earn Money Selling Rubber Stamps

Was there really a thriving market for custom rubber stamps sold by children? I guess it's technically possible.

10. Hurrah for the Unicycle

This is the craziest unicycle I've ever seen. I do not understand this. I also don't understand how a normal kid is going to sell these things to his peers.

11. Magic-Fish-Lure

"Fish bite like hungry wolves." Run away from the wolf fish, children!

12. Shirts Blouses for Boys

"For all wide-awake boys there are Shirts of the right sort. There is perfect fit, man-like styles, clean finish, hand-tailoring, exclusive patterns." I do enjoy the creepy sameness of the kids (looks like two photos of two similar-looking kids, right?).

13. Shredded Wheat

"The stuff that muscle is made of. The vigor of living and the health of the sun and soil are in every shred." I'm not going to lie, I love Shredded Wheat. But I'm not sure it added much muscle to my frame. Maybe I should've prepared it on a camp stove?

14. Summer Camps

Three ads for summer camps. One has a "wholesome moral atmosphere," the other is "for boys of Christian parentage." Sounds like fun.

15. The Knife They All Want!

While it is true that many boys want a knife, I doubt that they want one with weird Masonic symbols on it. In my day, the good old Swiss Army Knife was the one to have. (We had not yet learned about Leatherman technology.)

16. Unsinkable Canoe

It may be unsinkable, but I'll wager it's still capsizable.

17. Wagon for Soap Sales

Similar to the above, but this "farm wagon" actually includes dimensions. Seems legit, assuming you can sell a bunch of overpriced soap.

18. The War May End These Postage Stamps

So... this ad seems to posit that the Great War would destroy Belgium, Turkey, Germany, England (!), France (!!), Russia (!!!), Bosnia, Japan (!!!!), Servia [sic], and Austria-Hungary. So the thing to do is collect their stamps before these countries die? Ugh.

19. Want a Merry-Go-Round?

The answer is obviously yes, but the suggestions that it "almost runs itself," and that you can "sell to your friends" seem super-bogus.

20. Beech-Nut Peanut Butter

"Lots of nourishment and a taste that goes fine with bread or crackers." Well, ma, I'm just headed down to the fishing hole with this poorly-sketched peanut butter sandwich and my stick-fishing-pole. With my Magic-Fish-Lure (#11), I'll be bringing home dinner. Please buy more crackers, they'd taste fine.

All images courtesy of The Internet Archive, where you can find the whole magazine, along with many others. See also: The Boys' Life Wayback Machine.

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Mill Creek Entertainment
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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John G. Mabanglo/Getty Images
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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