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14 Vintage Ads Featuring Ronald Reagan

Long before Ronald Reagan became the 40th President of the United States, he was a popular actor appearing alongside Errol Flynn in Desperate Journey and co-starring with a chimpanzee in Bedtime for Bonzo. Reagan’s first film, Love Is On the Air, was released in 1937, and by 1941, a poll of movie theater owners ranked him fifth among up-and-coming movie stars. And what’s a celebrity to do but give celebrity endorsements? Enjoy these 14 vintage advertisements featuring a pre-politics Ronald Reagan.

1. ROYAL CROWN COLA AD WITH JANE WYMAN // 1947

Reagan and his first wife, actress Jane Wyman appeared in a few ads together, such as a 1941 Chesterfield cigarettes ad and the above Royal Crown Cola ad in 1947. The two met on the set of the film Brother Rat in 1938 and kindled a romance during a nine-week "Stars of Tomorrow" performance tour the next year. They married in January 1940 and starred in four movies together that year, becoming fixtures in the gossip pages of movie magazines like Modern Screen and Photoplay. Reagan and Wyman separated in 1948, divorcing in 1949, and Reagan married Nancy Davis, the future First Lady, in 1952.

2. MARLBORO SHIRT COMPANY CHRISTMAS AD // 1947

"'Pipe this!' cries Ronald." Apparently, Marlboro shirts feature "Soft-as-smoke fabric," but don’t get confused: the Marlboro Shirt Company was unrelated to the Marlboro cigarette brand, which has been produced by Philip Morris since 1924. Founded in Baltimore in 1907, the clothing company still exists and now goes by the name Marlboro Originals.

The above holiday ad appeared in the December 13, 1947 issue of the Saturday Evening Post and in the January 1948 issue of Esquire.

3. CHESTERFIELD AD // 1948

Despite appearing in multiple Chesterfield advertisements—like this one from 1948—Reagan did not smoke cigarettes. He did smoke a pipe, writing in his autobiography, An American Life, that he took up the habit in college because he thought it looked cool: "I'd never liked cigarettes, but I was impressed by a flurry of ads in those days in which women said, 'I like a man who smokes a pipe.' I’d always liked the look of someone smoking a pipe, so I saved up and bought one. But I never inhaled. I just sucked in the smoke, tasted it, and blew it out—and I only did that during the offseason, when I wasn’t playing football."

After his brother, Neil, a two- or three-packs-a-day cigarette smoker, developed laryngeal cancer in the 1960s, Reagan quit smoking his pipe and picked up a Jelly Belly habit instead.

4. MARLBORO SHIRT COMPANY AD // 1949

Reagan appeared in another advertisement for Marlboro Shirt Company in Life magazine, showing off a couple of collar styles just before Easter, 1949.

5. CHESTERFIELD CHRISTMAS AD // 1951

This ad was featured in the December 3, 1951 issue of Life magazine. In 1947, Chesterfield had changed their marketing strategy to heavily emphasize celebrity endorsements, and by this time, famous spokespeople for the brand had included Lucille Ball, Joan Crawford, Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Kirk Douglas, Bob Hope, Gregory Peck, Frank Sinatra, and Jimmy Stewart.

6. V8 AD // 1951

Campbell Soup Co. purchased V8 (then styled as V-8) in 1948 and began running a series of print advertisements for the vegetable-blend juice featuring celebrities, including both Reagan and Shirley Temple.

7. JERIS AD // 1951

This advertisement appeared in the February 5, 1951 issue of Life magazine, among other places. Hair tonics—lightweight, alcohol-based hair products—were popular in the '50s and still show up in barbershops today. Men used tonics to get a crisp part and to add shine to the hair without making it greasy. And Reagan wasn’t the only celebrity singing Jeris’s praises—Kirk Douglas also endorsed the brand.

8. CIGAR INSTITUTE OF AMERICA AD // 1951

This February 1951 ad for the Cigar Institute of America suggests that Reagan's approach to cigars was the same as his approach to pipes: smoke, just don't inhale.

9. WILDROOT AD // 1950S

Dating to sometime during the 1950s, this advertisement for Wildroot Cream Oil is equipped with a cardboard easel and seems to have been designed to sit in the window of a barbershop, using Reagan’s glossy hair and confident grin to draw in customers. Infused with lanolin, Wildroot is an oil-based grooming product meant to serve the same purpose as a hair tonic, with added moisturizing properties.

10. WESTINGHOUSE AD // 1953

Reagan would become a famous General Electric spokesman, but before taking on that role, he endorsed Westinghouse appliances in this April 1953 advertisement. According to the ad (he's third from the left along the front row), his favorite Westinghouse feature was "the Laundromat's Weigh-to-Save Door and Water Saver." Reagan would begin working with GE the next year.

11. VAN HEUSEN AD // 1953

Reagan appeared in this Van Heusen campaign in 1953, and in January 1981, the company re-ran the ad with a celebratory message in Time, Newsweek, and People magazines to congratulate Reagan on the eve of his first inauguration. Then, in 1985, Andy Warhol used this same ad as a basis for his screenprint "Van Heusen (Ronald Reagan)" in his "Ads" series.

12. "LIVE BETTER ELECTRICALLY" AD // 1958

In 1954, Reagan was hired by General Electric to host General Electric Theater, a popular CBS anthology TV show that mixed dramatic stories with advertising for GE products and the modern "electric home" more generally. It ran for two seasons without a host, then introduced Reagan in the third season to give the show a more consistent voice. At a low point in his acting career, Reagan was enticed by the offer of steady work—and a starting paycheck of $125,000.

Along with his salary, GE also turned the Reagan family’s home in the Pacific Palisades into "the most electric home in the country." In a recurring segment, the show would "check in" with the Reagans, exploring their house as the family demonstrated and praised their "electric servants," as they called their GE appliances. The tagline for these segments was "Live Better Electrically," the name of a multi-million dollar campaign co-sponsored by GE and Westinghouse that aimed to sell not just specific products but the idea of a home populated with appliances and reliant on electricity. Launched in 1956, the "Live Better Electrically" campaign marketed a vision of the modern American home as an "all-electric" home—catchy jingle and all.

13. UNION PACIFIC DOMELINER AD // 1959

In this advertisement in National Geographic from 1959, Reagan touts the luxury of train travel in a Union Pacific Domeliner, a special passenger car topped with a glass dome that offered panoramic views. The Domeliner had snagged another A-list endorsement a couple of years earlier—it got the full-episode treatment on I Love Lucy when Lucy, Desi, and company took a long trip on the luxury liner (which Lucy ruined when she kept pulling the emergency brake).

14. GE PORTABLE TELEVISION AD // 1961

This advertisement appeared in 1961 when Reagan was still presenting General Electric Theater, which he hosted the show until the following year. With Reagan at the helm, GE Theater had become a top-10 show in the Nielsen ratings between 1956-'58, and celebrities like Fred Astaire, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, and the Marx Brothers all made guest-star appearances.

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10 Dangerous Toys from Decades Past (and the Commercials That Sold Them)
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Baby Boomers are a hardy bunch. They rode in cars that weren’t equipped with special toddler seats, walked to and from school without being electronically tethered to their parents, ate lunches filled with allergens and preservatives, played with toys that would be quickly pulled from shelves today, and still persevered to become the largest living generation of the U.S. population. Whether you owned a Johnny Seven One Man Army or just want to know more about the ultra-violent, bestselling toy of 1964, let's take a look back at some of the dangerous toys of yesteryear and the commercials that sold them.

1. SIXFINGER

My younger brother had one of these, and I’m here to tell you that as tiny as it was, this gun had some serious firepower—those little plastic bullets hurt like heck! (You think your average seven-year-old boy is going to pay attention to the package disclaimer that warned against aiming the Sixfinger at human targets?) Just in case the possibility of losing an eye to a sharp projectile wasn’t edgy enough, one of the “bullets” came equipped with a cap—the shock-sensitive exploding variety. All this mayhem was available for the bargain price of two dollars.

2. SWING WING

The Transogram Company had been producing mainstream toys such as Tiddlywinks and doctor's kits since 1959. Then one day in 1965 the vice president of product development, whose brother-in-law was apparently an out-of-work chiropractor, came up with the idea for the Swing Wing. Nothing says “fun” like a cerebral hemorrhage, so Swing Wing was eventually pulled from the market, leaving kids searching for a new fun way to get their spinal injuries on.

3. SLIP 'N SLIDE

Wham-O introduced the Slip ‘N Slide in 1961, a time when neighborhood swimming pools were few and far between and water slide theme parks were nonexistent. The idea was to cool off and have fun at the same time by running up to and then belly-flopping down on a water-slicked strip of vinyl. Wham-O sold millions of Slip 'N Slides over the years, and if a kid broke a toe on one of the stakes that secured the mat to the ground or left most of their epidermis on the driveway because they slid too far, well, as Mom always said, “It’s your own fault, don’t come crying to me.” It wasn’t until the more litigious 1990s that words like “spinal cord injury” and “death” started appearing in the lengthy list of warnings included on the Slip ‘N Slide instruction sheet.

4. WATER WIGGLE

It looked innocent enough, but if your neighborhood had good water pressure and some joker turned the hose on full blast, Wham-O’s Water Wiggle turned into a semi-lethal weapon. It danced and bobbed erratically, and could wrap around you like a boa constrictor. And that plastic head was heavy! But bloody noses and chipped teeth were a small price to pay for some summertime fun.

5. JOHNNY SEVEN ONE MAN ARMY

No wonder kids today get into so much trouble—it’s those consarned video games they’re always playing. Nothing but shooting and street fighting and an overall culture of violence. Not like the toys of the 1960s. Back then we had wholesome products like the Johnny Seven One Man Army, which was the biggest-selling toy for boys in 1964. Johnny Seven came equipped with a cap pistol, rocket launcher, and “armor piercing” bullets, along with a few other features necessary for stopping Communism dead in its tracks.

Johnny Seven weighed about four pounds fully assembled, so a kid got a good aerobic workout when he ran around toting one outside in the fresh air and sunshine. Topper Toys used a unique tactic to give Johnny Seven maximum exposure: instead of only stocking it in toy and department stores, they also made it available in grocery stores, a place mom usually dragged her kids to at least once per week.

6. CREEPY CRAWLERS

An exposed hot plate combined with potentially toxic fumes equaled fun in 1964. The Thing Maker was a gadget you plugged in and then waited until it heated up to 300°F. Then you poured “Plasti-Goop” into the creepy insect-shaped metal molds and waited for them to heat-set. Ideally, you were supposed to wait until after you’d unplugged the Thing Maker and it had cooled off before removing your Creepy Crawlers, but who has time for that when you want to put a fake spider in your sister’s bed before she turns in? Burns and blisters were a fact of life in the plastic bug business, and you simply sprayed the injury with some Bactine and hid it from Mom so she wouldn’t take your Thing Maker away. Plasti-Goop was marketed as “non-toxic,” but that was in 1964 before the dangers of little things like melted PVC and lead paint were generally known.

7. WHAM-O AIR BLASTER

Wham-O introduced the Air Blaster gun in 1965 ... then pulled it from shelves not too long afterward. It turned out that some kids weren’t content to just blow out birthday candles long-distance; they were pointing their Air Blaster right against their friends’ ears to “see what happened.” (Permanent damage was the answer.) Those same pranksters also discovered that any object that could fit into the muzzle could also be shot with missile-like force. You know what they say, it’s all fun and games until someone figures out how to use their Air Blaster as a flamethrower.

8. WHAM-O WHEELIE BAR

The lack of protective helmets in this commercial is understandable, since they weren’t readily available at the time. But barefoot kids popping wheelies, riding no-handed, and performing daredevil stunts like standing on the seat? One has to wonder whether Wham-O held stock in some urgent care clinic chain.

9. SUPER ELASTIC BUBBLE PLASTIC

Surprise! We have yet another entry from those folks at Wham-O. This time the fun was contained inside a metal toothpaste-like tube filled with a colorful liquid-y plastic-y substance. You squeezed out a tiny glob of the stuff, rolled it into a tiny ball, and then plopped it onto the end of a plastic straw, which was included. Then you blew into the straw to create a multi-colored sphere that was more durable than a soap bubble, but a bit more fragile than a traditional balloon. The drawback was that one of the main ingredients in Super Elastic Bubble Plastic was ethyl acetate, a solvent used in nail polish remover. Combine that with polyvinyl acetate, the other primary component, and kids were exposed to some serious health risks if they happened to inhale too much while inflating their plastic bubbles.

10. WITCH DOCTOR HEAD SHRINKER KIT

Who knows exactly what chemicals made up the “plastic flesh” that progressively shrunk over the span of 24 hours. Given the time period (the late 1960s) we’re guessing that either the flesh or the paint had some level of toxicity. But what about the other inherent danger involved? Say you, as a kid, taking advantage of the assurance in the commercial that homemade shrunken heads were appropriate for “all occasions”? Would Mom smack the heck out of you after Grandma nearly collapsed when she unwrapped the shrunken head birthday present you’d made for her?

BONUS: GILBERT U-238 ATOMIC ENERGY LAB

By Webms (online) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m sort of sneaking this one in, as I don’t know if it was ever advertised on television, but it’s too good to pass up. In 1951 A.C. Gilbert, the man who invented the Erector Set, introduced a brand new educational toy: the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab. Gilbert worked closely with physicists at M.I.T. while developing the kit, and also had the unofficial approval of the U.S. government, which thought that such a toy would help the average American understand the benefits of nuclear energy.

The Lab came equipped with a Geiger-Mueller radiation counter, a Wilson cloud chamber (to see paths of alpha particles), a spinthariscope (to see "live" radioactive disintegration), four samples of Uranium-bearing ores, and an electroscope to measure radioactivity. It also included a comic book featuring Dagwood Bumstead (the man who couldn’t leave his own house without knocking the mailman down) describing how to split an atom. The Atomic Energy Lab’s main drawback, other than possible radiation poisoning, was its price tag: a whopping $49.50, which would be over $300 in today’s dollars.

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The Highs and Lows of the Dell Dude
John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu
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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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