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.


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.


"'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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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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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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