A Quick History of Hidden Camera TV Commercials

Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube
Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube

At restaurants like Tavern on the Green in New York and Arnaud’s in New Orleans, diners sitting down for formal meals are seen complimenting the waiter on their coffee. Just a few moments later, they’re informed it wasn’t the “gourmet” brew typically served, but a cup of Folgers Instant coffee that had been “secretly switched.” The surprised patrons then heap praise on their duplicitous waitstaff.

This scene and others like it played out hundreds of times in television commercials throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Variations date as far back as the 1950s, and some commercials—like Chevrolet's now-infamous 2017 spot that depicted amazed onlookers marveling at the car company's numerous J.D. Power and Associates Awards—still air with regularity. Instead of using actors, the spots purport to highlight the reaction of genuine consumers to products, often with the use of hidden cameras positioned outside the unsuspecting customers' field of vision.

 

Despite skepticism, the people in these ads are often members of the general public offering their unrehearsed response to beverages, laundry detergents, and automobiles. That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s not a little bit of premeditation going on.

The idea of recording spontaneous reactions for advertising purposes dates back to the 1950s, when Procter & Gamble arranged for housewives to compare the whiteness of laundry washed in their Cheer detergent against the comparatively dingier load that resulted after a soak in the competition. The camera wasn’t “hidden” and the spokesman made no secret of his intentions—he was holding a microphone—but the women were approached in a laundromat and not a casting office. Those who appeared in such spots would receive a $108 fee, along with residuals that could add up to thousands if the commercial aired repeatedly.

This approach was refined by Bob Schwartz, a former director of the prank series Candid Camera. In 1969, Schwartz formed Eyeview Films and worked with ad agencies to capture spontaneous reactions to products. An early spot for the floor cleaner Spic and Span was a hit, and other companies and agencies followed the template. For a 1982 spot, Schwartz set up his crew in a supermarket and invited customers to try Oven Fry, a new frozen chicken product from General Mills. The most expressive reactions (“mmm-mmm!”) were invited to consent to be in the commercial.

In more controlled settings, it’s necessary for advertisers to make sure the pool of potential testimonials is suited for the product. Before filming spots like the Folgers tasting, a team of market research employees typically recruited people by inviting them to take part in polls on the street. They’re asked about coffee preferences—the better to establish whether they even like the beverage—and were then invited to a nearby restaurant for a free meal. Out of two dozen couples selected for a Folgers spot in San Francisco in 1980, two or three were selected for the commercial.

 

The Folgers spots aired for years and were memorable for how surprised people appeared to be that they had just consumed granulated crystals instead of fresh-brewed coffee. But that doesn’t mean viewers necessarily believed their reactions. A 1982 consumer survey found that consumers often found their endorsements too stiff, meaning they were prompted, or too natural, which hinted that they might be actors. Though ad agencies went to great lengths to assure authenticity, their praise made audiences dubious.

Why would non-actors shower products with compliments? It takes a bit of psychology on the part of the ad agencies. For Chevrolet's 2017 spot that was ridiculed for people overreacting to the mere sight of a car, one of the participants—who asked to remain anonymous due to a non-disclosure agreement—told The A.V. Club that the upbeat environment and surreal exposure to a new car after agreeing to take part in a market research survey left his group feeling like it would be rude to say anything negative.

“We never retook a take, but you felt really bad about saying something negative about Chevy because there were 50 cameras on you, and it was just this one [host],” he said. “He did this magic trick of making it seem like you were hurting his feelings if you said anything bad about Chevy. You didn’t want to see this guy stop smiling. It was really bizarre.”

Candid? Sure. As candid as if they were among friends and not a squad of marketing executives? That's a different story.

The Great Bart Simpson T-Shirt School Ban of 1990

Courtesy of The Captain's Vintage

At Lutz Elementary School in Fremont, Ohio, principal William Krumnow took to the public address system to deliver an important message. It was April 1990, late in the school year, but Krumnow’s announcement couldn’t wait. Over the intercom, he declared there would be a ban on T-shirts featuring Bart Simpson, the rebellious breakout star of The Simpsons.

Specifically, Krumnow was concerned with a shirt that featured Bart aiming a slingshot with the word underachiever emblazoned in quotes above him. “And proud of it, man!” Bart said. This, Krumnow felt, was an unnecessary bit of subversion in a place of learning.

"To be proud of being an incompetent is a contraction of what we stand for," Krumnow told Deseret News in May of that year. "We strive for excellence and to instill good values in kids … the show teaches the wrong things to students."

Krumnow was not alone. School district administrators in Florida, California, Michigan, Illinois, and Washington, D.C. were cracking down on the surge in Bart shirts, fearing his status as a miscreant would be the wrong kind of role model for kids to emulate.

 

The apparel ban was a result of the success of The Simpsons, which had premiered months earlier on December 17, 1989 and featured a dysfunctional nuclear family consisting of Homer and Marge Simpson and their children, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. It was an immediate hit for the fledging Fox network and led to a number of merchandising deals.

Bart Simpson of 'The Simpsons' television series is pictured on a T-shirt
Amazon

While the entire cast of the show was marketable, it was 10-year-old Bart who became the licensing phenomenon. An estimated 15 million Bart shirts were sold in 1990 alone, and there was no mystery as to why the character appealed to kids: He loved skateboarding. He hated school. He was a mirror image of millions of students across America. But unlike many of those students, Bart refused to censor himself, wielding a sharp tongue to match his spiky hair.

“Eat my shorts,” read one of the shirts. “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?” asked another.

While some of the shirts, which were priced from $11 to $14, weren’t as inflammatory—Bart urging “Don’t have a cow, man” was the top-seller—the more incendiary designs were what upset school officials. The language was inconsistent with what school districts considered to be appropriate attire, and several dug deep to justify prohibiting students from wearing them. They cited concerns that other students might find the words objectionable or offensive and believed Bart's rogue attitude was incompatible with a respectful environment.

At Memorial Junior High School in Lansing, Michigan, principal James Shrader got on the intercom to inform students the shirts would not be allowed. At Burnham Elementary in Burnham, Illinois, district superintendent—or, as Ralph Wiggum might say, district Super Nintendo—Al Vega was pleased no students had even attempted to wear the shirts.

“Hopefully it’s because parents feel the same way I do,” Vega said. “Why would parents allow kids to wear those to school? I, as a parent, am not going to let my kid wear that to school.”

 

Not all parents were on board with the ban. Orange, California's Jeannette Manning told People she was considering buying a shirt for her son “on principle.” Another mother, Maira Romero, couldn't understand why her 11-year-old son Alex was being reprimanded for wearing the shirt. "I’d much rather have him wearing a Bart Simpson [shirt] than one of those rock and roll T-shirts with the skull and crossbones on it,” Romero said.

Cartoonist and creator of "The Simpsons" stands 1992, with a cardboard cutout of Bart Simpson
'The Simpsons' creator Matt Groening stands next to a cardboard cutout of Bart Simpson in 1992.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Child development experts weren’t so sure, either. Some pointed out that when something is labeled off-limits, it becomes more attractive to teens who are prone to rebellion. Ignoring it and dismissing it as a fad was a better option, some said. At Wells High School in Chicago, principal David Peterson dismissed the idea the shirts had any kind of negative influence.

“It’s like a kid saying, ‘I hate school,’” he said. “Am I going to suspend him for that? I don’t think so.”

Students caught wearing the Bart shirts faced a variety of repercussions. At Brookwood Junior High in Glenwood, Illinois, teachers ordered students wearing the shirts to call their parents and have them bring a change of clothing. Other schools forced kids to turn the shirts inside-out. Some had teachers cover the offending words with tape. The controversy grew so widespread that by the summer of 1990, retail chain JCPenney decided to take the “underachiever” shirts off shelves in kid’s sizes. What some had dubbed the Bartlash had reached new heights.

 

Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, thought the shirt prohibition was silly. “I have no comment,” he said when asked about the backlash. “My folks taught me to respect elementary school principals, even the ones who have nothing better to do than tell kids what to wear.” But Groening couldn’t resist pointing out that the word “underachiever” appeared on the shirt in quotes, indicating that it was his (fictional) school officials who had given him that label. Bart was simply playing the hand he had been dealt.

Bart Simpson of 'The Simpsons' television series is pictured on a T-shirt
Amazon

“He didn’t call himself an underachiever,” Groening said. “He does not aspire to be an underachiever. If you’ll recall, this last season, Bart did save France.” (In “The Crepes of Wrath,” which aired in April 1990, Bart is sent to France as a foreign exchange student and exposes his two winemaking hosts who spike their product with antifreeze. He learns French in the process.)

While The Simpsons has gone on to broadcast another 30 seasons of television (and counting), observers who considered the shirts to be fads were correct. The furor quickly died down and kids found new iconography to wear. By June 1991, Simpsons shirts had been discarded in exchange for the cast of Fox’s other hit series, the sketch comedy In Living Color. (Homey the Clown was a bestseller.)

Today, you can find vintage Bart shirts on eBay or online clothing shops like The Captain's Vintage, which offers a classic Bart "Who the hell are you?" shirt in white for $89.99.

Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

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