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Classic TV Stars Doing the Commercials! : TVparty!
by Billy Ingram
with video contributions
from Dan Wingate, Jeff Vilencia
and Wesley Hyatt

IN THE BEGINNING...

In the early days of television, a show couldn't get on the air if there was no sponsor signed on. The advertiser (alone or in partnership with the network) paid the cost of production in exchange for commercials and product plugs throughout the program.

In these clips, we'll look at a practice that ended in the seventies - integrating the sponsor's message into television shows using the actual cast members (usually in character).

 

Burns & Allen ShowThe George Burns
and Gracie Allen Show

1950-1958

This was a very popular and typical fifties' TV sitcom based on a long-running radio program. The series only lost steam when Gracie Allen decided to retire in 1958.

The sponsor in 1955 was Carnation Evaporated Milk (Gracie: "How did they milk all those Carnations?") and it's introduced by George Burns.

TV advertising was risky in the early days, but because George and Gracie had been beloved radio and film stars for over a decade by 1955, their endorsement was the best marketing campaign that money could buy. For the first time, stars could be seen and heard in a family's living room extolling the virtues of a product or service. It was revolutionary.

In this filmed ad, the new wife in the neighborhood is looking good thanks to Carnation. The announcer tells us: "She has a brand new husband and a brand new way to fix tuna." I'll bet she does!

This commercial is a glimpse back to the days when a woman could get everything she needed to maintain a happy marriage down at the supermarket. As a bonus, you get to see what a typical grocery store looked like in 1955 - very depressing!


I Married Joan photoI Married Joan
1952-1955

Jim Backus and Joan Davis starred in this wacky (but funny) 'I Love Lucy' rip-off sponsored by GE appliances.

The title character n this program was a total ditz (in the Gracie Allen mode). 'Joan' probably set women's rights back forty years and made Lucy Ricardo look like Einstein in comparison.

Naturally, daffy Miss Joan wouldn't make a good pitchperson for major appliances, she's the last person anyone would listen to. Instead, the actress Joan Davis merely provides a testimonial at the end of the show, after the sponsor message.


Ozzie & HarrietThe Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet
ABC / 1952 - 1966

As the fifties matured, so did television advertising and primetime became prime advertising time for family breakfast foods. Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix was a primary sponsor for one the longest-running TV series of all time, the Ozzie and Harriet program, starring the real-life Nelson family - playing themselves, more or less.

Ricky NelsonAn extra bonus for advertisers on this program was the endorsement from real-live teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson who was heating up the pop charts while keeping up his end of the familial sitcom chores. Wash your hands, brush your teeth and play that scene with your Aunt Martha with a little more intensity!

Film historian Jeff Vilencia tells us, "During the 50s and into the mid-sixties, the third commercial in all of the major network comedies were done by the cast and the ad agency would write the spot around the show's script. When the last segment ended and the last spot came up, the cast would integrate product and plot together."

Another custom, there was always a thirty-second spot for next week's sponsor in the closing theme. (DID YOU KNOW: Happy Hotpoint, seen in that clip, was played by Mary Tyler Moore?)


Betty Hutton ShowThe Betty Hutton Show
1959-1960

The movie business was in serious decline by the late-fifties. Dozens of established stars were let go by the major studios in such a short period of time that panic set in. Movie stars ran to television like rats fleeing a burning warehouse.

Forties' era film diva / pinup gal Betty Hutton tried her hand at a sitcom in the character of 'Goldie', a manicurist who suddenly inherits a mansion, butler, three teenage kids and a fortune. This show failed miserably.

Here Betty hawks Post Cereals by integrating the storyline of her lame sitcom into the final advertisement. The sponsor's message also takes up quite a bit of the theme song, another common practice in the early days of TV.

 

Yogi BearKellogg's Corn Flakes
1959 Cartoon characters emerged as effective product pitchmen in the early days - after all, animated characters can't get arrested for drugs or beating their wives.

Cereal companies often backed the initial production costs of cartoon programs just as they did primetime shows, again to better integrate their product message.

Here, Yogi Bear (Kellogg's Corn Flakes' regular pitchman in 1961) gathers with fellow Hanna-Barbera characters (all of which were selling various Kellogg's cereals at the time) to do a takeoff on a popular quiz show of the era, What's My Line?.

Raisin BranUsing established cartoon characters was considered less of a risk than coming up with original characters that might not catch on. Although, when you think of the many venerable characters created for cereal campaigns in the sixties, that turned out not to be true in all cases.

Cheerios KidFor example, more people today know the Cheerios Kid, Cap'n Crunch and the Trix Rabbit than know Pixie, Dixie and Jinx (who were selling Raisin Bran in 1961). The Cheerios Kid not only had Go-Power, he had staying power - lasting from the 1950s into the 1990s!


Hennesy
1959-1962

Jackie Cooper and Roscoe Carnes starred in this fondly remembered Naval comedy and they appeared in the ad at the end of the show for Kent cigarettes with the Micronite filter.

While most of the commercials that featured sitcom characters also included canned laughter, this one didn't. Hennesy was one of the rare sitcoms that didn't use a laugh track.


Andy Griffith ShowThe Andy Griffith Show
1960-1968

Post (along with Sanka) also sponsored The Andy Griffith Show, naturally scenes were filmed showing Andy, Opie, Barney and Aunt Bee enjoying breakfast together.

Here is a Post Grape Nuts spot with Andy and Barney - featuring an end tag with the theme music from the early years, with the sponsor's product seen along side the credits.

The ending credits had to be re-done without the product illustration in the corner for syndication and reruns.


Partridge Family The Partridge Family
1970-1974

The practice of using sitcom characters as salespeople disappeared almost entirely with the advent of the seventies. Television stars were now big enough to command their own endorsement deals and didn't want to be saddled with network commitments into which they had no input.

One of the last examples would be Kellogg's sponsorship of The Partridge Family in 1970. The first commercial shows the whole family waking up to the sound of Kellogg's Rice Krispies.

Notice in that spot that there was no close-up for Laurie Partridge, played by Susan Dey. That's because she had a separate deal, as the groovy spokesperson for Misty hair dryers.

In another commercial break for Rice Krispies, only Shirley Jones and David Cassidy (the Harriet and Ricky Nelson of the seventies) are seen. The catchy jingle is sung by The Partridge Family (the recording group that included Jones and Cassidy).


Carol Channing ShowSPONSORED
SPECIALS

Advertisers were also anxious to bankroll high profile network specials with big name stars. A unique example of this would be The Carol Channing Special from 1966.

This musical hour was sponsored by General Foods and the commercials featured Carol dropping in on the CBS sitcoms that GF was sponsoring that year. Cast members, in their familiar settings, were called into service to sing the praises for GF's fine products. Surprisingly, every one of these shows is still popular today in reruns!


THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW

Well, Andy sure is glad to see Carol drop by. He's apparently hanging around the office kind of late at night...

Uh, by the way Andy, where's your girlfriend Helen Crump?!? You think she'd mind that a Broadway star dressed like a ski bunny Jezebel is dropping in on her small town man for a late-night drink? And Helen was worried about the Fun Girls...

'Course it's all innocent 'cause Andy just loves talkin' 'bout Sanka Coffee, a fine product of General Foods. (Say, wasn't he the General that burned all the crops during the war between the states? Or was that General Mills?)

Andy then happily tells us he even used a hidden camera to record the reactions of some Yankees from up north enjoyin' Sanka Coffee. Who knew Mayberry was so high-tech? Or that they cared what Yankees thought about anything...


GOMER PYLE, USMC

Next, birdlike Carol Channing is flitting off to see former Mayberry resident Gomer Pyle as he enters his third year as a private in the Marine Corps.

As usual, he's doing KP duty - but it's no bother to feed the troops at all thanks to new Post Corn Flakes & Strawberries cereal.

Despite the oversized dark glasses, Gomer seems to recognize the New York actress right away, calling her 'Miss Carol' - wasn't that Gomer's nickname for Carol Burnett also? What'd he call EVERYONE Miss Carol?!?

Corn Flakes & Strawberries cereal was a fine product, but after you poured on the milk, you had a very small window of enjoyment between the time the freeze-dried strawberries softened up and the corn flakes got soggy.


GREEN ACRES

It's morning in Hooterville and Oliver and Lisa hear a knock at the door - guess who it is?

It's Carol and she's just in time for breakfast with a glass of Awake Orange Drink powder product stuff.

Oliver wants only fresh squeezed orange juice, but it turns out he can't tell the difference anyway, so what the hell? In fact, no one can tell which glass has the fresh squeezed juice or which has the powdered drink. Must be some farm...


HOGAN'S HEROES

Then it's back in time and half way around the world as the spasmatic Miss Channing pops in on Colonel Hogan and his zany gang of Nazi prison camp survivors.

When Carol arrives, Corporal LeBeau has just served up a gourmet meal with some JELLO for desert - topped with Dream Whip, the rich topping that has more than just the flavor of whipped cream. Exactly WHAT more, they never say - but I've had it and it's very tasty.

When Col. Klink and Sgt. Shultz join their American prisoners for dessert, fun is had by all. Of course, Col. Klink wasn't too thrilled about his spiked helmet being used as the Jello mold...

A sign that times have changed: I bet you'll never again see a JELLO commercial set in a Nazi prison camp or with Nazi memorabilia featured prominently in the product shot.


"Loved those commercials with Carol Channing and the rest of the General Foods family (I told my friends to check out the HOGAN'S HEROES spot). But the Gomer Pyle one is something I would have loved to see being filmed.

"I read something about how at that time Carol also made a sitcom pilot for GF which included a spot for Corn Flakes & Strawberries, done by her and her on-screen son (played by Jimmy Garrett, after Lucille Ball dumped him into military school and forgot he and his sister even existed). Anyhow, the point is that Carol is allergic to strawberries, and the story described how for take after take, she would spoon some cereal into her mouth...then when the director yelled "CUT", spit it out before she could have a reaction."
- Paul Duca


Dear Billy,
A friend sent me the address to your webpage about "when stars did the commercials." There is a note by Mr. Paul Duca tagged at the end of the article. There are a couple of errors in Mr. Duca's note I thought I could set straight for you.

" First, while Carol Channing did do a pilot for General Foods ("The Carol Channing Show"), she did not have a son in the pilot and in fact played a single woman. I did a very cute scene where Miss Channing, who was broke and hungry, tried to steal an unnamed boy's candy while sitting on a park bench.

"The most interesting thing about the pilot was that it was produced and directed by Desi Arnaz on the same stage that was being used for "The Lucy Show" while it was on hiatus. Secondly, I am not aware of any cereal commercials being shot during the pilot. Usually commercials were not made by sitcom stars until the pilot sold. But, if a commercial was shot, I did not appear in it. Mr. Duca also might find it interesting that I did a few more episodes of "The Lucy Show" after I was "dumped" into military school.

"Hope this helps."

Best, Jimmy Garrett
( aka Jerry Carmichael of "The Lucy Show"
)


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KID SHOW PITCHMEN:


The Adventures
Of Superman

1951-1957

The Superman series was entirely funded by Kelloggs and the cast was naturally recruited for a commercial each episode - usually featuring Clark Kent, rather than Supes himself.

In this one, Perry White is freaking out because he needs his Sugar Smacks to start the day. Jimmy Olsen's out making the deal for the Smacks, but he's late getting back.

Notice the announcer says: "...meet Clark Kent, star of Superman." George Reeves was the star of Superman, Clark was a character! But by blurring the lines and having Superman's alter ego do the sales pitch, it becomes more of a 'personal' endorsement.

Check out all the padding on Clark's shoulders!

Johnny Jupiter
sponsored by M&Ms

1953-1954

Johnny Jupiter was a popular kid show that ran in primetime on the Dumont and ABC networks from March 21, 1953 - May 29, 1954.

In this rare video, puppet characters Johnny and Reject the Robot extol the virtues of M&Ms.

 


INTERACTIVE TV


Captain Midnight
1954-1956

Ovaltine sponsored this long running radio program, then brought it to TV for a two year run starting in 1954.

To create an interactive experience, viewers could send off for a Captain Midnight Secret Decoder that could help them decipher scrambled messages at the end of the show.

When the series was syndicated (without the Ovaltine sponsorship) the show was retitled (and crudely redubbed) Jet Jackson.

 

Pinky Lee for
Tootsie Rolls

Pinky Lee discovered an unreceptive TV climate after he collapsed live on camera in front of a studio audience full of kids on his hit show in 1955. He had suffered a major sinus attack but most people assumed the frenetic host actually had a heart attack on the air.

When Pinky Lee attempted to return to the tube in 1957, he took over the hosting duties for NBC's 'The Gumby Show' on Saturday mornings for a short time when the original host (Bobby Nicholson) left.

Sharing the show with a puppet frog and rabbit in a tree stump was a comedown from the days of having his own network show - but it was the only offer Pinky Lee had.

"My heart is crying" he told a reporter in 1957. "I have no pride. I just want to do the thing I love the best - entertain children." And sell the heck out of those Tootsie Rolls!

 


The Three Stooges

Moe and Larry were still alive in the sixties and made a few guest appearances on television, along with "Curly" Joe DeRita (the original 'Curly' was dead).

Here the boys are selling Simonize car polish. Would you buy a product because Moe told you to? Of course you would, you knucklehead! Nyuk, Nyuk!


STRANGE...
Groucho
You Bet Your Life
1950-1961

The show was hosted by Groucho Marx, so it made perfect sense (?) to have brothers Harpo and Chico appear in several wacky Prom Shampoo commercials.

The results were a chaotic romp - I doubt the sponsor was very happy.


CELEBRITY
ENDORSEMENTS:


Willie Mays for Coke

1967(?)

An early TV sports star soft drink endorsement - featuring the most famous San Francisco Giant slugger of all time in an 'intimate' portrait that takes you back to the locker room to talk privately with the 'Say Hey Kid'.


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