Dan RobertsonWhere’s the Beef? | Great TV Commercials From the Past and Present

By Dan Robertson Published January 11, 2013 at 17:46

ENR Columnist:


DXXL | In the little over a year that DAMM told me to start writing this column we have covered a lot of ground. We did the movie thing, the cartoon thing, the comic strip thing, and the album thing.

This week I was looking for a new thing, a thing that is as important to me as the movies, cartoons, and comic strips and I came up with just the thing. The thing I’m talking about is on TV, at the movies, in the papers and sometimes done with music.

The things I’m talking about are hated by millions and loved by just as many if not more.

The things I’m talking about pay three million dollars to be run during the Super Bowl, have jingles that play endlessly in your head, and got you to buy the Ginsu knife.

The Things? Commercials.

I was going to light the candle, but first a word from our sponsor!

The first TV commercial was for Bulova watches to which they paid nine dollars to WNBT in New York.

The commercial ran before a baseball game between the then Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philiadelphia Phillies. It had a clock superimposed over a map of the US and said “America runs on Bulova time”.

The first UK commercial was run in 1955 for Gibbs SR Toothpaste on ITV, and Tide detergent was the first TV commercial in the Phillipines on ABS-CBN in 1960.

Commercials are the most cost effective way to reach the mass media and have actually shortened the time that TV shows are filmed. A program in the 1960′s would last 51 minutes now that same program only has 41 minute to play.

Commercials come in many sizes with many gimmicks, so I thought it would be fun to retroscope my favorites in different categories, I will miss some of your favorites so please let us know what they were!

The Characters

These are the “spokesperson group” the characters that were made just for a specific advertisement that took the nation by storm and have now become part of TV world culture.

Charlie the Tuna: Not to be confused with Charlie Tuna the radio host. Charlie was created by Tom Rogers for Starkist Tuna (although there are rumors that James Dean actually created him in a coffee shop).  Herschel Bernardi voiced the tuna who wore a beret and coke bottle glasses and was always trying to get caught by the Starkist.

Charlie would never get caught and a note would be sent down to Charlie on a hook saying “Sorry Charlie, Starkist doesn’t want tuna with good taste, but tuna that tastes good.”

The tuna was a mainstream success through out the 80′s and was “retired” in the 90′s. He has had two comebacks, in 1999 he was revived for Starkist new healthier line of products, he was on the red carpet for the TV Land Awards, and in 2011 presented flavor fresh pouches.


The Keebler Elves: The elves were th brain child of the Leo Burnett Worldwide advertising agency and they first appeared in 1968.

J.J. Keebler was the original head elf appearing in 1969 but was replaced by Ernest J. Keebler in 1970. The tree or the Hollow Tree Factory is almost as reconnizable ass the elves themselves and there have been more elves than most peoiple realize.

Fryer Tuck promoted Munch-Ems, Zoot and J.J promoted Pizzarias, Buckets threw fudge on the cookies, Fast Eddie wrapped the cookies, Sam added peanut butter, Doc was the doctor and cookie maker, and Elwood ran through the dough.

Others of note were Ma Keebler, Elmer Keebler, Roger, Flo, Zack, Leonardo, Professor, Edison, Larry and Art. The first Keebler Elves were drawn by children’s author and illustrator Roger Bradfield.


The Jolly Green Giant: JGG started out as a 55 foot statue in Blue Earth Minnesota and later became on of the most recognizable characters in commercial history. With the jingle “In the Valley, the valley of the Jolly Green Giant” the commercial would begin and end with Ho Ho Ho Green Giant!

Big green peddled everything from peas, beans and corn to frozen vegetables from the 1960′s until now.

The company who original produced the Green Giant commercials was the Minnesota Valley Canning Company, which changed it’s name to Green Giant, which was bought out by Pillsbury which was acquired by General Mills. It doesn’t matter who owns the rights the Green Giant will live on forever.


Next up are the talking animals (besides Look Whose Talking Too, doesn’t everybody like talking animals?). These are the CGI or real animals that have we have taken into our homes over the years and have become celebrities in their own right.

The Animals

Taco Bell Chihuahua: The Chihuahua would have made this list even if I didn’t like it because my best friend DAMM owns, coddles and loves the freaky little things! Carlos Alazraqui voiced the mascot to greatness for Yum! Brands which is the parent company of Taco Bell. 

This campaign began during the burger wars of 1997 with Gidget (dogs name) shown as a Mexican revolutionary, complete with beret and spouting the catch phrase that I still say today “Yo quiero Taco Bell!” That wasn’t the only catchphrase that Gidget created who remembers “Viva Gorditas!” “Drop the Chalupa!” or “Uh-oh I think I need a bigger box” which ran with the Godzilla movie? In 2003 Taco Bell was sued for the campaign by two guys from Michigan who proposed the idea six years earlier.

The guys got 30.1 million dollars, and nearly 12 million more in interest fees several months later. Taco Bell tried unsuccessfully to sue the ad agency TBWA saying they should have known what was going on.


Budweiser Frogs: OK so they are not the Clydesdale but they are probably as well known to certain generations. Bud Weis and Er took over the world becoming one of the most well known alcohol advertising campaigns ever. During Super Bowl XXIX where San Diego lost to the San Fransisco Forty Niners our three erstwhile amphibian buddies hit the screen as Bud is just saying his name. Weis and Er enter the fray but can’t seem to get the timing until at last the three frogs each say their part to form BUDWEISER.

Steve Myerholtz drew the trio for DMB&B advertising who approved it and animated the whole thing via CGI. Gore Verbinski the director of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies directed this beer selling masterpiece. The franchise was carried into Louie, Frankie and Ferret the three chameleons.

Louie hated the frogs and makes a assassination attempt with the help of ferrets, but electrifies Weis and Louis steps in to help out getting them all fired because he can’t follow a script.


GEICO Gecko: This little guy has been around since 1999 so he does have some retro cred.

He first hit the screen during the Screen Actors Guild strike and featured Cheers alumni Kelesey Grammer as the voice of the lizard.

The whole pitch centered around not confusing GEICO with the Gecko but has transformed vastly since those early days.

Jake Wood and Dave Kelly have also voiced the salamander like salesman with his trade mark British (or is it Aussie?) accent.

Why the accent?

Because “it would be unexpected” said Martin Agency’s Steve Bassett.


Finally, I have celebrities, you know those folks who get paid outrageous sums of money but still do TV commercials.

There is one though that is probably the most shocking that I have ever seen and it is the first of this group.

The Celebrities

Yul Brynner: The ad from the Cancer Society starts with a a gravelly voice that says “Ladies and Gentlemen, the late Yul Brynner”, and then there is the man with his easily recognizable bald head, piercing blue eyes telling us not to smoke. The thing is it wasn’t a commercial at first.

At the end of a segment on Good Morning America Yul Brynner made a statement to the audience that was used for the commercial. It was if he had one chance to say something really important (it was his last time on TV) and he took it.

People who had seen his plea on the program called in to the Cancer Society and urged them to use it. Kathy Lee Brynners wife conceded and let the add run.

Irving Rimer had this to say,  “She had the strength and courage to say, ‘Go ahead and use my husband this way,’ ” Rimer says, adding, “You can’t do this too often. It gets too emotional.”  Emotional it was and is as it still runs from time to time.


Dead Celebrities: In 1991 Diet Coke put out a commercial with Elton John and dead celebrities brought back to life by CGI to do a commercial. The ad had John Humphrey Bogart, Louis Armstrong and James Cagney singing the Diet Coke jingle.

Since then it has only gotten worse or better depending on where you stand on this. For me it shouldn’t happen. Do you remember the use of  Kurt Cobain for Guitar Hero? Yep the guy who hated all the trappings of commercialism is now a TV ad.

How about when they used Audrey Hepburn for the Gap? Really? Can you see one of the most elegant woman of all time shopping at the Gap?


Or Chris Farley doing Tommy Boy shtick with David Spade (Spade is a pile).

How about Steve McQueen being stuck in a Puma for a car add from Bullit to sell Mustangs when the car from Bullit was a Mustang (go figure).

My point is these fine folks wouldn’t have considered making these commercials when among the living why put them in them when they are dead.


George Foreman: In 1994 George Foreman hit the small screen with the George Foreman Grill, and since then there have been very few houses in America let alone the world who either haven’t seen the commercials or haven’t had one in it. The proper name is The George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine, and over 100 million of these have been sold since then.

Foreman didn’t invent the grill, that was done by Michael Boehm and Robert Johnson. Foreman became involved during his comeback in 1994 where he said he ate to burgers before every bout, making him the a natural for the idea as spokesperson.

Hulk Hogan had later claimed he was the first to be offered the deal but missed the opportunity because “picking up the kids”.

In 1999 Foreman Grill along with his tagline  “It’s so good I put my name on it!” was bought by Salton Inc for the sum of 137 million dollars so they could have sole claim to ownership.


No matter the product (lubricating gel..really?) there is a commercial (hemorrhoid ointment?) for it and somebody who will endorse it (chicken on a stick?).

We have barely scratched the surface of this topic, I mean there are toys and my obsession with cereal commercials to get to yet, so keep an eye for part 2 some where down the line. Until then though.

May Your Week Be Retro

eXpect eXcellence. We are eXPress News on eXpertComics.com


Column: RetroVision | Columnist: Dan Robertson | Twitter – @dlrobertson2 | Email – dan@expertcomics.com
  ©2012 eXpertComics.com
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    January 11th, 2013 @ 20:18

    Remember the Old Lady throwing the tire through the window? Or Smokey the Bear too.


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