6 Real Ads That Sold Nothing But Terror
Before streaming platforms hosted shows or humanity started pirating them all, TV programs came to us through broadcast television, which was funded by something called advertising. Mostly, these ads aimed to fill you with joy so you could buy more soap and cigarettes, but sometimes, things went wrong. And ads would leave you turning the TV off and staring at a blank wall silently.
Smokey The Bear Catfishes Us With His Human Skin Suit
"I know a place that's peaceful and quiet," say actress Joanna Cassidy in this 1973 PSA. But before you can get too excited, she clarifies that she's talking about the forest, as a haven for animals, and that we risk burning the place down by being careless with matches and cigarettes. As she talks more about fire safety, the camera goes closer and closer to her, which is either vaguely sinister or just intimate. The ad could end just fine with her telling us to be extra careful in the forest. But then she pulls off her face.
It wasn't a woman at all, it was Smokey the Bear. "Heh heh," he says. "If you knew it was me, would you have listened?"
We get the point. This is for adults, and they're pointing out that while fire safety campaigns and Smokey the Bear are usually directed at children, it's an issue everyone should care about. But did they have to make the transition from woman to bear so terrifying? Did they have to include this shot?
When PSAs aim to scare us, they're supposed to make us fear the thing they're warning us against. This spot does nothing to make fire look scary. The speech about fire is peaceful, while it's the Smokey revelation that makes you pee blood. This campaign succeeds only in turning Smokey into the enemy, a fraud who disguises himself to seduce us. And as for Smokey's greatest supporters, the furries, who were always up for being seduced by him, his dressing up like a human woman must come across a betrayal of the worst kind.
Street Cars Shoes And The Garage Of Doom
"Street Car girls, look at those shoes!" barks the rocker singing the soundtrack to our next ad. And we see three ladies with shoes so amazing they make a car of guys brake to take a look. "Street Car guys, look at those shoes!" our rocker growls next, because it turns on the guys too are wearing Streetcar shoes. "Street Car girls, look at those shoes!" he bellows again, which gives us another chance to look at the women's shoes and also sadly hints that this jingle isn't really going to progress very much at all.
Sure enough, he finishes with "Street Car guys, look at those shoes!" again, and though the song has fizzled out, at least each woman has now found a new beau, drawn in by the power of shoes.
I'm not sure it makes sense to sell these shoes on their ability to attract men. Or rather, I'm not sure it makes sense to sell any shoes on their ability to attract men, which is why women's shoe ads almost never take that route. And the only reason I'd picture men approaching strangers based on the lure of their shoes is if their goal is to STEAL those shoes. Which could explain why these men stalk the women through a parking garage. But then again, when a group of men stalk you through a parking garage, your shoes are just the first article of clothing you can expect to be stripped off you.
The ad does seem to end happily, with the group of six walking together into the sunlight. But the voiceover then informs us, "Street Cars shoes for girls, available at C.H. Baker." Hold up. What about the Street Car guys, the subject of half the jingle? Where do they get shoes? From the bodies of Street Car girls, is the unspoken answer.
These Three Shampoo Sirens Crave Human Flesh
Shampoo ads today consist entirely of people shampooing, hair bouncing, and animations of the made-up science behind how hair juice works. It's all very formulaic, which is why we're sure you'll much prefer this vintage ad from Prell, which says shampooing will transport you to the "beautiful Isle of Green." We see this isle and three women dressed in white. As the ad fades from shots of the forest and waterfalls to the three bathing together while never breaking eye contact with the camera and almost never blinking, the women recite their lines. Sometimes they finish each other's sentences; sometimes, they speak in unison.
"The land of liquid emerald," one says. "Cascades," they all say, "of sparkling droplets." "Liquid Prell," says another," and the third says again, "The beautiful Isle of Green." Prell will leave your hair "radiant," "shimmering," and "luxuriously clean," which reads totally innocuous in print, but listen to how they chant it:
As you watch this ad, several successive facts become clear.
1. These women are not human.
2. The way their lines follow one another, sometimes overlapping, means they share a telepathic bond.
3. The Isle of Green appears on no map, and their will is required for you to visit or to leave.
4. They clearly possess an alternate, monstrous form, perhaps involving ranger hats.
The 20th Century's Anti-Drug PSAs Pulled No Punches
If you ever look through foreign movie posters of American films, say posters from Eastern Europe or Russia from 40 years ago, you'll see they put American posters to shame in terms of artistry, even if they don't do a very good job of at all depicting what the film's really about. That's because for a lot of those artists, movie posters were the only acceptable outlet for their creativity. Something similar might be true for people who make ads. Say you dream of making horror movies, but the only way to make ends is to shoot commercials. This sucks because ads have to be happy. But then you get a dream assignment: Making PSAs for Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Finally, you get to go wild!
Here's a spot that we'll call "Drugs? Drugs?! Druuuuugggggsssss!!!!!":
We hear a long and expertly delivered monologue from a drug dealer who calls himself "Snake," who's "dealin' in weed, coke, crack." And once you're hooked, you'll do anything to get more. "Steal from your momma, lie, cheat on your homeboys" -- which is actually refreshingly understated and accurate, as drug PSA warnings go. While he's talking and moving through shadows, Snake puts on a series of masks from Buffy the Vampire Slayer before revealing the awful truth. Snake is actually ... a snake! "Some folks'll tell you I'm dealing in poison, but do I look like the kind of guy that would do that to a kid like you? Yesssssssssss!" Yes, he's hissing, you see. Because he is a snake.
Next is a PSA we'll call Check For Track Marks:
"Nancy's been doing a lot of drugs," says Nancy's friend, while Nancy herself poses on train tracks, a train bearing down on her. "If I like say anything, she'll think I'm not cool, and I don't want to lose a friend. I mean it's her life, right?" The train mows her down, and we see sparks reflected in her friend's face, or maybe that's just her hair. Nancy's friend should have done something, clearly. Though yelling "look out, a train!" wouldn't have done the trick, since the train's own loud horn had no effect. Maybe Nancy's friend should have slammed into her and got mowed down too, or thrown a switch and sent the train toward a track with five other druggies.
As you can see, we don't always "get" metaphors, which may again make trouble for us as we look at this final PSA, which we'll call Drugs Are Pool:
"Doing drugs is like being on the top of the world," says the voice-over, as a swimmer climbs up to a diving board. All right, you might think, but then you fall? Well, that's a stupid analogy. Because there's nothing especially fun about being high up on the diving board, and falling is in fact the best part. But then the voice explains: "Just think about this. Before you go and do something you've never done before, you just better know what you're jumping into." And after the swimmer jumps, we see the pool has no water. They don't show us her bloodied and broken body, because they'd have trouble getting the ad on air if they did, but I think the message is clear here. If you're going to get high, be sure to stay hydrated.
Scarecrow Home Invasion
In all of history, popular culture has produced a single lovable scarecrow, the one from Oz. Other than him, every scarecrow is mildly creepy when in its proper form crucified on wooden stakes and utterly horrifying when it defies the gods and springs to life. It's supposed to be scary; it's right in the name. That's true whether we're talking about Batman, Doctor Who, or whichever horror book series you favored as a kid.
Despite this, Knorr soup chose an animate scarecrow as the star of the following soup commercial. Normally, when a scarecrow gains sentience, your fear is that he will hide in the corn and garrote you with his fiber wire, and this one pretends his umbrella is a giant dong and dances and splashes in puddles. When a man catches sight of him, he turns still, because no one must know the scarecrow walks. Then the scarecrow disturbs some birds to get the man to drop his guard and open the door, and the scarecrow enters the house.
All of this is set to the song "Singing in the Rain," and herein lies the real problem. Because when you think "home invasion" and "Singing in the Rain," your mind goes straight to A Clockwork Orange, to a sequence a bit less comforting than that of cooking a warm meal. You can't score a merry home invasion to "Singing in the Rain," just like how "Nearer My God To Thee" on a boat post-Titanic always reminds people of death, or "Stuck in the Middle" when someone's tied to a chair post-Reservoir Dogs always reminds people of torture.
The ad's biggest failure though may be all the crosscutting between Knorr soup and filthy mud puddles, forever linking in them in your mind. But mud splashing is the least gross thing the scarecrow did with fluids tonight, so it's just as well that you think only of mud when you hear the ad's tagline: "Knorr soup. So good, you go schloup!"
Calvin Klein's Snuff Film Ads
It sure is fun picking on creepy ads. Much of the time, it says more about our own perversions and sexual insecurities than it says about the footage. But then every so often, a company totally ruins the game by making sinister sexual predation the actual point of the ad instead of just subtext.
In the following series of ads from Calvin Klein, an unseen director tells bare-chested 20-year-old aspiring actor Brandon, "You got pretty blue eyes. Where'd you get those from?" They he gets Brandon to identify what he's wearing -- "short shorts," says shy Brandon -- and tells him they fit real well. Even a novice internet snarker could have a lot of fun with this ad. This is like a porno! you might joke, or, That director is clearly going to bang Brandon in about two minutes. Except, that's not a joke, and the rest of the ads in the series make this clear. Horny director guy straight-up asks one actress whether she's ever made love on camera, misunderstands another actress so he can ask, "Do you always do what you don't want to do," and gets one actor to (literally) rip his shirt off for him.
The campaign was hugely controversial back in 1995, with shining example of sexual propriety President Clinton weighing in to say he found it distasteful. The strongest criticism surrounded the inclusion of one model, a 14-year-old boy with no prior experience who was discovered by a photographer while skateboarding in the park. "Yeah, CK had that ad a couple years back about 15-year-old Brooke Shields not wearing underwear," people seemed to say, "but this is weirder." The boy's father defended the ad by clarifying that it was a legit Calvin Klein shoot and wasn't actually some brick basement where a fake director had sex with one victim after another, but that seemed to miss the point people were making.
Calvin Klein 100 percent counted on this controversy and relished it. Maybe they also figured viewers would find the casting couch taboo and sexy, and thought little about how this particular director clearly moved each model's remains to a landfill afterwards.