Do You Remember…Retro TV Commercials?

These 14 retro TV commercials will have you longing for the old days...or wondering, "what were they thinking?"

The first television commercial aired on July 1, 1941, before the start of a baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies. The commercial aired on NBC’s affiliate, WNBT-TV. This commercial was an advertisement for Bulova watches and lasted only ten seconds. Since then, television commercials have increased in frequency and length. However, many early commercials have become classics worth remembering.

Cigarette Commercials

Cigarette commercials are no longer allowed on television because of the hazards smoking poses to one’s health. Many of the early TV ads for cigarettes now seem counterintuitive, but a few were just silly and amusing. The commercials I find outrageous were the ones that touted the studies that showed more doctors smoked their brand than any other. One such commercial was a Camel ad out of the fifties. The announcer said that in a busy doctor’s day, time out means smoking a cigarette, of course. The ad further stated that studies showed that more doctors smoked Camel cigarettes than any other brand.

Another Camel ad starts out with a professional pool player who demonstrates how to tell if a pool cue is warped. The expert then states that he has been smoking Camel cigarettes for 22 years and nothing is milder. The ad continues with a study that shows that Camel cigarettes cause less “throat irritation.” (Of course, nothing was said about cancer.)

Some of the cigarette ads were just amusing. Lucky Strike commercials employed singing animated characters, square dancing cigarettes, and quaint mnemonics such as L.S.M.F.T (Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco).

Beer Commercials

Hamm’s Beer had a slogan, “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters.” Their early TV commercials featured a dancing bear. My favorite is the one in which there is singing in the background and the bear is rolling on a log.

A 1955 Heineken beer commercial has to go down in history as one of the cleverest and amusing beers ads on TV. The ad is a short, animated film starring “Dr. Space” who goes to the Moon, laden with Heineken beer and gives the beer as a gift to the leader of the Moon.

As with most commercials of yesteryear, a catchy jingle was key in selling a product. One early Pabst beer commercial features the jingle, “What’ll you have?” sung by animated characters.

A 1963 Schlitz beer commercial expounds the virtues of its new “pop-top can” utilizing a jingle being sung in the background while silent vaudeville characters demonstrate the use of a pull tab on a can of beer.

Food Commercials

Perhaps no commercial is more iconic than the Green Giant vegetable ads that featured “The Jolly Green Giant.” Who could forget the catchy jingle that began with, “From the Valley of the Jolly, Ho, Ho,Ho, Green Giant”? This mythical creature had a body built by eating vegetables. There is an actual 55.5 ft. statue of the Green Giant in Blue Earth, Minnesota. The Jolly Green Giant was immortalized in a novelty song in 1965 by the Kingsman, titled, “Jolly Green Giant.” Here is a link to an early Green Giant Commercial:

Here is a link to the Kingmen’s Jolly Green Giant song:

Oscar Mayer Wiener commercials entertained television audiences with children marching and singing the Oscar Mayer jingle. Kids all over the nation were singing, “I’d love to be an Oscar Mayer Wiener.” Created in 1936, but not fully in service until the 1950s, Oscar Mayer “Wienermobiles” toured the country (and still do) and have appeared in TV commercials. These were specially designed chassis that featured a giant hot dog and bun on top. Here is a link to a 1965 Oscar Meyer Weiner ad:

Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes commercials employed an animated character named “Tony, the Tiger.” He would end the ad with “They’re GGGGRRRRREEEAT!

Car Rental Commercials

“Let Hertz put you in the Driver’s Seat” was the catch-phrase that Hertz Rent-A-Car used in their TV commercials. One memorable ad in the 1960s showed a couple being magically placed down into the seat of a Chevrolet convertible as it was driving down the road.

Watch Ads

“Takes a licking and keeps on ticking” was the tagline for Timex watch commercials. The Timex ad that featured John Cameron Swayze as the spokesperson for Timex watches, will go down in history as the greatest product failure on live TV. Mr. Swayze placed a Timex watch in a clear tank with an outboard motor. The watch was strapped around the propeller. The watch was supposed to stay on the propeller as the engine was revved up, but when they stopped the motor, the watch had flown off and was at the bottom of the tank. Swayze assured the audience that the watch had performed well in previous tests and the watch was still working.

Ball-Point Pen Commercials

This BIC pen commercial featured a BIC pen being shot out of a rifle into a block of oak wood. The shattered remains of the pen were driven into the wood and the tip was protruding on the other side. The announcer took the block of wood and wrote BIC on a piece of paper. Pretty impressive for a 19 cent pen.

The style and content of television commercials have changed over the last 50 or 60 years. Products that were once advertised, such as cigarettes, are no longer allowed on television, However, ads for erectile dysfunction, contraception, and feminine hygiene products are now common on TV. Many ads out of the 1950s and early 1960s would be considered sexist by today’s standards.

The scope of this change in content really hit home when I was on a service call in the home of an elderly woman. I turned the set back on after completing the repair, and to my horror, there was an ad promoting a product that made sex less painful for older women. Times have certainly changed!

What retro TV Commercials do you remember? Let us know your favorites in the comments.

About the Author

Long-time Sapulpa resident, Charles Betzler, followed his father, Charlie, into the radio and TV repair business. At age 9, he fixed his first broken radio and his first love is vintage audio equipment. In his 50 + years of technical work, graduation from OSUIT, and years of Continuing Education, Charles, in his capacity as Emergency Management Director of nearby city, designed the Emergency Operations Center, and the radio-activation system for the sirens. In his long career, he has repaired every type of consumer electronics from black-and-white TVs to the latest lap-top.

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