Selling stuff is rarely this fun…
By CHRIS FRANKLIN
A while back I wrote an article covering 13 live-action superhero commercials. It’s always fun to see our favorite four-color heroes interpreted by actors in real costumes, both the good and the bad. But there’s no denying that animation is a medium that comics translate into with far more ease. Just like comics, though, there’s no shortage of different interpretations and styles these short films can take. And the subject matter can range from a hero hawking their own self-branded wares, to a heartfelt public service announcement warning kids about the dangers life may throw at them.
What follows is a list of interesting ads featuring our favorite superfolk, some you may remember, and many of which you’ve probably never seen. You can clearly see the influence of the comics, and in some cases actual work from creators who have a history with these characters in print. There’s plenty more where these came from, but these 13 campaigns rose to the top for me:
Superman, Tennessee Tuxedo, and Soaky the Kid. During the 1960s, Palmolive produced a series of popular Soaky bubble-bath bottles in the shape of kid-favorite characters. In 1965, they added the Man of Steel, and produced a commercial paring him with the now mostly forgotten Saturday morning star Tennessee Tuxedo (voiced by Don Adams) and their own mascot, the Soaky Kid. Superman sounds a bit like original radio and Fleischer shorts Superman voice actor Bud Collyer, but this was a year before he and the character returned in Filmation’s New Adventures of Superman series. That year, Superman and his super-powered brethren replaced funny animal characters like Tennessee Tuxedo as the standard Saturday morning fare.
Captain America: Energy Saver. The U.S. Department of Energy enlisted Captain America to help teach kids about conserving power in their home. In this 1980 ad, created by Marvel Comics Animation in a style similar to the later Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, Cap battles the Energy Wasters: Thermal Thief, Wattage Waster and the Cold Air Crook. These villains wouldn’t look out of place in issues of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe! Despite his ears being incorrectly colored blue, the Star-Spangled Avenger looks good and makes me wish we had gotten a Cap cartoon series at the time. Cap’s voice appears to be that of George DiCenzo, who voiced the character on the well-remembered Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends episode “Seven Little Super-Heroes.”
Post Cereals DC Super Heroes Contests. DC Comics had a long relationship with Post Cereals in the late ’70s and early ’80s. In addition to mini-comics and posters packed in with boxes of Pebbles, Alpha-Bits and the like, Post also ran several superhero-themed contests. The first seen here from 1981 taught kids how to gamble with lottery scratch offs! Match characters and you could win prizes like a trip to Hollywood to eat breakfast with Superman, Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman (I wonder if any of those kids were disappointed Christopher Reeve didn’t show up?). I actually won one of the third prizes from this contest, a special Super Friends comic! The next year I entered the 1982 contest and designed my own villain (don’t ask me what it was, as I don’t recall), but only got the “participation” prize of Puffy Stickers. Hey, it was something!
The interesting thing about these commercials is that both feature the voice actors from the long-running Super Friends series from Hanna Barbera: Danny Dark as Superman, Olan Soule as Batman, Casey Kasem as Robin and Shannon Farnon as Wonder Woman. Oddly enough, the animation in the second commercial DOESN’T seem to have been produced by Hanna-Barbera, since the designs are off model to the Super Friends, and the style is quite different. This despite the fact HB produced the Flintstones-based Pebbles commercials for decades!
Lois and Clark for AT&T. In 1986, years before AT&T briefly owned Warner and its subsidiaries like DC Comics, the telecommunications giant made a call to the Daily Planet’s top reporters for some promotional support. This animated ad features Clark Kent leaving a perplexed Lois Lane, and ducking into a phone booth to… use a phone card? Yes, instead of changing into his famous super-duds, Clark pays for a call to London with his AT&T card. He and “Lo” as he calls her (where did THAT come from?) then get a taxi. Some sources claim that Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder reprised their roles here, but I’m only hearing some decent sound-alikes myself.
Hulk Want Honeycomb. Although Kellogg’s once sponsored Superman’s radio and television shows, Post seemed to be the preferred cereal maker of the Bronze Age when it came to the superheroes. In this 1976 spot, a year before his big live-action TV debut, the Incredible Hulk lands at the Honeycomb Hideout looking for a big bite, and gets it when the kids give him a taste of their favorite cereal. But even the savage Jade Giant knows it’s only PART of a balanced breakfast! This ad reminds me a bit of the very faithful, but incredibly limited Marvel Super-Heroes cartoons of the ’60s, partially due to its styling and dramatic music, but mostly because the art seems to come straight out of a Hulk comic. That’s because longtime Hulk artist Herb Trimpe did the designs and layouts. Trimpe would go on to design the memorable Crest Team commercials a few years later, and this commercial fits right in with them.
Superman, Lone Ranger and Tarzan for Continental Insurance. What a super-team this would have been! In this well-executed early-’70s ad, Continental Insurance compares their agents to these champions of justice: Superman rescues a family from atop a beleaguered house (and doesn’t just hover above them as in recent films); the Lone Ranger (on Silver) rustles some thieves; and Tarzan stops an elephant stampede from crushing explorers with car problems. At commercial’s end, the heroes assemble, creating their own Justice League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Although the Lone Ranger was forever tied to the Old West, it made sense for Continental to pick these three characters, probably the most popular adventure heroes of the generations then concerned with purchasing insurance.
Underoos: The Underwear That’s Fun to Wear. What kid of the ’70s and early-’80s didn’t have at least one pair of Underoos? Before you could walk into any store and buy any number of Superman and Batman logoed T-shirts, Underoos allowed you to pick your superhero brand, or brands, since their assortment was quite large. These commercials ran for several years, but this early one has perhaps the best animation, and most character selection. It’s certainly jarring to see Marvel’s Spider-Man lumped in with Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel (Shazam!) and Aquaman from DC. The character designs seem to come right from the Underoos packaging, meaning Superman and Aquaman look like they were drawn by Kurt Schaffenberger, and Wonder Woman is based on the Super Friends model sheets of Alex Toth. Word of warning: Nowadays it may seem a little creepy to watch kids dance around in their underwear, but hey, it was a more innocent time.
Superman vs. Nick O’ Teen. In 1980, the British Health Education Council began a series of print and television ads featuring Superman, designed to warn children about the dangers of smoking. Rather than have Luthor or Brainiac peddling tobacco, a new villain was developed… Nick O’ Teen. Looking something like Oliver Twist’s Fagin in a top hat that resembles a cigarette butt, the very sleazy-looking Nick would try to tempt kids with his wares until the Man of Steel showed up, either to extinguish his plans, or throw him miles up into the sky! Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and the Daily Planet also appear in this striking campaign from Richard Williams Animation Studios, although the decidedly British accents of the kids make you wonder just where these ads are taking place! Ironically, the following year, during the massive battle scene in Superman II, the Last Son of Krypton is knocked into a Marlboro truck, giving the company one of the most gratuitous ad placements in cinematic history. This along with Lois Lane’s constant chain-smoking in that film makes you wonder if Nick O’ Teen eventually bested his foe!
The New Teen Titans Say No To Drugs. This is an odd one, as the audio for this clip seems to be forever lost, and there’s some question of whether it actually ever aired on TV. In 1983, First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Say No To Drugs” campaign reached out to DC Comics, hoping to use their most popular characters to teach kids about the dangers of drug abuse. To the surprise of those working on the campaign, DC’s most popular book at the time was George Perez and Marv Wolfman’s New Teen Titans. Wolfman penned three comics with the Titans tackling the nation’s growing drug problem, with art in the first issue by Perez, followed by Ross Andru and Adrian Gonzales.
Distributed through school systems nationwide, the first book was sponsored by Keebler, which presented a problem. Robin, the leader of the team and most well-recognized Teen Titan, was licensed out to rival cookie maker Nabisco for their Super-Heroes Cookies. Perez had drawn Robin in the comic as he always would, but inker Dick Giordano had to redraw a new character overtop of Robin, thus the mysterious Protector was born. Ironically, Perez drew the box front of Nabisco’s Super Heroes cookies… featuring Robin!
The Protector also appeared in this Hanna-Barbera produced ad, which depicts Raven, Cyborg, Starfire, Wonder Girl, Kid Flash and Changeling stopping by a park and interrupting a potential drug sale. Oddly enough, Speedy isn’t present, despite his prominent and personal role in the first comic. Apparently, this was a dry run for a proposed Teen Titans animated series, although it’s unknown if the Protector would have replaced Robin there. The series never materialized, but the design for Cyborg was used when he joined the Justice League in the final Super Friends season, Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians. Clips from this ad can be seen in a long-form video produced by DC, promoting the availability of their super heroes for PSAs.
Superman Hot Cocoa Warms Up Captain Cold. Superman was big in household products in the ’80s. He had his peanut butter, French fries (there’s a really bizarre commercial for that, but Superman himself isn’t in it), and even hot cocoa mix! Here in this 1983 commercial, Superman saves two kids from the icy fortress of the Flash’s foe, Captain Cold. Honestly it looks like the Captain is squatting the Fortress of Solitude, but I’ll take their word for it. Kudos to the creators for cribbing an actual DC villain, even if he isn’t from Superman’s Rogues Gallery. Captain Cold had been a member of the Legion of Doom on Challenge of the Super Friends a few years prior, so maybe someone thought he had a little cachet. Here he looks a bit like Nick O’ Teen, since it seems this may be the work of the Richard Williams Animation Studio as well.
Spider-Man: Don’t Hide Abuse. Unlike the other entries on this list, this is a long-form short, running about 10 minutes. In 1984, Marvel had partnered with the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse for a one-shot comic featuring Spider-Man and Power Pack. This is a thematic sequel, produced in 1990 by Marvel Entertainment in association with Learning Corporation of America (also owned by Marvel’s then-parent company, New World Entertainment).
The short features Spider-Man acting as both host and confidant to a group of kids concerned that their friend is suffering from physical abuse at the hands of her father. The animation style of the kids is radically different than the standard-looking Spider-Man, but the short sends an effective message nonetheless. It is a bit odd to hear Spider-Man say “violence doesn’t solve anything” when his stories are almost always resolved in such a manner. Voice director Wally Burr was an industry vet, having worked for years on Super Friends, and even voiced the Atom there. Executive Producer Margaret Loesch was the head of Marvel Entertainment at the time, but would leave the company for Fox Kids, where she would purchase and broadcast the ’90s animated series for Batman, X-Men and Spider-Man, among others.
Superman Protects His Peanut Butter. This gorgeously designed and animated ad seems to be either produced by Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios, or at the very least inspired by Adams’ art. From the kids, to Superman’s face and hair, to his distinctive take on the “S” shield, this has Adams all over it. As commercials go, it’s a fun one too, with Lex Luthor capturing and torturing the Man of Steel with Kryptonite, hoping to learn the secret of Superman Peanut Butter’s great taste. The Metropolis Marvel won’t spill, but thankfully a group of intrepid kids arrives to remove the Kryptonite and give Superman back his powers. Superman peanut butter may have been good (I should know, I ate it!), but this commercial is even better. Its strength is its great animation!
Batman & Robin Enforce Zellers’ “Law of Toyland.” In 1988, a year before Batmania swept the world once again, Canadian department store Zellers released a series of commercials with the Dynamic Duo promoting the chain’s “Law of Toyland” price-matching policy. Batman and Robin arrive at Zellers to protect the fine citizens of… er… Canada from their four biggest rogues: Joker, Catwoman, Penguin and the Riddler, who apparently have nothing better to do than confound consumers.
These beautifully animated ads were created by Lightbox Studios of Toronto, and featured callbacks to the classic ’60s Batman television series, such as the Batpoles, and the comic version of the George Barris Batmobile rocketing out of the Batcave. Lightbox used a version of Neal Hefti’s Batman theme, and even stranger, the actual laughs of Cesar Romero and Frank Gorshin as the Joker and the Riddler, respectively, and the “waugh-waugh” of Burgess Meredith’s Penguin!
Despite sticking with a ’60s aesthetic for the most part, the designs of Batman and Joker, and the overall color palette often evoke the art of Brian Bolland and colors of John Higgins from the then recently published Batman: The Killing Joke! Holy dichotomy!!!
Although mostly unseen outside of Canada, these ads would prove to have an impact on the legacy of Batman. When Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski needed a studio to produce their “sizzle reel” to help sell their concept of what would become Batman: The Animated Series, they called Lightbox Studios, based on the strength of these commercials. Also, artist Ty Templeton, associated with the comics based on BTAS for thirty years, was a contributing animator on this Zellers campaign! For more info, check out this article at CBR.
— The TOP 13 Live-Action SUPERHERO COMMERCIALS. Click here.
— PAUL KUPPERBERG: My 13 Favorite COMIC BOOK ADS by Comic Book Artists. Click here.
Chris Franklin is a graphic designer, illustrator and podcaster who co-hosts several shows on the Fire and Water Podcast Network, including JLUCast, which he produces with his wife Cindy. Writing this article has made him hungry… but not hungry enough to try a 40-year old jar of Superman Peanut Butter!
January 29, 2023
Here’s a link for a print ad I saw once in an old issue of Readers Digest. As you can see, it included Captain America and Dick Tracy as well as the three seen in the TV commercial.
January 30, 2023
Hey, that’s pretty cool! I wish Cap and Tracy got in on the animated ad!
January 30, 2023
I’ve never even heard of at least HALF of these! Thanks Chris!
January 30, 2023
This deserves an honorable mention. Here’s a 1966 Life Savers ad featuring Batman (kind of) and the Golden Age Flash! They were licensed-you can barely make out “Copyright 1966 National Periodical Publications Inc.” on the screen in their appearances.
My guess is that the creator of this ad had a copy of Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes. The Batman panel is lifted from his origin in Batman #1 and Flash is depicted with his first costume, the one with the lightning bolt on the chest only and the lightning bolt belt buckle. Both were featured in the Feiffer book.
February 2, 2023
Oh wow, that’s a new one on me! Kind of reminds me just a bit of the animation in the Comic Book Confidential documentary from the late 80s.