Look! On the tube! It’s Supershills!
Can’t wait for WandaVision? Need a Batman fix? How about another gathering of the Avengers?
Well podcaster/historian/13th Dimension contributor Chris Franklin has you covered with the TOP 13 LIVE-ACTION SUPERHERO COMMERCIALS:
By CHRIS FRANKLIN
Where have all the (super) heroes gone?
As we continue to live in this unprecedented age of the COVID-19 virus, our lives are trapped in a strange, perpetual limbo. Same with our heroes. Wonder Woman and Black Widow’s cinematic exploits have been delayed and delayed again, for just two obvious examples.
After more than a decade of being spoiled rotten by the embarrassment of riches that is modern media’s fixation with adapting our four-color heroes, the well has, if not run dry, at the very least been temporarily cut off.
But luckily, there are glimpses of heroes of the past, available right at our fingertips. When you have streamed your final episode, or exhausted your Blu-ray box sets, fear not — you only need to head to YouTube to find your heroes righting wrongs… and hawking product.
From toothpaste to candy bars, some of our favorite comics characters have been pitchmen for a great number of everyday items over the past 60-plus years. Whether it’s an unknown actor playing costumed a milk spokesman, or a beloved TV icon in their signature role teaching kids road safety, our beloved crime fighters have been pressed into small-screen mercantile or public service.
Some are well remembered, some are incredibly obscure, but they are all fun snapshots of where these characters were in the public eye at the time. So, let’s take a look the TOP 13 LIVE-ACTION SUPERHERO COMMERCIALS – in no particular order:
Batman for OnStar. Running from 2000 to 2002 this well-remembered series of ads is the most lavish on the list, utilizing sets, props and vehicles from the four Batman films directed by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. Another constant in those films, Michael Gough, returns to play Alfred in the initial ad, telling “Master Bruce” about the benefits of the OnStar guidance system he’s installed in the Batmobile. Gough was no stranger to using Alfred as a pitchman, having reprised the role in a Diet Coke ad that was famously included on the original VHS copies of Batman upon its initial home video release.
The OnStar ads starred Bruce Thomas (Legally Blonde, Army of Darkness), perhaps the most appropriately named actor ever to take on the role of the Dark Knight, in a rather nice suit cobbled together from stunt outfits from the Batman film franchise. (Thomas would later voice Jim Gordon in the animated film, Batman: HUSH.)
Familiar faces portrayed his rogues across the six ads, including Curtis Armstrong (Revenge of the Nerds, Better Off Dead, Moonlighting), as the Joker and Brian Stepanek (The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Young Sheldon) as the Riddler. Anton Furst’s Batmobile and Danny Elfman’s score from Burton’s first film make these little mini-movies seem like legitimate additions to that Bat-universe, despite coming at a time when the franchise was dead in the water after the critical and fan reaction to Batman & Robin. In the years before every car came equipped with Bluetooth, this campaign apparently boosted OnStar’s subscription and renewal numbers. Batman’s popularity endures…
Marvel Superheroes for Visa Check Card. In 2005, a few years after the first installments of the X-Men and Spider-Man films hit multiplexes, and a few prior to the advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Visa teamed with the comic publisher and other IP holders for a fun ad promoting their Visa Check Card.
In a deserted city parking lot, a distraught woman cries for help. We cut to Thor calling down lightning, Captain America bursting up through the pavement (!) and Spider-Man swinging in for a landing on a nearby car. These heroes are joined by Wolverine, Storm, and some unknown background heroes (although a couple kind of look like the Silver Surfer and Nova) for an epic group shot, until the woman in peril reveals someone stole her Visa Check Card.
The heroes groan at the false alarm (in one version, Captain America even mocks the woman’s voice!), because holders aren’t responsible for fraudulent charges on the card. The well-costumed, comic-accurate heroes walk away in disgust, but there’s one hero late to the call… Underdog, who appears in animated form, only for the embarrassed woman to shoo him away.
The rather dorky portrayal of Captain America here is particularly jarring now, but at the time, there was a lot of skepticism if the genuinely sincere Avenger could ever be pulled off properly on film for today’s cynical audiences. Six years later, perfectly cast Chris Evans would put those worries to rest. And only recently could Marvel Studios conceive of a film with ALL these characters included, after Disney’s joint deal with Sony allowed the use of Spider-Man, and purchase of Fox gave them back the X-Men. Underdog is still up in the air. Some day.
Batman and Robin for Christmas at Zayre. Twenty years after the Batman TV series debuted, a somewhat familiar Dynamic Duo returned to the tubve, advertising Zayre’s extended Christmas hours. Shadowed, unknown actors portraying Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson activate the button beneath the Shakespeare bust and descend via Batpoles into the Batcave, and, now in costume, into George Barris’ iconic Batmobile.
The commercial even recreates the famous shot of Batman powering up TV’s greatest car, and it rocketing through the cave opening. Batman’s costume is definitely more 1982 DC style guide of the time, with longer ears and a light blue and gray motif, but clearly the TV series is the inspiration for this ad, which ends on a rather funny note.
Leaving Zayre, Robin questions why the Dynamic Duo has purchased a gift umbrella for the Penguin, but Batman, Adam West-style, reminds his old chum about the spirit of the season! The only strange note is the use of Bill Haley and the Comets’ Rock Around The Clock. I get that it references the store’s “open 24 hours” policy, but this is a Batman tribute, not a Happy Days one!
Hawkman for Baby Ruth. In 1997, Hawkman’s continuity was so indecipherable, DC Comics declared him “radioactive” and even forbade favored writer Grant Morrison from using him in his fabled JLA run. Instead they gave him to an ad agency making commercials for Baby Ruth, who portrayed him as a buffoon. Decked out in his post-Zero Hour long black hair and dim grays, this Hawkman (played by comedian Jim Jackman) is far from dour. He happily tells a news reporter that he now struggles with defying gravity, and his eyesight is poor. But he has Baby Ruth to give him the energy to compensate for his deficiencies.
When the reporter comments that his rival Lionmane (how obscure can you get!) calls that cheating, Hawkman is quite concerned his foe is angry with him.
It is a fun spot, and Hawkman’s costume, other than his strangely low wings, is nicely done, but one can only guess that DC offered up Hawkman when Baby Ruth came calling for a bigger character to poke fun at.
Alfred for Fact Toothpaste. By Jove! Fact toothpaste took its sponsorship of the Batman TV series one step further by offering something kids just couldn’t get enough of for decades: a mail-in premium! And who better to pitch the offer than faithful butler and art connoisseur Alfred (played as always with classy charm by Alan Napier)?
At the beginning of a commercial break, Alfred points out some smashing new posters of Masters Bruce and Dick in comic-book action, and tells you how you can get both posters for only a dollar and a panel from a box of Fact toothpaste.
Moms were happy to have kids asking for toothpaste, and kids were happy to get some sweet Bat-wall art to adorn their rooms. The ad then segued into a boring family history of three generations of cavity-afflicted males before returning to the Batman credits. (Special thanks to John S. Drew of The Batcave Podcast for the heads up on this one!)
Superman Splashes on Aqua Velva. Among the men who portrayed Superman, often overlooked is Bob Holiday, who came between George Reeves and Christopher Reeve, and played the Man of Steel in Broadway’s It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman in 1966.
Several years later, in the early ’70s, the makers of Aqua Velva aftershave called upon Holiday to reprise his role. What followed was an intimate look at how the Last Son of Krypton begins his day — with a shower, shave and a splash of Aqua Velva Surf!
In Clark Kent’s apartment, we see his trademark fedora and glasses, a framed drawing of Lois Lane, and of course his iconic red and blue uniform, before Holiday utters those immortal words “Up, up and away!” and leaps through the window — becoming a very unconvincing doll flying above a Metropolis backdrop. But hey, they got classic Superman radio and Filmation animated series narrator Jackson Beck to wrap things up!
Around this same time, Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels reprised their TV and movie roles as the Lone Ranger and Tonto to pitch the aftershave as well.
Batman TV Cast for Lava Soap.
A recent discovery for me personally, this ad for Lava soap was made during the run of the classic Batman series, featuring the Dynamic Duo and Gotham’s two top cops.
In his familiar office, Neil Hamilton’s Commissioner Gordon was perhaps never as convincingly authoritative as he was here, admonishing Stafford Repp’s Chief O’Hara for his dirty hands after fingerprinting the mob. Gordon sings the praises of the “grime fighter” — Lava soap — and Batman plays hand model, showcasing the product while handing it to the ink-splattered chief.
Adam West’s Caped Crusader is particularly subdued and quiet in this segment, although Burt Ward’s Robin gets in a trademark “Holy Inkpad!”
Marvel’s Got Milk. In this entry in the “Got Milk?” campaign from 2000, a very antiquated milkman (how long has that job been extinct?) rings the doorbell of a large, foreboding mansion and falls through a trap door into a secret meeting chamber. There he is surrounded by a group that is ostensibly the Avengers, but never called as such, because it’s 12 years before the first MCU team-up film made that a household name.
The milkman finds he is at a super hero tryout meet, and is being judged by a rather sedate Hulk, Scarlet Witch, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye and chairman Captain America, who all have name cards in front of them for comic-challenged viewers.
The milkman is failing the test miserably until he answers a very Nordic, but older Thor that rather than combatting villains, he fights “weak bones with a never-ending supply of milk.” Hulk growls in approval, and we see the milkman is admitted into the ranks of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes via a headline-worthy team photo in a newspaper, which is surprisingly NOT the Daily Bugle.
This ad is undoubtedly the first time anyone saw live-action versions of Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch and Iron Man, who are now at the very least very well-known characters (the first two) and international institutions (the latter). The comic-accurate costumes are well done, although there is a rubbery feel about them that recalls the 1990 direct-to-VHS Captain America film starring Matt Salinger. Like the Visa card ad, some seem to be upgrades of the costumes Marvel used for character personal appearances.
Batman for US Savings Bonds and Stamps. Like his World’s Finest pal Superman, Batman also once helped pitch the idea of buying US bonds and stamps to children. Where George Reeves got a short episode to espouse the virtues of good citizenship and money management as Superman a decade before, Adam West’s Masked Manhunter gets less than a minute.
Standing in a corner of the Batcave with a US bonds flyer tacked to its papier-mache walls, Batman reads a message from President Lyndon Johnson to the kids of America, congratulating them for joining in the Treasury Department’s School Savings Program.
Batman relays LBJ’s beliefs that their support is helping the troops in Vietnam, a subject never really broached on the series, despite its time of production. Batman then informs the kids that they will receive a card with that message, and a signature and photo of LBJ, when they join in the program.
No doubt, they would have much rather had an autograph of Batman, or Adam West.
Spider-Man for Atari. A maniacal Green Goblin, lit pumpkin bomb in hand, leaps into the frame, and begins to taunt his foe Spider-Man, who is frantically playing his new Parker Brothers video game (for the Atari 2600 system) on a New York City rooftop, trying to diffuse the Goblin’s time bombs!
The villain continues to unnerve our hero as the wall-crawler’s 8-bit doppelganger’s web line is cut and he falls to an apparent doom. As the madman leaps away (no doubt to a waiting Goblin Glider off screen), Spidey breaks the fourth wall and asks if this is too much action for even him to handle.
The Spider-Man and Goblin costumes look to be the exact same ones used by Marvel for promotions and personal appearances at the time. I personally saw the two duke it out in the clothing department at a Hills Store in Lexington, Kentucky, just a few years prior.
While perhaps not cinema perfect, the well-realized Goblin makes you wonder why Hollywood finds it so difficult to get this look right. As for the game, it may have not been as exciting as this ad, but I recall it as one of the better ones available for the fabled Atari 2600 system, beginning a trend of better-than-average Spider-Man video games that continues today.
Batman UK Road Safety Kerb Drill. A recently surfaced “lost” ad, filmed during the production of the classic TV series, shows Adam West as Batman, on location and sightseeing in London (not the show’s fictional Londinium). But the Caped Crusader warns us that danger is ever present, in the form of… traffic! He then congratulates the local British children on their practice of safely crossing the street, via their “Kerb Drill” chant, which he demonstrates with a group of adorable moppets.
West’s interactions with the kids are genuinely sweet as they recite the Road Safety Code together, and walk gloved hand-in-hand through the intersection. It’s refreshing to look back at a time when superheroes were more likely to help people across the street rather than run them over.
Thanks to this ad, I also learned the US “curb” is spelled “kerb” in the UK. After years of seeing West’s Batman in vibrant color, it’s interesting to see his costume in black and white. It’s almost Mazzucchelli-like!
Jimmy Olsen for Super Powers’ Clark Kent. If Alfred can hawk a toothpaste mail-in, why can’t Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen advertise a special offer for Kenner’s Super Powers Collection?
Marc McClure, who played Jimmy in all four of the Christopher Reeve Superman films, and Supergirl, donned his bowtie for a fun 1985 commercial advertising the mail-in figure of his buddy, Clark Kent.
Jimmy is so excited about the special offer, he doesn’t notice the Daily Planet building being besieged by monsters and other office calamities as he tells kids how they can send in proofs of purchase from other Super Powers figures to receive the mild-mannered reporter.
When Jimmy squeezes the legs of both the Superman and Clark figures, he notices their VERY similar “Power Action Features.” The commercial breaks with years of comic book tradition — Jimmy is onto the secret!
This one blew my young mind. As much as I loved the comics, the Superman films were THE version of the character for me, and having McClure as Jimmy in the Planet offices (or a decent approximation of a newsroom, anyway) playing with action figures only made me want that must-have figure that much more!
Batgirl for Equal Pay. In 1973, cast members from the Batman TV series reunited for a PSA from the US Department of Labor that ran for the better part of a decade. In it, Batgirl spectacularly swings into one of Gotham’s ubiquitous abandoned warehouses to find Batman and Robin tied up next to a ticking time bomb. Batgirl hesitates to rescue her terrific teammates, citing she doesn’t get the same pay as Robin. She chastises Batman for ignoring the Federal Equal Pay Law. “Holy Discontent,” indeed!
Batman series producer William Dozier returns in his narrator persona of “Desmond Doomsday,” while Yvonne Craig and Burt Ward reprise their roles as Batgirl and Robin, looking none the worse for wear. Batman? That’s another matter.
For years, I (along with a generation of kids) assumed Batman just HAD to be Adam West, despite him not sounding quite right. Turns out, it was not West in the satiny cape of the famous crusader. Instead, Batman was portrayed by Dick Gautier, perhaps best known as Hymie the Robot on Get Smart.
The reasons for West’s absence were apparently due to his worry about typecasting, but in six years he and Ward would return as the Dynamic Duo in the infamous Legends of the Super Heroes TV specials. For Dozier and Craig, this was their last trip to Gotham City.
I sure hope Babs got that raise…
Chris Franklin co-hosts several shows on the Fire and Water Podcast Network, including Batman Knightcast (with Ryan Daly), Power Records Podcast and Superman Movie Minute (with Rob Kelly), and Super Mates and JLUCast (with his wife Cindy). He also produces the Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Toys series on the Fire and Water Network’s YouTube page. Like 13th Dimension’s own Dan Greenfield, he contributed an essay to the recently published book, Zlonk! Zok! Zowie! The Subterranean Blue Grotto Guide to Batman ’66 – Season One.
MORE by Chris Franklin
— The TOP 13 Wonderful BATMAN ’89 Toys — RANKED. Click here.
— The TOP 13 TEEN TITANS Action Figures — RANKED. Click here.