10 Bizarre Vintage TV Commercials

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From trademarks that literally take on a life of their own to children with do-it-yourself shrinking heads kits and all-too-realistic Tommy guns (I don’t recall such images on Leave it to Beaver), perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the following commercials is how just a few short decades ago, the masses likely didn’t flinch or bat an eye at them. Now, thanks to changing technology and social and cultural mores, these commercials are quaint and quirky at best and, at worst, degrading and dangerous.

 

10. Oh, the Irony

Let me count the ways this hair spray commercial is just … wrong. First, it’s supposed to convey a touching sentiment between mother and child. Mission (not) accomplished. It’s shot in such a way that you almost expect to catch a glimpse of Norman Bates in one of the dark corners. Or, perhaps, Bates was the guy at the door — the one with the hair fetish — he represents the second most unsettling element of this 1960s-ish spot. The third thing is the name: Ozon? Just add an “e” and “layer” and you have what products like these have helped to destroy. You really can’t make this stuff up.

 

9. The Frito Bandito

Watch out! He may steal your chips (and steal your good American job!). This commercial, with its overt stereotyping of Latinos, specifically the Mexican bandit of yesteryear cowboy movies, would not fly today. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, “Frito Bandito” — with his oversized sombrero, broken English and Speedy Gonzales-esque accent — was the mascot of choice for Fritos corn chips. He was later replaced by the more “palatable” Muncha Bunch — a group of cowboys.

 

8. Sit, Levi’s Logo, Sit!

You could literally write several stories about trippy Levi’s commercials from at least the 1970s to well into the 1990s (there was an obvious adoration of Claymation for some time). In this gem that practically screams, “Psychedelic ’70s!” the iconic Levi’s logo goes on a walk like a dog, complete with leash because that is the responsible thing to do. By commercial’s close, all sorts of objects move by themselves, including pants without the assistance of human legs — a recurring theme in retro commercials.

 

7. Corned Beef Hash, Anyone? Anyone?

I concur with what the original poster of this 1950s spot is insinuating: I simply don’t know what is scarier … the hash itself (no offense to the good people at Armour Star), the preoccupation with prepping this delicacy just as it’s done at the “Men’s Club” or the very special, special effects that rendered this woman invisible — so she could enter the Men’s Club and discover their secret to stellar hash.

 

6. ‘When Women Are Behind the Wheel’

No doubt YouTube is rife with sexist retromercials, but this one for Goodyear Tire is so overtly sexist it stands above. In addition, the 1970 spot gets extra points in the “strange” category for its unnecessarily high-drama music and cutaway shots during the segment when the woman is driving — a production which induces heart palpitations in any viewer, regardless of gender. At least the woman got the car (and herself) to the airport in one piece. And you’ll notice she even warmed the seat for her husband before his more capable hands got behind the wheel. How kind.

 

5. No Actual People Were Harmed in the Making of This Commercial

A commercial pitching a “toy” from the 1960s-era that enables kids to make their own shrunken heads, well, not just like the tribes in those far-off lands featured at the beginning of the advertisement. Thankfully. Pressman’s toy company encouraged kids to “collect ’em, swap ’em, give ’em to your witch doctor friends.” After all, you could always “cook up more.”

 

4. Tommy’s Got A … Tommy Burst Submachine Gun

Speaking of toys, nothing warms the heart quite like seeing Tommy with a “Tommy gun” — not an actual one, but something closely approximating it (look, ma, real smoke!). Thanks to Mattel, 1960s youth could recreate the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre out of their own garage, without fear of those meddling gun-control activists.

 

3. Nerd-No-More, Thanks to Dodge

Look, Elliott was already in the doghouse when he incorrectly told his sweetheart they’d been together for three, not four years. But then his Dodge Charger 500 had to go and make him so irresistible to the ladies that he literally left his sweetie in the dust — with a lot of extra help from his, ahem, frisky female fans. Like the woman at the end of this 1970 spot says, “If you can cope with a new image, you could be Dodge material.”

 

2. The Decade of War, Disco … And This

Before there was Chucky, there was Baby Laugh A Lot by Remco. The doll itself, with its incessant, diabolical laughter and its constant swaying, is bizarre enough. But then the producers just had to throw in a swift succession of cutaway shots of creepy little girls and an odd voiceover with his own, diabolical laughter. Truly the stuff of nightmares.

 

1. For That ‘Healthy Glow’

To give their product some scientific credibility, the good people at Dorothy Gray made dirt just radioactive enough for it to register on a Geiger counter. Then an unassuming model … put the now-radioactive material on her face? But never fear, Gray’s cold cream is here! The product removed the radioactive waste on her face and gave her a truly glowing complexion. Those who wanted to get that Dorothy Gray glow could even request an “Atomic Test Booklet,” because nothing says natural beauty quite like an atomic test.

 

Bonus: VW Beetle a ‘Trip’ in Every Sense of the Word

Even by 1960s standards, this commercial is very long. The spot probably ran in theaters before the featured movie — hence, a captive audience, but I’m betting even with the option of changing the channel, many people would fixate on the screen in stunned silence. The commercial is also silent, with the exception of the spooky, jewelry box-style music in the background … we haven’t even got to the mimes/dancers and the Matchbox-like cars moving of their own accord. You may say it’s “avant-garde,” others may surmise the producers went on a trip before they ever took the Beetle on one.

Written by

Michelle Leach's love of writing has taken her to Sydney, Australia, London, U.K. and other exotic locations like Grand Island, Neb., and Clio, Mich. She has developed pieces for TV and radio stations, PR departments, newspapers and magazines. A graduate of Northwestern University and Lake Forest College (also in Illinois) she enjoys running marathons and likes to say when not writing, she’s running — but she tries not to mix the two activities.