Category Archives: Ad Stories

Don’t Clown Around with Advertising

When I was in college my advertising professor espoused this gem: “Never distort the human face in an ad…it freaks people out and won’t do anything good for your brand.”

I like to believe this was a lesson hard learned from years of agencies using clowns in their ads. Thinking they were employing a light-hearted, fun mascot to sell their products, instead the Admen found they were spooking their would-be clients!

I see the discovery playing out like this:

“Say, Hank, our new ads aren’t working as well as as we predicted.  Do you have any thoughts on this?”

candy clown

shudder gif

There isn’t any use in denying it, clowns freak folks out. But why?

Once again, the crack research team at Aunt Mary Industries was on the case.*

Turns out, our discomfort could be thanks to everyone’s favorite “I’m trying to sound smart” topic of conversation: the uncanny valley. The theory of the uncanny valley is objects that appear to look human, but just miss the mark, create an uneasy feeling in people. It turns out we are really good at sussing out tiny, non-verbal signals and if something we are beholding is not quite right, it results in a eerie, uncomfortable vibe. This is typically noted in human-like robots and early motion capture animation. You know how every Christmas you shrink back from the odd faces of Polar Express? That’s uncanny valley!

While clowns are (supposedly) human, the unchanging, made-up expression is likely what gives us the heebie-jeebies. As humans heavily rely on our vision for information about our environment, we glean a lot of clues from the facial expressions of those we interact with.  The baked-in smile of a clown unnerves us as something not quite on the up and up.

Now that we know the why, let’s get some more of the what: (I was going to make a clown car reference here, but I’m trying to be above such things)

schlitz clown



Everyone’s favorite clown is a drunk clown! Nobody’s favorite clown is one who just realized he’s out of booze. “When you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of beer…and when you’re out of beer, Jingles gets very mean.”




koolaid clown


cigarette clown





Kool-Aid Man’s usually welcoming and friendly wink takes on a slightly sinister tone in this ad. “Oh NO! This masked and apparently unhinged person didn’t put anything into your beverage. No, I’m not sweating…(wink)”









Hey there, sexy clown man!  Was Camel testing the idea that anyone looks cooler when smoking?

This ad alone could create a mandela effect that Ted Bundy went to clown college.





business clown






When ICP’s Management team checks in while touring.  Nothing like the open road to make you rethink your life’s choices, huh, Frank?











*Research Team is me + google

When Frozen Vegetables were Fancy

In 1912 Clarence Birdseye, taxidermist and naturalist, was working in Labrador, Canada, enjoying the temperate climate of -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Birdseye took to ice fishing and discovered the fish he caught froze almost instantly as it hit the frigid air. What’s more, when thawed, the fish tasted fresh! Clarence learned this flash freezing created small ice crystals which preserved the meat without destroying the cells. This was a far cry better than contemporary freezing methods that were costly and left frozen foods mealy and unappetizing.

Birdseye, back at home in New York City, went to work to recreate this flash freezing process. In 1927 he applied for a patent for a new food freezing machine and soon after got to selling his new and improved frozen foods.

What seems crazy to our modern palate is that, at the time, frozen food was seen as a posh culinary choice. The 1920’s and ‘30’s hostesses proudly announced to her guests she was serving frozen foods at her dinner party. At the time, only those who could afford freezers could store the products which also cost more due to the needed temperature control from production to travel to storage in local shops. Birdseye began leasing grocery stores special freezers to display his products. All this lead to frozen fish and veggies being seen as fine dining.

Birdseye’s companies started advertising “June peas as gloriously green as any you will see next summer” which seems a tad lengthy, though totally delightful.

Post WWII people began buying freezers for their homes, making frozen foods more accessible to the masses. Food companies began offering frozen pizzas and eventually the classic TV dinner.


In the 1950s, Birds Eye, now owned by General Foods, introduced its popular slogan, “Sweet as the moment when the pod went POP”

peas pop ad

In 1969, Birds Eye made history as it aired the first color TV commercial to run in the U.K., showcasing those peas in all their technicolor glory.

And, because we all love those vintage food ads, here you go:

peas adman birds eye


Lysol will Save Your Failing Marriage, You Filthy, Filthy Woman

Gather ’round, Mature Adults, for another moment in Aunt Mary’s Advertising Storytime! Fluff the cushions on the fainting couch and prepare to clutch your pearls, because we are about to get personal.

From roughly the turn of the century to the 1960’s the makers of Lysol touted their product to not only clean your house, but to also save your marriage.

Ladies, are you having issues with your husband? Is he staying out too late? Withholding affection? Perhaps that last pregnancy made him a bit jumpy? Lysol is here to help! Not only does it clean your sinks, but is the key to marital harmony if used as a feminine douche. (I’ll let you take a moment to breath through that)

lysol door

Yes. The folks behind Lysol told women that the problems in their relationships are likely due to pregnancy and/or the crotch rot. The language used in the ads was a brilliant combination of negging and subtext. Evidently everybody knew the term “feminine hygiene” meant birth control, but thanks to strict moral laws prohibiting even the discussion of contraception, they couldn’t just come out and say it, but boy howdy did they get close!

lysol calendar

“We can’t tell you it’s birth control, because birth control is illegal, but…yeah…it’s birth control.”

Forget that most of these men were suffering from shell shock due to two world wars and a crippling economic depression. You are obviously the problem and if you really cared you would hose acid where the sun don’t shine.

The makers put out years of print ads encouraging women to use it as a spermicide, and (in my opinion) a combat to STIs. This practice was likely worse than nothing. Used as a contraceptive it was useless and obviously also harmed women’s bodies.

lysol lady

It all ended when the pill came out.

Let’s Shelf this Idea -More PR Spin

It’s a charming characteristic of old houses, one that folks on HGTV demand and MLS listings proudly announce – Built In Bookshelves!

But why is this a thing?

In the 1920’s and 1930’s book sales began seriously lagging and book publishers started to seriously freak out. How could they get more people to buy more books?


Enter our old friend, inventor of modern PR, Edward Bernays! Uncle Eddie was hired by a group of book publishers and given one mission: make buying books cool.

The first thing he did was hire public people to espouse the importance of a private library. Only the coolest, smartest, best dancers with rock hard butts read. You read too, right?

Then (my favorite!) he urged architects designing the popular kit homes to include built-in bookshelves in the plans. ‘“Where there are bookshelves,” Bernays reasoned, “there will be books.”

It worked! Book sales took off. Next time you walk into a charming Sears Kit Bungalow that has built-in bookshelves, take a moment to give props to Ed!


The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Gather ’round, kids, it’s time for a story…2017 style!

It may be one of the most hackneyed phrases in our culture, spouted off when someone hands over a 6-pack of beer or the topic of herpes comes up: Yep, It’s the gift that keeps on giving!

But where did this slogan come from? It’s a new year and Aunt Mary is in a giving mood, so let’s roll!

“The gift that keeps on giving” was first seen as a tagline in a print ad for Victor “talking machines” (AKA Victrola or Phonograph) in 1925 and was registered as a trademark in 1927. 


Victor was the leader in the emerging home-entertainment business from its incorporation in 1901. Not only did Victor make the machines that play music, it also sold the records that were made through a proprietary technique. Additionally, Victor made exclusive deals with the most famous musicians pressing special “Red Seal” albums. Not only did this improve sales, but it  also created a “third party endorsement” hinting that the musicians trusted Victor alone to record their music with quality and high standards. rca-all-the-music

RCA bought controlling interest in Victor in 1926 and continued using the slogan in advertisements for radios and record players for decades after. victrolia-in-surgery

The tagline has since been used in dozens of campaigns, including ads for blood and organ donation and subscriptions to Sports Illustrated Magazine.

Be sure to contact me with suggestions or questions. Let me know about your favorite and least ads!

It’s Great Advertising, Charlie Brown!

You guys, “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown” is on TONIGHT! What’s more, this is 50th anniversary and I’m totally geeking out. I love “Great Pumpkin.” It’s sweet and classic and they say “tricks or treats.” But there is another reason why I’m so fond of the show, watching “Great Pumpkin” is where I realized that maybe I enjoyed advertising more than the average kid.

You see, for me Peanuts holiday specials and their years-long sponsor, Dolly Madison, (makers of fine snack cakes) are inextricably linked. 1980’s Aunt Mary greeted the Dolly Madison ads as a welcome part of the show, an old friend that was as much a part of the tradition as every pumpkin in the patch or ghost costume.  Even now when I watch a Peanuts show I have a deep sadness that they no longer run the sponsor card for Dolly Madison. “Can’t they just add it in for nostalgia’s sake?” I think, even though I know they can’t.

When “Great Pumpkin” first aired in the 1960’s, the opening sequence included a shout-out to their sponsors. The nod was edited out for later viewings, though Dolly Madison continued sponsoring the show into the 1980’s.

Dolly Madison used the Peanuts characters in their advertising and packaging from the 1960’s through the 1980’s. Hostess, makers of Dolly Madison cakes, announced plans to stop producing snack cakes in 2012, though subsequent communication indicated a plan to relaunch in the future.

Happy watching! May your pumpkin patch be sincere and your rock treats be few.

What’s Happening on Sunday Sunday Sunday?

Aunt Mary’s here to help you make small talk at your next cocktail party or awkward family dinner! Instead of politics or Game of Thrones, fill that weird dead air with this little tidbit: Hey! Did you know the “Sunday Sunday Sunday!” from those old school Monster Truck ads actually had a purpose?

That, ma’ friends, is called an icebreaker.

Jan Gabriel was the voice of auto racing (and later Monster Truck) radio and TV ads from the late 1960’s to the 1980’s and the originator of everybody’s favorite cliche tag line. He had been working as a motor sport track announcer in the Chicago area when the US 30 dragstrip in Hobart Indiana wanted to get the word out that they were open on (wait for it) Sunday. Gabriel believed the announcer was part of the show and he was sick and tired of boring announcers. His signature style was enthusiastic and loud. When the US 30 track owners needed a unique sound for their radio ads, Gabriel stepped up.

The copy for the ads was dense with a lot of information to cram into a 1 minute radio spot. At the time, commercials were recorded on tape in one take. There was no editing. The announcer had to get it right and any mistakes or running long meant starting over. Gabriel made it work, including the needed Sunday Sunday Sunday!” the advertisers demanded. They were determined to let folks know they were all about exciting family fun on SUNDAY! Originally, it was thought two voices would be needed to get the Sundays in, but Gabriel managed it on his own.

The ideas behind the Sundays is this:

First Sunday is to inform. (Wait, When?)

Second Sunday is to confirm. (I’m free! I could go to that!)

Third Sunday is to excite. (This is going to be awesome!)

Later, Gabriel had a syndicated TV program The Super Chargers Show, which is credited with bringing NASCAR to TV and Monster Trucks into 1980’s popular culture.

Gabriel died in 2010…on a Sunday.

Those Angry Insurance Ads

You know that weird cousin or drunk uncle no one wants to sit next to at Thanksgiving? The one that makes you think “Yeah, I’ll just bring another bottle of 2-Buck-Chuck to Grandma’s today?”  I’m wondering if some advertisers have decided these folks are an untapped market. I mean, conspiracy theory nephews need car insurance too, right?

And none are better at tailoring their ads to Facebook-fight aunts than Liberty Mutual Insurance. Their current campaign, filled with angry, put-upon people is enough to make the most ardent ad-lover scramble for the remote’s mute button.

Let’s pretend you are the new beloved of a wonderful person. They have brought you to a family gathering where you will get to meet the whole damn clan.  Suddenly, your cousin who is no longer allowed at the golf club isn’t so embarrassing, is she?

First up is cousin Lily. She’s…um…well, she’s really into her car. Please, whatever you do, don’t mention Brad Pitt at dinner. Trust me on this.

liberty insurance ad Brad

Oh look! It’s Aunt Justine and Uncle Phil. Their native tongue is passive aggressive. If we’re really lucky we’ll get caught in one of their fights, but have no idea they have thoughtfully put us in the middle until the drive home!


And now we meet Aunt Kat. We politely refer to her as “organized”. A potluck at her house is no less orchestrated than a military invasion. Want to know why my brother isn’t here today?  He brought the wrong spoon for the potato salad to last year’s Forth of July picnic and hasn’t lived down the shame yet.

coffee lady

Mutual Liberty, I get it, folks hate paying for insurance, it’s weird and expensive. I even applaud you for understanding this fact! I’m just trying to figure out your game here. Your competitors’ spokes people include a charming, personable and (I think Australian ???) gecko, the adorable and approachable Flo, the golden voice President from 24, and the now super buff JK Simmons, and you, what? decided to go with an anti-hero?

Yet, Mutual Liberty isn’t alone in this. It seems more and more groups are going for the angry crowd. Blue Buffalo dog food’s ads had characters who were ready to sharpen pitch forks because their dogs’ food wasn’t gourmet. Now University of Phoenix has released an incredibly pissed off commercial that promises we will all be sorry for underestimating their students, to the tune of “If I Only Had a Brain” from The Wizard of Oz.

There is no doubt we are living in a hayday of the angry person, I just never expected Madison Avenue to grip this derision for profit. What does it say about our society when the sizzle we are selling is burning anger?


Radio’s Favorite Food Expert

Kids, Aunt Mary has gone down the rabbit hole, and like Alice my eyes have been opened to a new and fabulous world.

A friend gave me this adorable and very pink promotional cookbook that I thought would be perfect to share with everyone. It’s kitschy and charming and unlike a lot of retro recipes, it’s not gross. As I like to think of myself as Fun and Fancy, I thought it was a perfect fit for a mid week Facebook post.

Scanning in the cover I saw the book was presented by Mary Lee Taylor.

Well, who the hell is Mary Lee Taylor? I assumed she was some B-list Betty Crocker. I began searching online and was pretty sure Google was going to come back with a palms-up shrug and an “I dunno.”

Nope! What popped up was an Aunt Mary trifecta: retro recipes, clever PR and a groundbreaking woman. We will unpack this mystery woman a bit, but first, here are some things it would be helpful to know:

  1. It was very common for food companies to come out with promotional cookbooks featuring new ways to use their products. These are still highly collectable.
  2. Historically, women have been what we would call “early adopters” to emerging industry. Often working for lower pay and offering more collaboration, women were on the forefront of many new media including stunt journalism, advertising, radio and later TV production.
  3. Radio programs were generally sponsored by a product that was looking to target an audience. The radio program would be tailored to engage that audience. For instance, detergent companies looking to attract women to their product would sponsor daytime dramas, which later became known as Soap Operas.

Erma Perham Proetz was working as a copywriter for a St. Louis advertising firm starting in the 1920’s. By some evidence she seemed to already be an expert in nutrition and cooking when the PET Milk campaign was handed to her in the midst of the Great Depression. Sure, she could have gone down the recipes-in-magazines lane, but she took a hard turn into radio. Under her pseudonym, Mary Lee Taylor, Proetz started hosting short radio segments offering wisdom, encouragement, household tips and yep, recipes featuring (and sponsored by) PET Milk to her listeners.


Soon her wildly popular segment expanded to 30 minutes and a national audience. The first half was a lighthearted show featuring a newlywed couple, the second half showcased Proetz and her recipes. This is when she started offering free-by-mail recipe books which were also incredibly popular.

This show lasted for 20 years! During this time Proetz moved up the ranks of her firm, finally becoming the executive vice president. Her other accomplishments included becoming a top leader of women in business in St. Louis and the US, being named by Forbes Magazine as an Outstanding Woman in Business, and she was the first woman elected to the Advertising Hall of Fame. Damn girl!

Sadly, the show did not make the transition to television and was cancelled in 1954, a decade after Proetz’s death. You can actually still find recordings of her programs today!

This is the sort of thing I love digging up. Start with an adorably retro and delightful recipe book and then find the heart and soul behind it.

I’ll say it again, every ad has a hidden story.

Torches of Freedom – Easter Parades and Cigarettes

Aunt Mary’s good friend and founder of modern Public Relations, Edward Bernays, was approached by cigarette makers who asked for help in expanding their brand to women. At the time it was considered unseemly for woman to smoke but manufacturers desperately wanted to target this untapped market.

Bernays hired the most glamorous and fashionable women to smoke while walking in the 1929 New York Easter Parade. The parade was a huge deal at the time and photos from it where published all over the county. Women, excited to check out the latest fashions from NYC, were also treated to an eyeful of the contemporary glitterati smoking.

Bernays described cigarettes to the press as “Torches of Freedom” the women could carry in order to show their equality to men.

Within months the market share of cigarettes to women exploded.

During this same time, the image of the modern woman had been given a makeover. The 1920’s woman was daring, lighthearted and eager to join in the fun with the boys. Young flappers were looking for a thin and flat chested physique that would allow them to play sports, dance, sneak into speakeasies and be free like never before. They also needed a symbol that would separate them from the generations before.

But, how was all this to be achieved? Well, with a cigarette of course!

Cigarette advertising began encouraging ladies to smoke instead of eat. The fat shaming “Instead of reaching for a sweet, reach for a Lucky Strike” campaign came out.

Kind of gross there, old timey folks.