10 Iconic Characters Who First Appeared In Ads
For many viewers, commercials are easily the biggest downside of watching television. They always seem to pop up at the worst possible time, whether immediately following the shocking third-act twist on a basic cable drama or after a snarky reality show host utters the dreaded words, “Right after a word from our sponsors.” No one wants to be sold anything, especially not in the middle of their favorite form of escapism.
But every once in a while, an ad comes along that captures viewers’ imaginations, whether it’s gut-bustingly funny or just laughably bad. Sometimes, these commercials are spun off into successful franchises, and sometimes they’re spun off into even more annoying wastes of time. On this list, we highlight the good, the bad, and the just plain obnoxious commercials that spawned movies and TV shows.
10 The California Raisins
What started out as an attempt by a frustrated ad firm to make raisins “cool” enough for 1980s kids to snack on quickly became a pop culture phenomenon. The original 1986 ad featured a band of R&B-singing, stop-motion-animated raisin people covering the appropriately ironic hit single “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” The ad was so popular that it was soon followed by a surprisingly lengthy discography of R&B cover songs, a guest spot on CBS’s 1987 A Claymation Christmas Celebration, and—of course—several more commercials.
The California Raisins’ true mark of success though, was their 1988 CBS prime-time special Meet the Raisins! This special was framed as a Spinal Tap-style mockumentary in which viewers were shown the history of the band and allowed an intimate look into the lives and personalities of the fictional fruit performers. The special was successful enough to warrant a follow-up with 1990’s The Raisins: Sold Out!: The California Raisins II.
For all of the fervor (not to mention licensing potential) that the California Raisins caused in the 1980s and 1990s, we don’t hear much from them these days. Perhaps they’re due for a CGI comeback tour.
Ernest P. Worrell, a fictional, Christmas-saving, camp-attending former prisoner portrayed by character actor Jim Varney, actually started life as a spokesman for a number of regional and then later national products on television. Varney got his start playing Ernest in a commercial for a run-down amusement park. His quirky on-screen persona soon led to several more spokesman gigs advertising dairies, ice cream, chicken, and even a car dealership. Ernest’s ad firm even went on to produce a record-breaking 26 ads in a single day starring his dopey but good-natured character.
In 1988, Ernest was the star of an Emmy award-winning single-season Saturday morning series called Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! While the show was a victim of poor ratings, Ernest managed to live on. In 1987 and 1988, the ad firm behind Ernest produced and directed two feature films, Ernest Goes to Camp and Ernest Saves Christmas, both of which would eventually be picked up for distribution by Disney and would turn Ernest P. Worrell from regional ad spokesman to Hollywood movie star.
Sadly, Jim Varney passed away in 2000 after a battle with lung cancer, and there have been no new Ernest movies, or commercials, ever since.
8 Baby Bob
Does the mere concept of a talking baby send you into fits of giggles? Have you already watched and memorized every line of every movie from the Look Who’s Talking and Baby Geniuses film series? Are you immune to the concept of the uncanny valley? Then you’re probably already familiar with Bob the baby, and if not, have we got a show for you.
In February 2000, Baby Bob first appeared in ads in for Freeinternet.com, an Internet service provider and AOL competitor that relied on ad revenue rather than subscription fees. The ad proved surprisingly popular and was soon spun off into its own CBS sitcom. The show was a relative success but only lasted for two seasons before CBS pulled the plug. Baby Bob went back to the world of television commercials soon after, appearing in a series of ads for Quiznos.
7 GEICO Cavemen
A television writer by the name of Joe Lawson with credits on multiple episodes of hit shows like Modern Family and BoJack Horseman got his start creating the infamously annoying GEICO cavemen ads. The borderline problematic TV commercials center around cavemen reacting to GEICO ads with the phrase “so easy a caveman could do it” as if they just heard a racial slur.
For some reason, this concept was deemed worthy of its own sitcom, even after they had already milked it for over 20 ads. In 2007, ABC developed Cavemen, a show about prehistoric men who must deal with prejudices as they attempt to live as normal thirty-somethings in Atlanta. The show featured one of the actors from the original commercials as well as an early role for future sketch comedy star and co-creator of Netflix’s Big Mouth, Nick Kroll.
While only seven of the show’s 13 episodes aired before it was cancelled, the GEICO cavemen eventually came back for a Super Bowl ad that lampooned the failure of their own sitcom, so at least they, too, recognized it was an all-around bad idea.
6 Crash Test Dummies
Debuting in 1986, the award-winning Crash Test Dummies ad tried a new, more humorous approach to public service announcements. The commercials featured Vince and Larry, two test dummies whose mangled plastic bodies were used to convince viewers to wear seat belts and avoid dangerous car accidents.
The original commercial spawned several more ads, a series of action figures, a video game adaptation, and eventually a cartoon special, The Incredible Crash Dummies, a very early use of computer-generated animation. The plot is nonsensical, has little to do with safety awareness, and in all likelihood was only written to sell more toys and video games, but if it managed to get kids to wear their seat belts, then we won’t hold it against them.
5 Ronald McDonald
Ronald McDonald is one of the most recognizable figures in the world, right up there with Santa Claus and Jesus Christ, so it’s no surprise that anyone saw dollar signs at the prospect of giving him and his friends their own show. While former Bozo the Clown star Willard Scott first played Ronald McDonald in 1963, it wasn’t until much later that Ronald and his pals got the spinoff treatment.
In 1990, DIC Entertainment produced a 30-minute animated adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, featuring all of the McDonald’s corporate mascots and aptly titled The Adventures of Ronald Mcdonald: McTreasure Island. Eight years later, Klasky-Csupo, the animation company behind Rugrats and early Simpsons episodes, released the first of six 40-minute animated specials under the The Wacky Adventures of Ronald Mcdonald moniker. No new cartoon adaptations have been made since 2003, but Ronald continues to appear in the company’s advertising efforts to this day.
Domo, a giant, mute, seemingly carpet-covered, shark-toothed monster from Japan, is the star of over 400 TV commercials in his native land. While the eternally grinning, brownie-shaped creature is known in the West more for his ceaseless merchandising blitz that saw hundreds of products swarming stores like Target and 7/11, Domo and his friends got their start shilling for Japanese public broadcaster NHK in the late 1990s.
Since those initial appearances on Japanese TV, Domo-kun became something of a curiosity in the West, with his popularity propelled by memes and a universal fascination with Japanese pop culture. Domo and his friends have since gone on to star in an original English-language manga published by Tokyopop in 2009 and a series of shorts that aired on Nickelodeon’s Nicktoons Network.
3 Space Jam
Today, the movie Space Jam is seen mostly as a relic of the 1990s, viewed with nostalgia by those who grew up in the era when basketball was the hippest it’s ever been, and Michael Jordan was the undisputed king. While you may be wondering now why anyone ever thought mashing up the greatest basketball player of all time with the most iconic cartoon characters of all time and throwing them in space would ever be a good idea, well, it all started with a commercial.
Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan appeared together in two commercials for the Air Jordan VII and the Air Jordan VIII sneaker drops, with Bugs being billed as “Hare Jordan.” The ads proved to be immensely popular, and it wasn’t long before Hollywood came knocking and turned the short TV commercials into a feature-length film. As for how they shoehorned in a plot where a Danny DeVito-voiced extraterrestrial theme park mogul sends his minions to challenge the Loony Tunes characters to a pickup game—we have no idea, but it’s not like they could make a movie where they sit around talking about shoes for 90 minutes.
The classic Nickelodeon series Doug premiered in 1991 and was one of six pilots created for the Nicktoons line of original animated series, but the titular character actually made his television debut earlier than that. Before Nickelodeon, before Disney bought the rights and continued the series on ABC, before Doug’s 1st Movie hit theaters, Doug appeared on TV in commercials.
Series creator Jim Jinkins originally began drawing Doug as an artistic outlet in his own personal sketchbooks, where he solidified the character’s design. In 1988, he landed a gig creating an advertisement for Florida Grapefruit Growers where a proto-Doug is seen sporting slacks and enjoying a glass of grapefruit juice. In 1989, another, slightly different version of Doug appeared in a promo for the USA network, this time with an early version of his faithful dog Porckchop in tow.
1 Rocko’s Modern Life
Like Doug, Rocko’s Modern Life was another early Nicktoon that helped propel Nickelodeon to the powerhouse status in children’s entertainment that it maintains to this day. Created by cartoonist Joe Murray in 1993, Rocko and his friends live in a bizarre world where architecture never features a straight line and mundane tasks like a trip to the DMV spiral hilariously out of control, all while jokes and gags aimed at adults fly right over the heads of any children who were watching at the time.
Rocko’s best friend Heffer Wolfe (a cow raised by wolves and voiced by Spongebob’s voice actor Tom Kenny) actually predates the Nicktoon, having made his debut in a 1989 MTV bumper designed by Murray. While Murray was seeking funding for a film, he was approached by MTV and eventually created an ad where an early version of Heffer can be seen with an MTV logo branded on his butt. According to an interview with Murray, the design for Heffer was pulled from the same sketchbook where an early incarnation of Rocko—then named Travis—existed as a comic strip character.
Today, Rocko’s Modern Life is looked back upon fondly by kids who grew up watching Nicktoons in the early 1990s, and affinity for the series still runs high, as Nickelodeon plans to release a brand-new animated special in the spring of 2018.
Read about the origins of more characters from pop culture on Top 10 People Who Inspired Iconic Fictional Characters and Top 10 Real-Life Inspirations For Famous Cartoon Characters.