We all remember the golden years of 1977-1982, when Hostess ran ads for their food in comic books: as this exhaustive site puts it, "five years of amazing super beings tossing food to madmen." For modern readers, Captain America and Batman throwing Hostess Fruit Pies and Twinkies to supervillains to distract them remains the iconic use of superheroes in advertising.
But as an older generation of comic book readers could tell you, the golden age of superhero spokesmen took place not in the late 1970s, but in the 1940s. Here are 10 of the weirdest advertising superheroes from the Greatest Generation.
10. The Kooba Kid. In 1940, Victor Fox, publisher of Fox Syndicate comics, decided that he would cash in on the soda pop craze (Coke and Pepsi both being extremely popular at this time) by publishing ads for "Kooba Cola" in his comics. There was no such cola, but Fox thought he could drum up interest, then sell the license for Kooba Cola to one of the major soft drink companies. Fuller story [http://atocom.blogspot.com/2010/03/kooba-cola-drink-that-never-was.html] here
9. The Pepsi Cola Cop. In 1946 and 1947 Pepsi was falling behind Coke in the cola wars. Coke was distributed far more widely than Pepsi, and G.I.s had spread the taste for Coke to many more countries than Pepsi. So Pepsi put on a marketing blitz, hoping to continue the success it had in 1940 with its ad jingle (and eventual hit record) "Nickel Nickel." Part of this marketing blitz was Pepsi the Pepsi Cola Cop.
8. Thom McAn. These day's men's casual footwear is usually sneakers, a trend that began in the early 1980s, but for decades before that leather shoes were standard for men, and one of the most popular producers of leather shoes for men was Thom McAn. For over 10 years their advertising hero was young Thom McAn, who as you can see here had some vigorous adventures.
7. Bubbles and Yanks. Super Duper Yanks Bubble Gum didn't outlast the 1940s, and Bubbles and Yanks only appeared in 1947, but they deserve inclusion here for the clever use of bubble gum to help save America's atomic secrets.
6. Smith Brothers. I'm not sure what disturbs me more about this one: the kids alone in the cave, or the talking logo on the Smith Brothers box.
5. R.C. and Quickie. As best I can discover, Donald O'Connor never teamed up with R.C. and Quickie, but perhaps future research will prove me wrong.
4. Volto from Mars. Volto only had a two-year run (1945-1946) but he's worth remembering as one of the two most overtly superheroic of the advertising superheroes. He did Grape Nuts Flakes proud with his magnetic ability, and Marvel and DC could do worse than to rescue Volto from obscurity.
3. Captain Tootsie. Tootsie Rolls! Beloved chewy chocolate treat of our childhood and of trick-or-treaters everywhere. One of the most successful of the advertising superheroes here, Captain Tootsie appeared from 1943 to 1953 and even got his own comic book.
2. Sam Spade. The most famous screen portrayal of Sam Spade is of course Humphrey Bogart, in the 1941 Maltese Falcon. But that was only the third film version, previous ones having appeared in 1931 and 1936. In 1943 and 1946 Bogart played Spade on stage, and in 1946 a radio show, The Adventures of Sam Spade began.
Much more light-hearted than Bogart's version, the radio Sam Spade was wry and comedic. To support the radio show, the image of Sam Spade was sold to licensors for use in ads. One of those licensors was Wildroot Cream Oil, which would later use Fearless Fosdick, from the comic strip Lil Abner, in similar ads. Wildroot is still made today.
1. Peter Wheat. Far and away the most successful of the advertising heroes, Peter Wheat was created and drawn by Walt Kelly, better known for "Pogo." Kelly created the character and the strip for Peter Wheat Bread (prepackaged bread) and Bakers Associates, and the comic book The Adventures of Peter Wheat was sold in bakeries and stores, which had their names printed on the cover. The Adventures of Peter Wheat, a fantasy involving a young boy, his animal friends, and the wicked creatures they vanquish, ran for eight years and 66 issues.