I haven’t had cable TV in a very long time. I cut the cord almost 12 years ago and all of the ads I get now are less than 15 seconds long, skip-able and usually specific to my tastes.
The only way to avoid skipping an ad when I was growing up was to mute the television, or the reliable ‘recall’ button on the remote which would switch to the last channel you were watching. The key is to find something else on that you care less about, and flipping to that when a commercial comes on during your main show. This was the 20th century version of browsing Reddit while binge watching on Netflix.
Advertisers knew all this and one of the tactics to keep your attention was — and still is — to get a celebrity to tell you to buy their product.
Hiring celebrities to promote products is nothing new, in fact many would say it’s even more prevalent today with influencers and Instagram. The golden age of commercial television was no different, which is part of the reason why I love old commercials. They show us the influencers of the time, and as you’ll learn, whoever they hired had to suit the audience they were selling to, and the product they were promoting.
One of the companies that knew that the most was Polaroid. Sometimes the celebrity embodied the product, sometimes an entire product was built just for them.
I produced a video about this very topic (which you can see up top, which pulls together a bunch of vintage adverts and talks about how they were produced to match the cameras — and the people selling them — to their intended audience. I’d like you to consider this a companion article that explores the video’s main topics. Watch the video, read the article or both. It’s your call!
The Muppets need no introduction of course, and here we see them celebrating Miss Piggy’s birthday just before they go on stage.
What may need an introduction is this, the Time Zero One Step Camera.
An upgraded, or possibly just repainted OneStep to compliment the TimeZero SuperColor Film that Polaroid heavily promoted in the late 70s and early 80s. It seems odd, but this was a Polaroid film that had you seeing the image in seconds rather than minutes. Not even Fujifilm Instax can claim that in 2020. The colors were punchy, rich, and that’s likely why they chose The Muppets as their spokes-puppets. This was a super easy way to showcase a lot of different colours in one image.
James Garner was known for The Rockford Files, and the Great Escape, and also later appearances, such as The Notebook and Space Cowboys.
Mariette Hartley was also accomplished in her career, though I have to admit, other than Encino Man, I don’t recognize any of them.
This isn’t the only commercial with this on screen couple either, they would be in many Polaroid commercials spanning years. They also promoted Sun Cameras, and here’s Hartley promoting the Amigo with Kermit.
These two had a great little back and forth with playful banter. Garner was the informer and Hartley was the model and critic. This relationship dynamic was, and still is a popular one and normally I’m annoyed at the stereotype of the tech loving guy and the woman who rolls her eyes at him, but this was cute and Garner dished as much as he took.
In fact, their on screen chemistry was so convincing that it was assumed by the public they were married, or at least, having an affair. To the point where Hartley wore a t-shirt saying “I am not Mrs. Garner” and had similar shirts made for her husband, and child. I can only imagine all the extra publicity was good for Polaroid.
Next, we go back a few years and take a look at Candice Bergen with a Polaroid Pronto!. The Pronto! came with a suggested retail price of $66 USD in 1976 money, or $300 by today’s standards. This was meant to be an inexpensive alternative to the folding SX-70.
Now, I know Candice Bergen from TV’s Murphy Brown, but this is before then, and she’s already an accomplished actress by this time. This isn’t the only camera she’s promoted either, I also found a couple Minolta commercials.
Sidebar here but funny how information can come right after your project is all finished and solidified on the internet. The same day of the upload of my video I was in the middle of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography Total Recall, and he mentioned Candice Bergen coming to an event as a photojournalist!
Well cue hand slapping my forehead. It makes perfect sense now why she was picked by two companies to sell cameras (and later to be Murphy Brown).
Back on topic though the Pronto! was one of many automatic integral film cameras released by Polaroid in the mid to late 70s designed for the average consumer. Polaroid creator Edwin Land didn’t like the idea of making plastic toy-like cameras, and preferred the sophistication and elegance of the SX-70, of course, we know that eventually he was persuaded. You can tell by the commercials for the SX-70 they were playing to a different audience.
No fancy camera work, just a man in a chair, in some black abyss with a small clock. Oh, and the SX-70.
Ever seen an actor and you’re like, I know that guy, but can’t name a single movie or TV appearance? That’s Laurence Oliver to me. Here he is promoting the original Polaroid SX-70.
While this commercial looks rather dull, watching someone on TV, load a camera, add a flash and take a photo in real time was nothing short of magic.
The Original SX-70 was an amazing feat in technology, both with the film and the camera. It was common to hear people refer to it as doing the impossible; an absolute one step photography. Up until the SX-70, instant film was limited to peel apart, and the release of this camera in 1972 was also the world premiere of integral instant film.
No longer are the chemicals sandwiched, but in a contained pack at the bottom of the frame that burst and spread when ejected, followed by an orchestra of time release chemicals and dozens of micro thin layers within the film. Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid, still wasn’t satisfied until they figured out a way to get that camera into a jacket pocket. I guess he figured, what’s the point of an instant camera, if you cannot also, access it in an instant.
Considering they went through all that trouble, I find it funny that several years later they would upgrade the SX-70 with a sonar-based auto focusing system. That basically threw the claim of making it fit in your pocket, right out the window, especially if you were adding a flash bar.
But this was the race to autofocus and a lot of companies tried cutting corners to get there first by sacrificing form factor. They kept that super snooty level of sophistication in their marketing though. At least this time they have a nice little river behind our actor.
Another Thespian I’m sure many of us recognize but can’t quite pinpoint is Christopher Plummer. I was like, man, this guy looks so familiar, so I took a deep dive into his IMDB and then it hit me.
As you have seen so far, Polaroid was all about the innovation. Edwin Land and his company were constantly looking to create the next great consumer product. This didn’t always work out though. A great example of that is Polavision.
Polavision was, in a nutshell, the home movie version of the instant photo. The idea was you shot your video with one of these cassettes, then could immediately plug it into a special viewing screen and watch it right away. No transferring of film, no developing. And who better to promote the idea of instant home movies than White Christmas star Danny Kaye.
Looks great, but between no sound, an ISO of just 40, and larger price tag than Super 8, Polavision was a huge flop.
This wouldn’t be the last mistake Polaroid would make. Here’s another example of that.
Jumping forward to the early 1990s, the company started doing a lot less innovation and a lot more scrambling for ideas. One of those was the Captiva. Their mascot this time around wasn’t an actor who probably worked on Broadway plays but a B list comedian and D list actor.
I remember Sinbad from the television series A Different World, and maybe a few stand up routines, but overall he was a flash in the pan.
The Captiva was also a flash in the pan. It took smaller instant photos, and held onto them while you were able to keep shooting, that was its entire gimmick was you no longer had to say “Here hold these, I’m not done taking pictures”
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, it was another flop. This format is no longer available and with no plans of being reintroduced by the current manufacturer of Polaroid.
Jumping a few more years ahead to 1997, we have this minute long Polaroid commercial with a big reveal at the end.
In a huge dark gothic cathedral, nuns are scrambling everywhere for some kind of important meeting. Something is being passed around, and the sound of shocked whispers echoes throughout the halls. At the end it’s finally revealed that all members of The Spice Girls have been expelled from school for what I can only imagine are some really awesome photos.
The SpiceCam was, as you’ve gathered, a Spice Girls endorsed Polaroid 600 camera. Along with the sixty-second ad you just saw, each Spice Girl had their own ten-second spot, all in promotion of Polaroid’s new 600 Extreme film.
Baby & Scary Spice promoted the extreme matte film you could draw on. Ginger & Sporty promoted Fast Color Gloss Film. And Posh Spice promoted monochrome.
Before the cameras were even made though, Polaroid had issues.
“Polaroid had just placed an order with a company for a set of mould tools.” Says Steve Baker, IT director of Ak-U-Rite, a tooling company. “That company was subsequently unable to fulfill the contract, and we were involved in a critical recovery exercise to pull out all the stops and meet a revised schedule.” Ak-U-Rite had to enlist further help, because, as Baker says “As the job progressed we found we were being asked to incorporate design changes. Some of these were even requested after we had started cutting metal”
In the book “What Would the Spice Girls Do” by Lauren Bravo, Mel B is quoted telling her mother “It’s great, because you can take rude photos without the chemist seeing!” when referring to the Spice Cam.
I guess we’ll never know what the nuns saw that day.
You can imagine the SpiceCam was always meant to be a fad, and never outlive the popularity of the Space Girls themselves, but if you really really wanna find one, you can check eBay.
And this has been a look at Celebrities Selling Polaroid, I hope you enjoyed this nostalgic trip with me. I know I didn’t catch them all by a long shot so be sure and let me know which commercials I missed in the comments section.
Thanks for joining me on this nostalgic trip down Polaroid’s memory lane. While I was researching celebrities in commercials from all brands I noticed I came across a lot for just Polaroid and decided to do one just for them. It was interesting to see a common theme, but watch their demographic change over time.
Thanks again, and stay classic!
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