This week I read the book, Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads by Kirk Demarais. It’s a quick-reading look at the incredible advertising from back pages of comic books and Boys’ Life magazines, with photographs of the lackluster items you’d actually receive after 6 to 8 agonizing weeks. Seeing the hovercrafts, Kryptonite rocks, Sea Monkeys, and gag items from Johnson Smith Company scratched an itch I’ve had for more than 25 years.
I got the expected nostalgic buzz, but I didn’t expect to love the book from a professional ad writer’s perspective. The copywriting that sold this junk is pure magic.
It’s true that there is some deception in the classic comic book ads, but I don’t think anyone got too bent out of shape when they lost a few bucks in the mail. Kids are great at imagining potential. The ad writers (and the artists) did an admirable job of doing the same. How else can you explain a balloon, a trash bag and a length of string that became a 8-foot skeleton that floats, dances and obeys your every command… or how a crappy pair of plastic glasses with slightly offset optics turned into “a hilarious, laughingly funny illusion!”
For chrissakes, the submarine ad below has you diving, maneuvering—even firing nuclear missiles and torpedoes for a mere $6.98. Of course, it’s all part of the “hours of imaginative play” mentioned in the fine print. These things are so tightly crafted. They’re beautifully enticing and so frustratingly, technically true.
In the afterward, Jesse Thorn wrote about childhood as a wide range of possibilities that slowly shrink as you age. Kids are susceptible to the exaggeration in these comic book ads because they have great, big, elastic imaginations. They see possibilities. And they can have a great deal of fun with garbage.
The copywriters from the past filled kids’ minds to the bursting point with hot air and impossible expectations. They, in turn, rose, jumped and darted to the mailbox, sending their allowance in exchange for envelopes full of crap.
Long story short, Mail-Order Mysteries reminds me of why I like my job—even though my clients actually make stuff that works. While I don’t get to write about polyethelene dinosaurs or memberships to Count Dante’s Black Dragon Fighting Society, I do try to imagine more than what’s in front my face, see the possibilities and make it dance to music too.