Welcome to a special edition of Five Retro TV Commercials. Special to me, at least.
A tape donated by my pal MZ was simply labeled “Turtles,” and I correctly guessed that it’d be stuffed with old TMNT episodes. What a freakin’ goldmine!
Everything on the videocassette was recorded in 1991, when the white hot Ninja Turtles had episodes running on weekdays and weekends. The light grew a little dimmer by ‘92, but this was still very much during the period when anything with any tie to any Ninja Turtle meant buckets of money and devotional vows.
Below are five commercials that YOU AND ME PERSONALLY WATCHED during Ninja Turtle cartoons back in ‘91. They’ve all aged gracefully.
Sunkist Fruit Rox! (1991)
Guys, this is it. The most impossibly ‘90s commercial of all ‘90s commercials. It’s hard to accept this as something that actually aired in 1991, and not in 2016 as a parody of ‘91.
The “rocks as fruit snacks” gimmick had been tried before, but never with this twist: This time, the rocks (“Rox”) were from outer space AND the future. Wow. Given that concept, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the commercial is so nuts.
Two skateboarding kids teleport aboard an alien spaceship, because that’s evidently the only place to procure Sunkist Fruit Rox. As if that isn’t weird enough, the lead alien breaks the fourth wall to tell us about we can get a free “Fruit Rox Box” by collecting proofs-of-purchase from specially marked packages. This is literally just a plastic box meant to be worn as a necklace, as said alien demonstrates.
I’ve seen plenty of odd promotions, but “necklace that holds fruit snacks” may take the crazy cake. It’d be curious even if it wasn’t pitched by a space alien who looks like a cross between a Teletubby and a dead tree.
Still, the subtle permission to treat fruit snacks like junk from a museum gift shop was all I needed to temporarily name Fruit Rox both my favorite thing to eat and my favorite thing to play with.
WWF Wrestling Buddies! (1991)
I’m sure Tonka hoped for the best, but there’s no way they could’ve predicted just how much kids would end up adoring their Wrestling Buddies. Even now, the quickest way to get tons of social media likes is by posting a photo of the Macho King version. It’s as good as a upside-down cat.
The large dolls were more like doll-shaped pillows, if that makes sense. The materials and construction made them extra durable, which was perfect for kids who wanted their Wrestling Buddies to murder each other. In fact, all of the TV commercials implied that this was the whole point. They were an excuse to stage death matches from our parents’ living rooms.
Course, the secret truth about Wrestling Buddies is that we didn’t really use them to mimic wrestling matches, but rather used them for protection as we did that ourselves. Like, you’d drop an elbow off the couch, but use the doll to cushion the blow. You’d still hurt your little brother, but at least nobody died. Despite that positive, Tonka never mentioned any of this in their press releases.
Golden Grahams Cereal! (1991)
Golden Grahams cereal is still around, of course, and it’s fundamentally no different from what was on shelves back in ‘91. Which might make you wonder why I’m bothering to feature it.
Here’s the thing: I distinctly remember seeing this commercial in the 90s, and being completely ticked off by its flimsy concept and shoddy execution. Everyone has a button, and this 25-year-old Golden Grahams commercial is mine.
The idea is that the cereal is too good to EVER not have for breakfast, even when you’re on vacation. That’s a pretty shaky concept, isn’t it? It sounds like something the exhausted creative committee agrees upon just so they can stop talking about Golden Grahams.
But what really bothered me was the commercial’s “big moment.” In the climax, a boy who for some reason can’t walk ten feet to fetch a box of Golden Grahams just chucks his bowl across the hotel pool, which lands on a waiter’s breakfast cart and somehow begins a chain reaction that brings the cereal to him.
It’s too cumbersome and implausible to have been intended. This isn’t one of those fantastical deals where he boomerangs an empty cereal bowl and makes it come back full. There’s no “hope shot” — he’s just throwing his bowl at a waiter for no goddamned reason at all.
Two and a half decades later, and it still pisses me off. Granted, I don’t think about it very often or actually ever.
Toxic Crusaders Cartoon! (1991)
This aired mere days before the debut of Toxic Crusaders, a gregariously gross animated spin on the Toxic Avenger movies. Considering the content of those Troma movies, it’s amazing that any company not named Troma would sign off on this.
But the extra amazing thing was how well it worked. The live action films tend to run too gruesome for me, but in animated form, Toxie hardly seemed any grosser than Donatello or that monkey kid from Captain Planet. I mean, yeah, they wanted us to take it that way, but slime, sludge and unmentionable facsimiles of liquefied excrement just seemed so much less intense as cartoons.
The series existed mostly to support the corresponding toy line, which was even more awesome. Made by Playmates in the same scale as their TMNT figures, the toys were bright, bizarre and extremely intricate.
The deformities of the cartoon characters made for great toys, and even now, I’m not sure I could name an action figure from any line that’s objectively more impressive than Headbanger, who of course was the guy who had one head like a surfer’s and a second like a manzanilla olive’s.
Super Looney Tunes Happy Meal! (1991)
I’m mostly including this for the Happy Meal section, but the actual Ronald McDonald portion is worth mentioning, too. Can you believe that someone pitched this? “Ronald walks into a room, and a ton of black dots fall on the floor. After he puts them back on the walls, he leaves the room.” Jeeeez. There’s smooth, Geico-style obtuseness, and then there’s that.
I love that even the “slice of life” parts of Ronald’s day — when he’s not shilling cheeseburgers or moderating squabbles between Birdie and Grimace — are still 100% crack-fueled. Makes you wonder what else we missed.
I have no special attachment to the Super Looney Tunes Happy Meal, but several readers have mentioned it to me, with affection so suspiciously great that it’s always seemed paid off. I dunno, maybe y’all just really loved the idea of Daffy Duck in Batman’s clothes. Now that I’ve typed it, I see your point.
“Turtle Tips” PSA! (1991)
If you were like me, you only watched the Ninja Turtles on weekdays. Despite the fact that it originally began as one, I’ve never thought of TMNT as a “Saturday morning cartoon.” It just doesn’t compute.
But the Turtles were indeed part of many kids’ Saturday traditions, and by 1991, they’d even carved out a full-hour block on CBS. Sandwiched between that block’s two episodes were Turtle Tips segments — public service announcements that taught kids how to be good and not die, the Ninja Turtles way.
The segments were completely custom, with all-new animation and voice work. You’d assume that they would’ve just dubbed over existing episode footage to save cash, but I guess it’s hard to string a cohesive narrative about the ozone layer together when all you have to work with are shots of a pink brain siccing his rhino on a talking rat. I don’t know, maybe it isn’t.
Conspicuous by their absence are any commercials for TMNT toys, or other TMNT products. It seems that the same rule that exists for many networks today existed in 1991: You can’t promote toys based on a cartoon when that cartoon is actually airing, because kids can’t always make the distinction between content and advertising. It’s a well-meaning regulation, but man, I sure could’ve gone for the old Technodrome commercial.
PS: My latest DealNews piece went live this week. Come check out 10 of the strangest X-Men collectibles currently on eBay, from Pizza Hut boxes to Patrick Stewart’s pants!