BOOTLEG FILES 416: “Carvel Commercials” (1970s-1980s TV campaign for the Carvel ice cream chain).

LAST SEEN: Many commercials are on YouTube in unauthorized postings.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: There is no home entertainment market for this stuff.


If you lived in the New York City metropolitan area during the 1970s and 1980s, you would have been aware of a series of television commercials for the Carvel chain of ice cream eateries. These commercials were unique because they seemed to be the antithesis of the basic tenets of television marketing. Rather than bombard the viewer with flashy, noisy, kinetic explosions of noise and motion, the Carvel commercials were charming for their low-wattage approach to selling products. And, oy, what products were being offered for sale!

Greek-born Athanassios Karvelas, who reinvented himself as Tom Carvel, founded the business in 1929. The Carvel chain was notable for pioneering the concept of soft ice cream and developing a network of retail franchises. Mr. Carvel kept a sharp eye and a strong degree of control on all aspects of his operations, including his promotional marketing. In 1955, he began to record radio commercials for the Carvel chain. Never mind that Mr. Carvel sounded as if he took elocution lessons from Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone – the raspy, thudding sound of Mr. Carvel was the unlikely trademark of the chain’s radio advertising for many years.

The Carvel chain was never one of the most dominant franchises in food retailing, but Mr. Carvel made a very handsome living and moved in an exclusive social circle – he reportedly included entertainers Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason and Perry Como among his buddies. In 1971, Mr. Carvel decided to take a page from his show biz pals and branch out into television.

Since the Carvel chain was anchored in the New York City metropolitan area, Mr. Carvel focused his advertising on the local independent TV stations that served that market. This allowed him to save money at several levels – the independent stations charged much less than the local affiliates of the national networks, and the quality standards of these smaller stations were far less demanding. (Translated: cheaply made commercials ruled.)

Mr. Carvel saved even more money in another ingenious manner. Rather than license the widely known cartoon characters from the Hollywood studios to sell his kid-friendly products, he created his own line-up of goofball creations that would be associated with his chain. In doing this, he solidified his brand marketing with a bunch of bizarre characters that would only be found in a Carvel franchise.

Arguably the most famous Carvel creation was Cookie Puss, an ice cream cake. Created in 1972, this character was originally conceived as the extra-terrestrial Celestial Person, who arrived on Earth from the Planet Birthday. Cookie Puss was an utterly bizarre entity – a disembodied head shaped like an inverted light bulb, with oversized circular eyes (made from Carvel’s Flying Saucer ice cream sandwiches), a nose made from a sugar ice cream cone and a Mitt Romney-worthy insincere smile. Some Cookie Puss designs put tiny arms and hands around the corners of Cookie Puss’ face and equally small legs and feet at the bottom of his head.

The Cookie Puss commercials became instant classics for their sheer weirdness. Cookie Puss would be floating through the Heavens – sort of like the Star Child in the denouement of “2001: A Space Odyssey” – and would address the viewers in a high-pitched voice reminiscent of Alvin and the Chipmunks. When St. Patrick’s Day would roll around, Cookie Puss would be joined by his friend Cookie O’Puss – he was covered in green frosting and spoke like a third-rate Barry Fitzgerald imitator.

Running a close second to Cookie Puss in terms of ubiquity was Fudgie the Whale, a large chocolate ice cream cake shaped like a whale. Fudgie was heavily promoted during Father’s Day, with the notion that it was the right present for “a whale of a dad.” Unlike Cookie Puss, Fudgie did very little except sit on a table and be devoured by gluttons.

Holidays also brought out a number of other offbeat ice cream cake creations: Tom the Turkey was the Thanksgiving dessert, Cupie the Chocolate Nut was a Valentine’s Day love maker, Cookie Chick was the Easter goodie (along with a chocolate-covered egg-shaped cake that, sadly, looked like elephant excrement), and Dumpy the Pumpkin and Wicky the Witch were the Halloween mischief makers. There was also Hug Me the Bear, who didn’t real do very much except wear pants. Most of these cakes used the same shaped mold as Cookie Puss, thus saving the Carvel franchisees money when it came to creating these goodies.

In each commercial, either Mr. Carvel would offer his distinctive galumphing vocal cheer or the characters would speak in appropriately spastic cartoon voices. Most commercials would briefly show the cakes being created – this was important to Mr. Carvel, since a major selling point was the thickness of his ice cream. You see, the Carvel brand did not infuse its ice cream with air – and, indeed, many commercials visually highlighted how heavy the ice cream cakes looked.

On the whole, it seemed as if each commercial was produced on a budget that would barely cover the costs of an ice cream cone. With the absence of fancy graphics and a storytelling style that was more than a little primitive, the Carvel commercials looked like the TV advertising equivalent of home movies. Yet their very lack of sophistication made them cherished interruptions in the daily broadcasts of New York’s local independent TV stations. Not unlike folk art, their power came in their lack of sophistication. Indeed, this may explain why Mr. Carvel’s brief forays into product merchandising – dolls and comic books based on the characters – flopped. The public did not want Madison Avenue from Carvel’s advertising – they wanted (and got) Main Street.

And, sure enough, a Carvel cult following was created thanks to these commercials. Mr. Carvel was a guest on David Letterman’s talk show, and the over the years the Carvel chain was humorously referenced on “Saturday Night Live” and “Family Guy,” among other shows.

The most popular aspect of the advertising campaign was the surreal Cookie Puss commercials, which inspired nihilistic humor for many years: The Beastie Boys recorded their 1983 hit song “Cooky Puss,” the expression “cookie puss” became slang for a certain type of sexual position, Howard Stern offered comically rude imitations of the character, and funnyman Dennis Miller claimed to send a Cookie Puss ice cream cake to Prince William and Kate Middleton for their 2011 wedding.

Mr. Carvel obviously did something right with his off-kilter TV campaign: by 1985, Carvel boasted 865 stores that generated more than $300 million in income. Mr. Carvel sold the company in 1989. The company’s new owners would expand Carvel into other states and spin off a line of ice cream products for grocery stores – and there would also be new TV commercials that boasted higher production values. But the old-fashioned, good-natured silliness that made the 1970s and 1980s commercials so endearing was never captured again.

Carvel has its own YouTube channel that has a couple of the old commercials online. However, many New York-area TV viewers with VCRs captured the fun of the old-time Carvel commercials back in the day, and these vintage treasures can be seen on YouTube. The YouTube postings have generated a flurry of viewer reaction that ranges from undiluted nostalgia to pure lunacy. (One YouTube viewer, for whatever reason, needed to remind the world that Cookie O’Puss was a Catholic ice cream cake!). A Cookie Puss advertisement has also been hijacked in hilarious viral video mash-ups featuring the Denny’s chain’s Nannerpuss banana puppet character and a none-too-amused Godzilla.

In the ideal world, the bizarre canon of Carvel commercials would be gathered into a singe DVD anthology. Until such time, however, Carvel fans have to be content with the unauthorized YouTube postings of the wonderfully daffy old commercials – which, of course, are best viewed with extra generous spoonfuls of a slowly melting Cookie Puss ice cream cake!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. EricW says:

    One SNL bit (season 9, ep. 7) was a classic: Joe Piscopo as Tom Carvel cutting an ad with Tim Kazurinsky as a store owner with a few cake designs that weren’t for the kids. And yes, I remember those 1980s ads running in North Carolina, even though my particular city didn’t get a Carvel store until the 2000s.

  2. Lawrence Fechtenberger says:

    Carvel commercials were not a merely regional phenomenon in the 1980s. The company also advertised then on the New York based “superstation” WOR, which was available all over the country. We had it in my hometown in Georgia, but we did not have any Carvel stores. I remembered repeatedly seeing the commercials, and wondering in frustration what I was missing.

  3. As a kid living in central upstate NY (Chemung/Steuben County), I used to see these commercials all the time in between cartoons and, yes, “Wonderama,” way back in the ’70s and ’80s, especially on WPIX-TV. I was always disappointed that there were neither Carvel stores, nor Carvel cakes in local supermarkets. Heck, not even a Dairy Queen (although there was a nice little ice cream stand on Sing Sing Road in Big Flats, now relocated in a giant dairy barn)…

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