BOOTLEG FILES 475: “The Annette Funicello Skippy Commercials” (a series of late 1970s and 1980s TV commercials starring Annette Funicello).
LAST SEEN: Many of the commercials are on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The hazy world of clearing rights for old-time commercials.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely, sorry.
Annette Funicello, who passed away earlier this week after a long bout with multiple sclerosis, was a wonderful bundle of cultural contradictions. She was both wholesome and sexy, quintessentially all-American but distinctively ethnic (ol’ Uncle Walt shrewdly prevented the Anglicizing of her surname). And while she happily recognized her standing as a camp icon, she wisely never overplayed her hand.
Annette (and I will refer to her by her first name, A.P. style notwithstanding) became an American fixture via “The Mickey Mouse Club” in the 1950s and the “Beach Party” films of the early 1960s. Both endeavors were rooted in an era before I came along, and while I recognized their value thanks to the TV rerun culture, my generation (those who were raised in the 1970s and 1980s) bonded with Annette through a jolly series of TV commercials celebrating the values of Skippy peanut butter.
Skippy had been around since the 1930s and was always a popular brand of peanut butter, but it never enjoyed an advertising campaign that clicked with the American public. A number of television commercials were made featuring the stars of “Dennis the Menace” and the characters from “The Flintstones,” but they seemed like stale extension of the slapstick from the respective series.
In the late 1970s, Americans began to pay more attention to their diets and the notion of “junk food” permeated mealtime conversations. The marketing mavens behind Skippy did not want their product to be heaped in with unhealthy food, so a new sales focus was designed to highlight the brand’s nutritional value.
Just how Annette came to be chosen as the Skippy spokesperson is not clear, but the choice was brilliant. During the 1970s, Annette made few appearances outside of very occasional TV guest shots (usually with her movie beach buddy Frankie Avalon), and her show biz absence was attributed to her desire to be a stay-at-home mother for her three children. Again, Annette’s cultural contradictions came into play: she was both a highly recognized star and an elusive commodity, a symbol of youthful fun and a serious parent who put her family ahead of her career.
Beginning in 1979, Annette came back into the public eye in a series of 30-second commercials for Skippy. In the initial run of the commercial series, Annette was the happy savior to frazzled mothers who were in agony over their children’s sugary snacking habits. Whether she was at a ski lodge, an amusement park or backstage at a school play, Annette somehow managed to drop into the gastronomical conversations of the PTA crowd with a happy and helpful tip: give Junior a Skippy peanut butter sandwich for lunch.
And why Skippy? Well, in commercial after commercial, Annette calmly explained that Skippy contained more protein than such sandwich fillings as Sloppy Joe, egg salad, tuna salad, salami, bologna or liverwurst. Annette also pointed out that Skippy contained no cholesterol. Plus, for a while there was a line of “less sugar” Skippy peanut butter.
Hmmm, talk about comparing apples to oranges – or, in this case, salami to peanut butter! Yeah, never mind that the bourgeois mothers of America were not preparing liverwurst sandwiches for the XXL-size kiddies, or that salami or bologna were celebrated as health foods. And, of course, “less sugar” is not the same as “no sugar.” But, hey, are you going to accuse Annette of pulling a Kroger Babb on the public?
When she wasn’t offering dietary tips to parents, Annette’s other commercials in the series had her conversing directly with kids. In one spot from 1981, Annette and an unidentified child are hiking together. Annette acknowledges that “hiking makes you hungry” and then reminds the youngster that “Ounce for ounce, Skippy has more protein than a hot dog, chicken salad or even liverwurst.” Needless to say, the wee hiker gets a Skippy sandwich in the middle of the woods.
In every commercial, Annette was both drop-dead gorgeous and wholly approachable. She was a star, but with a common touch. And she always wrapped up her commercials with a chirpy reminder: “For good nutrition, it’s hard to beat Skippy.” Ah, yes, Annette’s contradictions were still at work.
Annette was among the most popular TV pitch people of the era, and as a result she began to make more appearances on the small screen. In 1987, after a 19-year absence from the film world, Annette was back in the theaters with Frankie Avalon in the good-natured parody “Back to the Beach.” It seemed that everyone’s favorite beach girl would always be around.
But in 1987, Annette suffered a series of dizzy spells while promoting “Back to the Beach.” She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but chose not to make the news public until 1992. At that time, her growing problems with walking led to rumors that she was an alcoholic. Not only did she speak frankly about the disease that was destroying her body, but she also created the Annette Funicello Fund for Neurological Disorders at the California Community Foundation in order to further scientific research towards a cure.
Skippy and Annette parted ways in the late 1980s as her health problems began to intensify. The brand relied on other celebrities, including speed skater Bonnie Blair and baseball star Derek Jeter, but they lacked the charm and sincerity that Annette possessed.
As with most long-running TV commercial campaigns, there is no commercial home entertainment anthology collection of the advertisements. However, a number of Annette fans have gathered Skippy ads from VHS video-recorded programming and shared them on YouTube. And while most people will cherish the image of Annette in her Mousketeer ears and Sam Arkoff-financed swimwear, I will always love the happy and beautiful woman who gently nudged me to the Skippy section of the peanut butter aisle.
Annette Funicello was 70 years old when she left us earlier this week. And on behalf of the Film Threat family, I can say, “Thank you, Annette, for making our world a happier place.”
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!