A Quick History of Hidden Camera TV Commercials

Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube
Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube

At restaurants like Tavern on the Green in New York and Arnaud’s in New Orleans, diners sitting down for formal meals are seen complimenting the waiter on their coffee. Just a few moments later, they’re informed it wasn’t the “gourmet” brew typically served, but a cup of Folgers Instant coffee that had been “secretly switched.” The surprised patrons then heap praise on their duplicitous waitstaff.

This scene and others like it played out hundreds of times in television commercials throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Variations date as far back as the 1950s, and some commercials—like Chevrolet's now-infamous 2017 spot that depicted amazed onlookers marveling at the car company's numerous J.D. Power and Associates Awards—still air with regularity. Instead of using actors, the spots purport to highlight the reaction of genuine consumers to products, often with the use of hidden cameras positioned outside the unsuspecting customers' field of vision.

 

Despite skepticism, the people in these ads are often members of the general public offering their unrehearsed response to beverages, laundry detergents, and automobiles. That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s not a little bit of premeditation going on.

The idea of recording spontaneous reactions for advertising purposes dates back to the 1950s, when Procter & Gamble arranged for housewives to compare the whiteness of laundry washed in their Cheer detergent against the comparatively dingier load that resulted after a soak in the competition. The camera wasn’t “hidden” and the spokesman made no secret of his intentions—he was holding a microphone—but the women were approached in a laundromat and not a casting office. Those who appeared in such spots would receive a $108 fee, along with residuals that could add up to thousands if the commercial aired repeatedly.

This approach was refined by Bob Schwartz, a former director of the prank series Candid Camera. In 1969, Schwartz formed Eyeview Films and worked with ad agencies to capture spontaneous reactions to products. An early spot for the floor cleaner Spic and Span was a hit, and other companies and agencies followed the template. For a 1982 spot, Schwartz set up his crew in a supermarket and invited customers to try Oven Fry, a new frozen chicken product from General Mills. The most expressive reactions (“mmm-mmm!”) were invited to consent to be in the commercial.

In more controlled settings, it’s necessary for advertisers to make sure the pool of potential testimonials is suited for the product. Before filming spots like the Folgers tasting, a team of market research employees typically recruited people by inviting them to take part in polls on the street. They’re asked about coffee preferences—the better to establish whether they even like the beverage—and were then invited to a nearby restaurant for a free meal. Out of two dozen couples selected for a Folgers spot in San Francisco in 1980, two or three were selected for the commercial.

 

The Folgers spots aired for years and were memorable for how surprised people appeared to be that they had just consumed granulated crystals instead of fresh-brewed coffee. But that doesn’t mean viewers necessarily believed their reactions. A 1982 consumer survey found that consumers often found their endorsements too stiff, meaning they were prompted, or too natural, which hinted that they might be actors. Though ad agencies went to great lengths to assure authenticity, their praise made audiences dubious.

Why would non-actors shower products with compliments? It takes a bit of psychology on the part of the ad agencies. For Chevrolet's 2017 spot that was ridiculed for people overreacting to the mere sight of a car, one of the participants—who asked to remain anonymous due to a non-disclosure agreement—told The A.V. Club that the upbeat environment and surreal exposure to a new car after agreeing to take part in a market research survey left his group feeling like it would be rude to say anything negative.

“We never retook a take, but you felt really bad about saying something negative about Chevy because there were 50 cameras on you, and it was just this one [host],” he said. “He did this magic trick of making it seem like you were hurting his feelings if you said anything bad about Chevy. You didn’t want to see this guy stop smiling. It was really bizarre.”

Candid? Sure. As candid as if they were among friends and not a squad of marketing executives? That's a different story.

Wiped Out: When Johnny Carson Helped Cause a Toilet Paper Shortage in 1973

In 1973, Johnny Carson accidentally prompted mass panic over toilet paper.
In 1973, Johnny Carson accidentally prompted mass panic over toilet paper.
Image: Jemal Countess, Getty Images. Background: seb_ra/iStock via Getty Images. Composite: Jake Rossen, Mental Floss.

Gary VandenBerg, the assistant manager of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Appleton, Wisconsin, was accustomed to fielding customer requests and making sure everyone left happy. But in December of 1973, VandenBerg was confronted with a peculiar situation.

His store was running out of toilet paper. Fast.

Customers plucked rolls from shelves as quickly as they could be stocked. A woman came in looking to purchase 10 cases. Store management decided to triple their normal order. It wasn’t enough. The Piggly Wiggly had been inexplicably besieged by people hoarding bathroom tissue.

Just a few days later, this local epidemic would soon turn into a national concern. And Johnny Carson would be to blame.

 

In 1973, the United States was beginning to grow accustomed to shortages. Oil prices had soared due to an embargo; the stock market was plunging.

In the midst of this, Harold V. Froehlich—a Republican congressman from the heavily-forested eighth district of Wisconsin—began receiving complaints from constituents that pulp paper was getting harder to come by. Around the same time, Froehlich noticed some news reports of a tissue shortage in Japan. He investigated and believed the source of the claim was companies who were exporting more pulp paper out of the United States to avoid federal price tolls on domestic sales.

A person is pictured grabbing a package of toilet paper
Toilet paper was believed to be in short supply.
sergeyryzhov/iStock via Getty Images

Believing this could lead to a serious paper shortage of all types, Froehlich issued a press release on November 16, 1973. Few news outlets paid much attention. Then Froehlich discovered the federal government’s National Buying Center had failed to secure their normal number of bids for a four-month toilet paper supply intended for soldiers and bureaucrats. Froehlich issued a second press release on December 11, this one focusing more on the potential for a shortage of not only paper, but the one consumer product that no American could live without: “The U.S. may face a serious shortage of toilet paper within a few months,” he wrote. “We hope we don’t have to ration toilet tissue … a toilet paper shortage is no laughing matter.”

Froehlich’s intention was to bring attention to what he perceived to be an industrial problem by pointing out a shortage that would affect every household in the country.

It worked. News media began to cover the story on television and in print. The more outlets that picked it up, the more words like “potentially” were lost in translation. Almost immediately, consumers were buying shopping carts full of TP out of fear they might soon not be able to buy any.

On December 19, roughly a week after Froehlich’s second and more dire warning, Tonight Show host Johnny Carson made mention of the story in his monologue. "Of all the shortages we have ... there's a gasoline shortage," he said. "You know what else is disappearing from the supermarket shelves? Toilet paper! Ah, ha, ha! You can laugh now! There is an acute shortage of toilet paper in the good old United States. We gotta quit writing on it. But I wanna tell ya, it is serious. I just saw a commercial ... where a Mrs. Olsen comes in with a shopping bag and a housewife says, 'Forget the coffee, just give me the shopping bag.'"

With an audience of roughly 20 million viewers, Carson’s mention activated a national paper panic. Millions of people cleaned retail shelves of rolls. A store in Seattle ordered 21 cases but received only three, adding to the hysteria. One woman reported asking for toilet paper rather than gifts for her party. Stores tried setting limits of two to four rolls per customer. Others raised prices from 39 to 69 cents per roll—not to gouge customers, but to dissuade them from buying too much. Other paper products like towels and cups were also in short supply. There were even rumors that a toilet paper black market had emerged, where hoarders were offering rolls at a mark-up.

“I’m used to being able to go when I want to, but suddenly I think I’m going to have to start curbing my habits,” one woman said.

The more toilet paper that was purchased, the more customers unable to find toilet paper were convinced there really was a shortage. Froehlich was right about the crisis—only he was the one who had unintentionally caused it.

 

The toilet paper frenzy continued into 1974—but eventually, consumers realized Froehlich’s concerns simply weren’t materializing. Respected CBS broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite urged calm on his newscast and aired footage from the Scott Paper Company that demonstrated toilet paper was coming off the factory line without delay. Even Froehlich walked back his comments, though his third press release didn’t get nearly the same attention as the one where he raised the potential for bathrooms devoid of toilet tissue.

When he returned from his holiday break, Carson felt compelled to issue an apology. “For all my life in entertainment, I don’t want to be remembered as the man who created a false toilet paper scare,” he told viewers. “I just picked up the item from the paper and enlarged it somewhat … there is no shortage.” The furor soon wound down.

Strangely, it would not be Carson’s only brush with bathroom controversy. In 1977, the host was able to win a lawsuit against Earl J. Braxton, a Michigan businessman who marketed portable toilets under a name that was familiar to Tonight Show viewers: Here’s Johnny.

Flex Appeal: How Soloflex Conquered '80s Fitness

Soloflex ads were must-see television in the 1980s.
Soloflex ads were must-see television in the 1980s.
Jerry Wilson, YouTube

Jerry Lee Wilson thought he had figured out the perfect way to motivate employees: He brought a shotgun to work.

It was the late 1970s, and Wilson was overseeing a factory in Hillsboro, Oregon, that produced his Soloflex machine, an all-in-one resistance exercise device that was quickly taking off thanks to creative print ads of sinewy torsos. Orders were pouring in for the apparatus, but Wilson’s workers insisted they could produce just eight of them per day [PDF]. The high-quality steel construction was too labor-intensive to make any more than that.

But to keep up with demand, Wilson needed at least 20 new machines manufactured daily. That’s when he brought the shotgun.

In front of his employees, Wilson took aim at the clock on the wall and fired. The message was clear: Shifts were a thing of the past. Meeting that 20-machines-per-day quota was all that mattered now.

Soon, Wilson's employees were indeed turning out 20 Soloflex machines a day. Before long it was 48. In 1998, Wilson reached $98 million in sales—$54 million of which was pure profit.

Wilson's motivational tactics may have been unconventional, but so was the man himself. Before launching his Soloflex empire, he was a full-time pilot and a part-time drug smuggler.

 

By Wilson's own admission—he wrote a tell-all autobiography, The Soloflex Story, in 2009—he had considered the fitness industry a viable alternative to running up against the law. In the 1970s, Wilson was an airmail pilot as well as a pilot for private charter planes. In between legitimate flights, he was buzzing thousands of pounds of marijuana across state lines. He was caught and arrested in Oklahoma in 1976; he was put on trial but claimed there was a hung jury after he was accused of attempting to seduce one of the jurors. A second trial was held where he was found not guilty.

Narrowly avoiding a federal prison sentence allowed Wilson to concentrate on his pet project. More than a decade prior, he had been taught a series of weightlifting exercises at the New Mexico Military Institute. Wilson knew the value of a resistance training regimen but recognized the danger it posed to people unfamiliar with free weights. The weights could slip and fall on someone; overexertion could lead to injuries. Wilson believed there would be demand for a device that could safely mimic the exercises he had been taught. Some of his wealthy charter passengers told him there was money to be made in manufacturing.

A Soloflex is pictured
The Soloflex had an L-shaped design that accommodated a variety of exercises.
Soloflex

Wilson couldn’t weld, but he got assistance from Arthur Curtis, who owned Curtis Steel in Las Vegas. Because Wilson couldn’t afford materials for his prototype, he traded Curtis a .22 pistol for the steel. Slowly, an L-shaped pole with a support bar and a bench began to take shape. Instead of free weights, which could be dangerous as well as prohibitively expensive to ship, Wilson equipped his machine with thick rubber bands that could be adjusted to provide greater resistance as users grew stronger. He named the product Soloflex, a possible nod to the fact that you didn’t need a spotter to monitor a heavy weight exercise. He then started plotting how to market his $450 machine.

Third-party distribution was unlikely. While universal workout machines like Nautilus had been popular in gyms for years, casual fitness enthusiasts weren’t buying them for home use. Sears had already turned down a similar type of machine out of fear that people wouldn’t be interested. In the late 1970s, serious resistance training was still stigmatized.

Wilson’s solution to that problem was to make a direct appeal to the consumer, rather than trying to convince a middle man of the product’s value. Wilson began taking out print ads in national magazines touting the benefits of the Soloflex, being careful to avoid the kind of veiny, bodybuilding type of photography that appealed only to hardcore enthusiasts. His ads featured fit but reasonably proportioned bodies with stark captions. “The Chest,” read one. “The Stomach,” read another. “Body by Soloflex,” they announced. By dialing the 800 number listed in the ad, people would receive a VHS cassette explaining the Soloflex and its novel approach to fitness.

In 1978, his first full year of national advertising, Wilson made $80,000. He also accrued $80,000 in debt. But he was able to show investors a steady stream of orders, which kept going up.

Unfortunately, so did print ad rates. In the early 1980s, Wilson saw a nearly 300 percent increase in costs to place the ads, which started cutting into his advertising budget significantly. He needed another way to evangelize his temple to the ideal physique and get the VHS footage directly to consumers.

For the second time, Wilson was able to cut out the middle man. Thanks to Congress, it was now permissible for anyone to buy paid airtime on television.

 

The Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 deregulated prohibitions on paid advertising that was program-length. Suddenly, thousands of cable channels were inundated with paid promotional advertising. According to Wilson, it happened so quickly that many didn’t even have a department to handle the checks advertisers were sending them.

Soloflex was an ideal product for the infomercial format. It resonated with people best when demonstrated, which is why Wilson had made such an effort to circulate the VHS tapes. As a narrator extolled the virtues of the device, fit models pulled and tugged on the bars, which provided smooth resistance and allowed for fluid motion. While it was likely not as effective as free weights, which require more muscle activation in order to stabilize the load, it made for excellent television. Wilson bought 100-hour blocks of time on stations and later estimated that one in seven U.S. households ordered the brochure that continued the sales pitch.

While most fitness models were generally nameless—and perhaps even faceless—to most viewers, Soloflex had managed to make a celebrity out of Scott Madsen, a 21-year-old who was waiting tables when he spotted an ad soliciting a model who looked like a gymnast for a gig in his hometown of Hillsboro, Oregon. Better still, it paid $50 an hour. Madsen not only looked like a gymnast, he used to be one: He had gone to the University of Wisconsin on a full athletic scholarship but dropped out after a year. The job looked to be a way to monetize his physique.

Madsen quickly became the body most closely associated with Soloflex; his popularity earned him a lengthy profile in The Washington Post in 1985 and Soloflex found an additional revenue source by moving more than 70,000 posters featuring Madsen's toned and shirtless body. He auditioned for a potential role in a Hardy Boys film and was cast in another, Leatherboys, which People described as a “post-nuclear holocaust teen gang” movie. (It was never made.) He even scored a book deal for Peak Condition, which a Washington Post reviewer called “more of a sexy photo album than a book about physical fitness.” (In the book, Madsen took the curious tact of endorsing free weights and criticized the current “exercise-machine infatuation.”)

Madsen became a gay icon, too. His print and brochure ads were often taped to people's walls and Madsen once bemoaned the fact that people were far too comfortable asking him to take off his shirt. When one reporter confronted him with the idea he was “genetically perfect,” Madsen scoffed.

“I don’t know about that,” he said. “So 'sought-after,' I think that would be a better word.”

To Wilson’s great satisfaction, the Soloflex had become part of popular culture, with revenue to match. Sales in 1992 reached $100 million. But success brings imitators. In a crowded fitness market, Wilson was about to be deluged with knock-offs that threatened both his bottom line and the health of his potential customers.

 

Wilson struck out in 1986 when he introduced the Armchair Quarterback, a scaled-down version of the Soloflex that was intended to conserve space but failed to take off. In 1990, he announced plans for Robox, a full-size robot that purportedly offered a boxing-style workout in which users could both hit the machine (which he claimed used materials similar to those of crash-test dummies) and that the robot could actually hit back. There’s no evidence the $2500 device ever made it to market.

But Wilson had bigger concerns than sentient and violent artificial intelligence. The success of the Soloflex had led to a wave of imitators, most notably the Bowflex, which Wilson alleged stole the trade dress, or commercial style, of his machine. They even used Madsen for some spots. So Wilson sued Bowflex, and won an $8 million settlement in 1998. A few years later, in 2004, 420,000 Bowflex units were recalled due to a risk of collapse. Wilson was quick to point out that people shouldn’t confuse the two machines. Wilson also sued NordicTrack for appropriating his commercial approach and earned an $18.5 million settlement.

Scott Madsen is pictured in a Soloflex ad
Scott Madsen, the Soloflex company's beefcake-in-residence.
Soloflex

Those may have been the last great victories of the Soloflex empire. An attempt to market a Soloflex Wall, which was described as a “wood-steel hybrid wall panel” for home construction fizzled in 2000. A steep increase in television ad rates made pervasive infomercials or Super Bowl commercials cost-prohibitive. Worse, Wilson’s own insistence on quality was counterproductive. Because he refused to utilize the kind of “planned obsolescence” common in consumer goods, which allows for products to fail after a finite period of time, people who bought one Soloflex had no cause to ever buy another. There was also a rich secondary market in used fitness devices that were being neglected: Wilson has acknowledged the majority of Soloflex buyers stopped using them after a period of time.

Both Wilson (who is now in his seventies) and Soloflex are still in business, but typically shun print or television advertising and instead rely on word-of-mouth and internet marketing.

Madsen, who seemed to disappear in the late 1980s, resurfaced in 2010 after he was sentenced to two years in prison for embezzling $248,544.60 from his uncle’s mortgage firm. Madsen had fabricated expenses that he charged to the company, making him very sought after by prosecutors.

Since the introduction of the Soloflex in 1978, the fitness industry has seen countless mail-order products, trends, supplements, and endorsements. It now feels like a relic of a bygone era, one where people idly stopped on a televised sales pitch for a device they were unlikely ever to use for any length of time. It was one thing to contemplate the idealized body. Trying to achieve it was another story. For many, the Soloflex became a $500 or $600 clothes hanger—plus $60 shipping.

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