Commercials That Created Stars

For 30 seconds at a time, television commercials enter our rooms with one shot at making a lasting impression.

Wendy's "Where's the beef?" ad made audiences laugh, while the 1971 pollution prevention public service announcement struck an emotional chord with its portrayal of a Native American crying.

Many commercials seem destined only to annoy viewers, but every once and awhile, one defies short attention spans and our penchant for channel flipping to enter the cultural zeitgeist. They can even create a few stars.

In the late 90s, Ben Curtis, also known as the "Dell Dude," beamed into living rooms across America in a string of television ads for the computer maker, helping bolster Dell's $4.8 billion consumer sector and making the phrase "Dude, you're getting a Dell!" a part of the cultural lexicon. The commercials brought him instant success.

John Moschitta JrPlay
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"For the first four or five years after the commercials, I couldn't go anywhere in America, even in Japan and Amsterdam, anywhere on the streets, in hats and sunglasses. It didn't matter. I could not finish a conversation with anyone without hearing 'Dude, where's my computer?'" Curtis told "Good Morning America."

Pitch personalities like Curtis are a rarity in a fast-paced industry that has a hard time pinpointing the next big thing. Jerry Della Femina, a New York-based advertising executive, said that "out of maybe 50 people you cast, there's one person that so stands out, that you automatically say, that's the person we want. And it always works."

Curtis, a prime example of a pitch person with the right voice, had a five-year run with Dell. The partnership could have continued, but a 2003 arrest for possession of marijuana sidelined the actor, and Dell severed ties with Curtis.

"I made a very very bad decision," Curtis said. "I paid for it, but I learned a lot from it. I think that was important."

Today, Curtis is scripting a one-man show, hoping to use his famous past to recharge his career. The show pokes fun at the hysteria surrounding his appeal as a pitch person, alludes to his Tennessee upbringing as a minister's son, and revisits what it was like living in New York City after September 11, 2001.

Ben remains optimistic about his future in the entertainment industry.

"I've seen the nasty side of the industry, I've seen the great side, I've seen what's possible, and that has kept me driven ever since then, because I had a taste and I know that wasn't even a smidgen of what anyone has seen of my work and so that just keeps me going", he stated.

Click here to check out Curtis' Web site.

For John Moschitta Jr., another commercial celebrity, it was his mouth that kept him going professionally for more than thirty years. He starred in commercials for FedEx, as well as MicroMachines, and is remembered for his turn as "Terrible Testaverde" on "Saved by the Bell." Moschitta realized early on that he could stir attention with his unique gift of gab.

"I taught myself how to do it when I was 12, I was told to shut up, no one cared about it, and then all of a sudden someone decided to pay me money for it," Moschitta said. "You know you never know what's going to catch on, and I just haven't stopped working since."

These days, television viewers can still catch Moschitta on the small screen doing voiceovers for television programs, including Comedy Central's "Robot Chicken," and "Transformers."

Moschitta is grateful for his success.

"I've worked around the world. I've been invited to the White House, did stuff that the average person doesn't get to do, and it's all because I talk fast," he said.

Ann Turner Cook, perhaps one of the longest running product pitch people, has been the face behind the Gerber baby food since 1927. After an artist sketched her likeness as part of a national competition to find the next face of Gerber, a lifelong partnership with the brand flourished, making Ann's baby face known instantly, worldwide.

Her face may have a few more wrinkles these days, but behind those baby blue eyes remains a unique part of advertising history.

"They used it in advertising until 1931, and by then it was so popular people wanted copies and so forth, they made it the trademark," Cook recalled. "So that's my immortality, I'm a trademark now. They're stuck with me."

Cook's portrait has stood the test of time for the Gerber brand, which still uses her likeness on all of its products. That baby face has also translated into big bucks, with annual sales of upwards of $1.95 billion.

When looking at the image, Cook said, "everybody sees their own child, or their own grandchild in that drawing."

Today, at 82, this real-life Gerber baby is living an active lifestyle in Tampa, Fla. A retired English teacher, Cook these days writes mystery novels. Ann recently traveled to France for a vacation with her family.

She said that her connection to the Gerber brand is something that will live on forever.

"It's been a very pleasant experience for me, because if you're going to be a symbol of anything, then what could be nicer, than to be a symbol for babies."

Click here to see Cook's Web site.