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The Bootleg Files: Hawaiian Punch Commercials

BOOTLEG FILES 717: “Hawaiian Punch Commercials” (long-running series of comically violent advertising).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No perceived commercial reissue for a home entertainment anthology of these commercials.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Utterly unlikely.

In concept, the notion of an advertising campaign anchored on deliberate physical abuse seems like a spectacularly bad idea – especially if the target audience is children. However, one of the most successful campaigns in advertising history involved a series of television commercials for a sugary drink that featured a strange little man who almost always punched a pleasant but dimwitted soul in the face, knocking him flat on his back.

Hawaiian Punch was invented by three men in a garage in Fullerton, California, in 1934. It was originally intended to be an ice cream topping syrup consisting of juices derived from five fruits imported from Hawaii – guava, orange, papaya, passion fruit and pineapple. The trio of inventors created a company called Pacific Citrus Products and focused on selling their syrup to ice cream shops and soda fountains along the West Coast.

In 1946, the company was acquired by Reuben P. Hughes, who renamed it Pacific Hawaiian Products Company and began to focus sales to consumers. The syrup’s formula was tinkered with and a ready-to-serve canned drink called Hawaiian Punch was available in grocery stores beginning in 1950. During the decade, the product became available in more markets across the country, and Hawaiian Punch had a national retail presence by the time R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company bought Pacific Hawaiian in 1962.

The Hawaiian Punch brand relied on word-of-mouth advertising prior to R.J. Reynolds’ acquisition of the brand, but the new owner wanted to take the product to a higher level. The company’s advertising agency, Atherton-Privett, was tapped to launch a campaign. An animated 20-second commercial was produced by John Urie and Associates, a Hollywood studio, with Urie playing the voice role of one character known as Oaf (although some sources refer to him as Opie) and Ross Martin, a character actor who was a few years from major stardom on TV’s “The Wild Wild West,” as a character known as Punchy.

Even by the curious standards of that bygone era, the Hawaiian Punch commercial was bizarre. The character of Punchy was depicted as a short man wearing a grass hat that looked like deformed antlers on his head. He also sported a shirt with vertical blue and white stripes but did not appear to have pants – mercifully, he was not an anatomically correct figure, but a creation of the limited animated style that was popular at the time. He had a moon face and large eyes, with a wide smile that suggested a touch of derangement.

The character of Oaf was dressed like a tourist in Hawaii, wearing a flora shirt and a hat capped with a tropical flower. His expression was one of sleepy serenity, and even the most casual of observers would realize that he was too dumb for his own good.

The crux of the commercial was simple: Punchy would ask Oaf, “Hey, how about a nice Hawaiian Punch?” Oaf would stupidly assume that Punchy was referring to the juice drink of the same name and answer, “Sure!” At this point, Punchy would curl the fingers on one hand into a fist and slam Oaf in the face, causing him to topple over and land on his back. Once Oaf was out for the count, the viewer would be shown the can of Hawaiian Punch.

The first “Hawaiian Punch” commercial aired on “The Tonight Show” in February 1962. The show was broadcast live and its’ host, Jack Paar, was wildly entertained by the spot – to the point that he broke with the script and network protocol to announce, “Let’s play that again – the second time is free.” Literally, the Hawaiian Punch commercial became an overnight sensation and one of the most successful advertising campaigns was launched.

Outside of a single early commercial where Oaf bullies Punchy for the possession of a basketball, the formula never deviated: Punchy was the cheerful sadist engaging the dull Oaf in a face-pummeling act of bait and switch, with the perceived offer of a drink of Hawaiian Punch replaced with a sock to the jaw. Oaf would once complain to the camera that “he did it again” after being pummeled and on a single occasion he unsuccessfully tried to put out a wind-up robot decoy as the recipient of the assault, but for the most part he was oblivious to the chaos created by his dim trust in Punchy’s perceived hospitality.

Amazingly, there was relatively little variation in the Hawaiian Punch commercials. While the actors that succeeded Ross Hunter as Punchy would give the character a higher-pitched voice, he would always ask the leading question, “How about a nice Hawaiian Punch?” And Oaf’s unblinking happy response of “Sure!” would always be met with a fist to the face. These commercials persisted well into the 1990s, with nary a complaint from parents’ groups or other self-appointed do-gooders who feigned agitation over rampant violence in children’s programming.

Despite the lack of public outcry over the violent nature of these commercials, Hawaiian Punch quietly began to pursue a less antagonistic approach to its commercials in the late 1970s. Donny and Marie Osmond were brought in as celebrity spokespersons and live action commercials featuring a costumed version of Punchy were shot with the character interacting in a peaceful manner with real people. One commercial from the early 1980s featured this version of Punchy as a Little League coach, with a young Corey Feldman among his players. The animated Punchy-Oaf interactions would return very occasionally, but in 2003 Punchy was updated with a new look that gave him shorts (at long last) and a surfboard; Oaf was nowhere to be seen. But these attempts to dilute Punchy’s penchant for sadism did not resonate with viewers and the character was eventually retired.

Obviously, the Punchy-Oaf relationship was an exaggeration of an abusive bond – the characters are so broadly drawn and their situation is so ridiculous that no sane person could imagine it to represent a genuine bone-shattering dysfunctional relationship. And Punchy’s weak pun on “Hawaiian Punch” is so blatant that Oaf’s chronically cheerful acquiescence is inane – an argument can be made that very stupid people deserve the chaos they invite on themselves.

The Hawaiian Punch commercials may have been among the least versatile advertisements of their era, but they were among the most effective: it kept the public buying that godawful drink for decades. And viewers of a certain age who want to relive the joy of Punchy’s fist landing on Oaf’s chin can find plenty of these commercials on YouTube – there is no DVD anthology of the advertisements, but one would need to be a genuine masochist to absorb a nonstop screening of decades’ worth of the Punchy-Oaf lunacy.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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