BOOTLEG FILES 728: “Jane Russell Playtex Commercials” (series of television advertisement featuring the buxom star selling bras and girdles).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: All old-time commercials get bootlegged.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
Jane Russell became a movie star in the 1940s thanks to producer Howard Hughes’ infantile preoccupation with bosoms. But she maintained her stardom as a result of her droll talent for light comedy and a tough-broad-with-a-heart-of-gold persona that captivated audiences.
But not unlike many of her peers, Russell had a finite shelf life as a film star. Her film career began to wane by the late 1950s, and through the 1960s she was a fleeting presence in guest roles in forgettable films and a good-natured decorative presence in television appearances. In 1971, she made her Broadway debut replacing the formidable Elaine Stritch in “Company,” earning rave reviews and audience applause for her show-stopping rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch.” But by the time Russell hit that career peak, she was 50 years old and the Hollywood studios were not eager to have her back in the spotlight.
However, the creative time behind the marketing of Playtex’s lingerie line saw a potential goldmine in Russell. Although she was at the half-century mark, she was still movie star gorgeous – and her Broadway smash coupled with the reruns of her films on television ensured that she was not forgotten by the public.
Russell’s admirable anatomy and her gift for gentle self-deprecatory humor were combined into an advertising campaign to bolster several Playtex products, most notably its’ line of 18-Hour brassieres and girdles. Russell pitched the product lines to her fellow “full-figured gals” – old-school coded language for busty and curvy babes – with a degree of subtle charm that was rare for the anvil-worthy sales pitches of the era.
The beauty of the commercials was Russell’s ability – as well as the skills of the copywriters on these advertisements – to sell the sizzle instead of the steak. In none of these commercials did Russell ever take off her clothing to model the brassieres or girdles – not that she would look unappealing, but because it wasn’t necessary. The point of the pitch was to show how well the lingerie highlighted a full-dressed woman’s anatomy, and the designer clothing-clad Russell still looked like she was the queen of the RKO lot as she made her on-camera pitches.
Furthermore, Russell came to this campaign at a time in her life when she could offer both a wonderful sense of mature authority along with a nostalgic reminder of why she became a star. One of the commercials in the series showed a publicity still from her youthful star-making debut in “The Outlaw.” With the black-and-white photograph on camera, the off-camera Russell charmingly observes, “That’s Jane Russell, starlet, full-figured then.” Suddenly, the camera cuts to a seated contemporary Russell, who adds “And full-figured now” while standing up to reveal a va-va-voom figure. Seriously, for the male viewer it is impossible to keep eye contact with Russell in these commercials – and, I assume, the “full-figured gals” watching these ads were wondering if the Playtex line could make them as sexy as Russell.
Well, it seems that more than a few women were convinced by Russell’s celebrity endorsement of the product line. Playtex kept Russell as a celebrity spokeswoman for more than a decade, and many people who grew up during the 1970s and early 1980s probably got their first introduction to Russell through these fun and easy-going commercials that showed off her most famous assets.
Russell once commented, “Sex appeal is good, but not if it’s in bad taste. Then it’s ugly. I don’t think a star has any business posing in a vulgar way. I’ve seen plenty of pin-up pictures that have sex appeal, interest and allure, but they’re not vulgar. They have a little art in them.”
In many ways, the Playtex commercials were Russell’s last hurrah as a star. She did occasional appearances on television in the late 1980s and fastened her name to a 1985 autobiography. A private struggle with alcoholism sidelined her for much of her later years – I can still vividly recall an appearance on Merv Griffin’s talk show to promote her autobiography when she was obviously inebriated, with Merv trying desperately to keep the conversation flowing despite her problematic condition. When Russell passed away in 2011, all of the obituaries acknowledging her departure highlighted the Playtex advertisements among her career peaks.
Some of the Russell commercials for Playtex can be found on YouTube. For anyone studying marketing – particularly fashion promotions – they deserve to be studied. And while Russell will always be cherished as the gun-toting partner in mayhem in Bob Hope’s “Paleface” romps and as Marilyn Monroe’s fast-thinking ally in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” the consumers of generous-sized brassieres and the men who love them will always cross their hearts for Russell’s warm sense of salesmanship.
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