BOOTLEG FILES 380: “Charles Nelson Reilly Bic Banana Commercial” (1973 TV commercial for Bic Banana Ink Crayons, starring Charles Nelson Reilly).
LAST SEEN: Available on numerous online video sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Oh, come on – Charles Nelson Reilly as a singing banana?
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not very likely.
I’ve once heard of the 1970s being described as the decade that good taste forgot. Yet there was something truly magical about the weird, tacky and baffling decisions that were made during that tumultuous 10-year period. For starters, can you think of another point in time where the marketing campaign for a line of magic markers would center on an exuberant Charles Nelson Reilly dressed as a banana?
Let’s set the Wayback Machine to 1972. Over in Paris, the company Société Bic is rolling in the francs because of the sales of its line of cheap ballpoint pens. (You know the ones – they have blue caps and always leak on your fingers!) According to Time magazine, 20 plants around the world were producing nearly 1.5 billion Bic pens. And nearly half of the company’s $91 million in annual sales volume came from the U.S.
During 1972, Société Bic decided to expand its product offerings with the introduction of the Bic Banana. Time magazine described that product as a “fine-line carbon-tip marker that writes like a ‘felt’ pen but is not as durable.” Nonetheless, the product quickly became popular, and by 1973 Société Bic decided to add a rainbow of different colors to its Bic Banana line.
In case you are wondering why Société Bic decided to call its marker a “banana”…well, no one is really quite sure. It did not look like banana, nor was it packaged with a bright yellow shell. In fact, it sort of looked like a suppository. But, hey, you know what the French are like!
Any way, the marketing challenge arose on how to sell the expanded line of Bic Banana markers (or, as the product was formally known, Bic Banana Ink Crayons). Of course, the obvious market for the product would be school children, so the advertising campaign would need to be kid-friendly. But the Bic Banana could also be used in the workplace, so the outreach had to include something that would appeal to adults.
However, since the Bic Banana was being offered in the 1970s, the sheer silliness of the decade’s zeitgeist took the marketing campaign into a direction that seems utterly astonishing by contemporary standards: Société Bic brought in Charles Nelson Reilly as a giant singing banana.
Why Reilly, of all people? Reilly was very well known to kids back in the 1970s, thanks to his over-the-top roles on the Saturday morning “Lidsville” and the family-oriented sitcom “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (which was playing in reruns on local TV stations). Also, many youngsters who arrived home after school would watch Reilly as part of the off-kilter B-list guest panel that turned “Match Game” into the game show equivalent of a raucous cocktail party. Grown-ups also knew Reilly from his zany appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and as the cut-up guest on a number of prime time variety programs.
For the Bic Banana promotion, Reilly was cast as the teacher of an elementary school, where he would teach his students about the joys of using the Bic Banana Ink Crayon. Reilly and his students, however, would be dressed in banana costumes – they would be the denizens of an alternative universe where banana-people ruled.
The set for the Bic Banana commercial was fairly subversive. At first, it appears to be a normal classroom – although a quick glance at the rear of the class shows pictures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln with elongated banana skulls. On the class blackboard is the lesson that reads, “A banana a day keeps monkeys away.”
But the genuine shock of the commercial comes with Reilly, dressed as a giant banana, standing in front of his class. Waving a conductor’s baton, he leads his young students in singing the bouncy jingle, “Oh we’ve gone bananas, for Bic Banana Ink Crayons, you’ll learn to write a lot of ways. Oh we’ve gone bananas, for Bic Banana Ink Crayons, the colors are so bright and gay!” However, Reilly places far too much emphasis on the last word, turning “bright and gay” into “bright and gaaaaaaaaaaaay!” Even for the obtuse 1970s, it was impossible not realize something was a little queer in that lyric reading.
The remainder of the commercial shows Reilly drawing a sombrero on a banana and then urging his class with a quick “Okay, bunch!” to wrap up the jingle. The students who sing along with Reilly weren’t the most rhythmic tykes – they sway out of unison and conspicuously fail at lip-syncing. But Reilly made sure the attention was on him, with repeats of his trademarked clenched-teeth loony laugh to punctuate the lyric breaks.
Even by the crazy standards of 1970s television, the Bic Banana commercial stood out for its manic energy and astonishing concept. The commercial remained on the air for a number of years – and even though the Bic Banana was really a piece of junk, kids would purchase it based on the bouncy commercial.
TV commercials from the 1970s fall into a cultural void – unless someone was wise enough to capture them on VHS video, they are mostly dim memories for those who were around four decades ago. Mercifully, the Bic Banana commercial was preserved by pioneering videohounds. Copies of the commercial can be found on numerous video websites – the visual quality may be less than pristine, but the sound is still strong. The copyright issue is another matter – so far, no effort has been made to pull them offline.
Oh, if you’ve never seen the Bic Banana commercial, click on this link – and, trust me, you’ll never look at a Bic pen, a banana, or Charles Nelson Reilly the same way again!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits 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 videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!
Posted on June 17, 2011 in Bootleg Files, Features by Phil Hall
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- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “DOWN AMONG THE Z-MEN”
- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “NO SEX PLEASE, WE’RE BRITISH”
- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “MOTHER RILEY MEETS THE VAMPIRE”
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