A spooky spectacle of advertising: Halloween branding throughout the years

31 October 2017

Pumpkins are being pumped into lattes, special edition spooky packs have scurried their way onto supermarket shelves; and cartoon monsters are enjoying commercial mashups. There’s no doubt about it: we have been hallowe’ened.

The lead-up to October 31st has hardly ever been a subtle affair. For decades, brands both big and small have latched onto Halloween as a potentially lucrative profit-spinner.

Historically speaking, the smorgasbord of traditions that formed what we now consider “Halloween” have largely been done away with, or altered. The humble jack-o’-lantern, with its roots in old Irish customs, went from a hollowed potato to a pumpkin, with the help of a little American modification. Today it is totally symbolic of the season, painting the commercial landscape orange as Halloween’s main centrepiece. Even trick-or-treating, despite its Christian and Pagan origins, only begun to gain momentum in the 1950s. But kids weren’t the only ones dressing up and donning masks. Keen to capitalise on the spooky spectacle, brands from Mars to Colgate were quick to step in and help shape Halloween’s future, spawning an array of eye-popping promotional material as a result.

Today, thanks to nostalgia-loving collectors the world over, we’re able to delve deep into countless online vaults. Full of everything from mid-century modern trick-or-treat bags, to photographic print ads for vodka, they’re every bit a treat to look at as the products they advertise. Here, for your spooky pleasure, are some gems from years gone by.

Black Magic Witches and Milky Ghosts

You might not know Brian Sollitt, but you will definitely know the After Eight mints he helped develop. Last year, Nestle received the confectioner’s (deemed “Mr After Eights”) packaging collection, which included a box of Black Magic from before the Second World War. Featuring a silhouetted witch against a devilishly red skyline, Nestle are claiming these to be the oldest examples of British Halloween-themed sweet packaging. Meanwhile, in the US, Mars was one of the first companies to put out a national ad for Halloween, featuring its Milky Way bar. Debuting in a 1954 edition of Life Magazine, its striking simplicity owes much to its friendly cartoon ghost complete with textured, fuzzy contours.

Weeny Witch

Traditionally, Halloween tends to be associated with sweet, rather than savoury food items. But for almost 30 years the Skinless Wiener company tried tirelessly to make their sausages a Halloween staple. Debuting their own mascot, the “Weeny Witch” in the 1940s, they encouraged people to throw their own “Weeny Witch” parties, in attempt to make hot dogs the hot, new centrepiece. The company even released their own pamphlets with party game suggestions that included “Bobbing for Franks” and the curiously named “Feeding the Weeny Witch” where kids would attempt to get a wiener into the mouth of a cardboard cutout witch – while blindfolded. As it turns out, dressing a sausage up as a witch, among other things, isn’t the stuff traditions are made of.

Ghostbusters cereal

A Halloween hallmark, ghosts continue to appear and reappear throughout its history. So when Ghostbusters landed on the scene in 1984, it came as no surprise that Michael C. Gross’ ghoulish logo would fast be initiated into the hallowed halls of the already stuffed cereal aisles. With a free block of bubblegum inside one box and the chance to “slime” your own light switch on the back of the other, what more could you want, while bleary-eyed at breakfast?

It’s in the Bag: Plastic Pails, Paper Bags and Branded Boxes

By the 1970s, trick-or-treating was in full-force and thoroughly kid-friendly. Realising the potential of using kids as walking billboards on their nighttime neighbourhood routes, brands began to offer free trick-or-treat bags emblazoned with themed logos, mascots and cartoon characters. Some even promised a treat should you visit one of their restaurants on Halloween night. But it’s the earlier, non-branded bags, (normally paper, rather than plastic) that showcase a wealth of hand-drawn typography, kooky characters and use of block colour. Cartoon eyes hover over shaky letterforms and smiley faces unreservedly dot “i’s” for an altogether more whimsical look.

Happy Meal

Over the years, McDonald’s Happy Meal box has been used as a promotional canvas for the latest trends and cinema releases. And in the midst of what became known as the golden era of kids’ advertising, the fast food giant featured its own characters on the box. In among the spiralling typography and wisecracks, we’re introduced to the imaginatively named McNugget Buddies: Mummie McNugget, Pumpkin McNugget and McBoo. Earlier promotional gifts featured plastic pails with significantly bolder, pared-back graphics and some delightfully marshmallowy typography set against a glowing autumnal gradient in this 1989 promotional handout.

Putting all the other spirits out of business

Proving that Halloween can be enjoyed by adults and kids alike, a certain type of humour comes into play once alcohol brands start to tackle the theme of Halloween. Depicting everything from a fear-ridden Frankenstein’s monster to a ghostly couple looking for a new haunt, visual puns flow thick and fast – particularly for beer brand, Michelob. (And for those who don’t quite get the joke, Michelob have very kindly underlined the word “spirits”).

Making a spooky song and dance about it

Seeing is believing. At least, that was certainly the case for the hoards of people that packed out midnight spook shows in the 1930s and 40s. Frankenstein star Bela Lugosi was even known to ocassionally appear in person. Not content with watching scary movies on TV, these shows were full of live “gasp-provoking” illusions, from floating objects to psychic readings. Feeding public interest in spiritualism, these poster designs are every bit as enticing. A perfect meeting of the creepy and cartoony, the custom typography quivers and shakes around bustling compositions.

Spooky sounds

By the 1950s, thanks to vinyl records, people began to enjoy spooky soundtracks at home. But back in 1927, Disney’s Sound Effects department were already busy at work, recording everything from bumps to screams, and were among the first to release a record of solely spooky sounds in 1964. Have a listen to Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of The Haunted House.

Rolling Stones Voodoo

Sticking with the spooky music theme, as part of their 1994 “Voodoo at Halloween” tour, The Rolling Stones brought along some suitably scary merchandise for their fans – adapting their iconic tongue and lips logo (originally designed by Jon Pasche) to include a set of fangs. Singing on Halloween night, Mick Jagger apparently kept addressing the crowd as San Francisco despite the tour being in Oakland, California.

Say Cavities!

Spare a thought (and some cash) for dentists at this time of year. Knowing better than anyone how fine the line between tricks and treats can be, this time it’s parents who are being targeted. These ads, released in the the late 70s and mid-80s, show how photography starts to become favoured over previously quaint and painterly or illustrative and abstract approaches. Paired with the somewhat threatening tagline of “Aren’t your kids worth Crest?” it comes across as a nicely art-directed guilt trip.

Fiendishly fresh

Hailing from 1926, our earliest example is our last. Aimed at five to eight year olds, John Martin’s magazine ran for over 20 years in the US. Hidden within the pages of its October issue was this ad for Colgate’s “Ribbon Dental Cream”. Silhouetted landscapes are common in this context, but with its cool, fresh-feeling colour palette, this one literally glows. The illustration of the product itself, pushed to the top right side of the frame, gives way for a charmingly written poem.

It feels apt to end on something sweet, albeit in the other sense of the word. Every year, come October, Halloween isn’t afraid of proudly announcing its arrival. It can be crass and overwhelming. But looking past the dense, intense commercial chaos it brings with it, Halloween can offer light, if not temporary relief from the genuinely frightening state of our current affairs. It can be every bit as bright as it is dark. Besides, isn’t life so much better – and just that little bit more bearable – when it’s themed?

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