25 Stars You Didn't Know Got Their Start in Commercials
An A-list face sure makes an A-plus sell.
The advent of streaming services and DVRs has made sitting through those long commercial breaks a thing of the past. Of course, there are plenty of perks to commercial-free television, but skipping those irksome ads means missing out on the chance to spot the next superstar. It's true! The odds are good that one of those fresh-faced young people selling soda or nasal spray will be mega-famous one day. Don't believe us? From Brad Pitt's chip campaign to Britney Spears's BBQ sauce-hawking gig, here are some of the celebrities who made their debuts in commercials long before they were household names.
Ben Affleck (Burger King)
What makes this 1989 Burger King commercial feel like such a flashback isn't just the presence of a young Ben Affleck—it's also the fact that he's using a car phone to talk to a girl who wants a chef's salad, while the '60s throwback "Do You Believe in Magic" by The Lovin' Spoonful plays in the background.
Mila Kunis (Lisa Frank)
In the '90s, Lisa Frank dominated teen girl culture: everything was tie-dye, unicorns, and a very dapper bear wearing a top hat. No one was immune, including a 13-year-old Mila Kunis, who gushes, "I'll never forget the day I got stuck on Lisa Frank," in this 1996 commercial. It's hard to believe this was filmed just two years before she made her debut on That '70s Show.
Morgan Freeman (Listerine)
"The taste people hate" is a truly bizarre choice for a tagline, but, as this 1970s Listerine spot proves, Morgan Freeman can sell anything. Listen to that warm, authoritative voice and see if you don't immediately crave mouthwash. Freeman could have had a lucrative career in commercials if he didn't move on to Oscar-worthy film work. Exhibit B: This 1975 ad for Polaroid.
Tina Fey (Mutual Savings Bank)
You can absolutely see the Liz Lemon levels of awkwardness on display from Tina Fey in this 1995 ad for Mutual Savings Bank. The commercial called for some genuine floundering, and even years before she landed 30 Rock, Fey was a natural!
Mark Ruffalo, Clearasil
Before he battled baddies into pulp as the Hulk in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Mark Ruffalo battled zits with Clearasil in this 1989 commercial. The stakes might not seem exactly universally threatening here, but, as anyone who has ever had a bad breakout knows, acne can feel like a Thanos-grade threat. If you pay close attention, you can see that the drama of this 30-second spot showcases the emotional range that would one day propel Ruffalo to stardom.
Jeremy Renner (Kodak)
Jeremy Renner, sporting some perfectly '90s long hair, had to face an alien invasion in this epic 1996 ad for Kodak long before he battled the Chitauri in the MCU. In the mid-'90s, The X-Files was huge, and assuming the truth was out there was just as common as transferring your photos to a CD.
Paul Rudd (Nintendo)
Ant-Man star Paul Rudd brought his dorky charm and also very '90s hair to this intense 1991 Super Nintendo commercial. "When you decide to step up to this kind of power, this kind of challenge, this kind of flying, rushing feeling, when you decide to get serious, there's only one place to come" could absolutely be a line from a Marvel movie. Hey, maybe '90s video game ads paved the way for the MCU!
Courtney Cox (Tampax)
Courteney Cox made a name for herself playing Monica Geller, the type-A chef extraordinaire, on Friends, in the '90s. But about a decade earlier, she brought the same no-nonsense demeanor to this 1985 ad for Tampax. There's no shame in talking about periods, and Cox reinforced that with her straight-talking style. The only thing you might call embarrassing here is that unabashedly '80s hair (which she somehow manages to pull off).
Tobey Maguire (Doritos)
Years after popping up in a 1991 Doritos commercial, Tobey Maguire went on to appear in films like Pleasantville and The Cider House Rules before taking on the titular superhero role in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy.
Bryan Cranston (Preparation H)
This 1980s commercial for Preparation H featured a very soothing Bryan Cranston. It would be years before Cranston would show how funny he could be on Malcolm in the Middle—and how terrifying he could be on Breaking Bad. But one thing is clear from the ad: He's always been deeply committed to every role, even if the role is hawking hemorrhoid cream.
Aaron Paul (Corn Pops)
Cranston's Breaking Bad co-star Aaron Paul also got his start in commercials. This beloved 1999 Corn Pops ad has Paul's character jonesing for the breakfast cereal. He's not exactly Jesse Pinkman in the spot, but there are some real parallels (especially when it comes to the mannerisms), and you can see how this Corn Pops-loving kid could spiral into something a lot less wholesome.
Salma Hayek (Burger Boy)
In the late '80s, Salma Hayek made her first major TV appearance not in the U.S. but in her native Mexico, promoting the chain Burger Boy. Even if you don't speak Spanish, you can tell that she's having the time of her life here. And why wouldn't she be? She's got a cape!
Stanley Tucci (Levi's)
Every so often, Stanley Tucci's memorable '80s Levi's commercial bubbles back into the public consciousness, and people cannot seem to get over how good he looks in a white tank and jeans. In addition to Tucci's thirst-inducing presence, this ad is a total delight. (Admit it: That a cappella song is an earworm.)
Wesley Snipes (Levi's)
Clearly, if you wanted to make it big in Hollywood, you should have appeared in this '80s Levi's 501 ad campaign. Like Tucci, Wesley Snipes cropped up in a spot for Levi's sporting a striped sweater, a hat, and a charming smile that's equally captivating. (Also, that song is definitely in your head now. We apologize!)
Elisabeth Moss (Excedrin)
Over the years, Elisabeth Moss has taken on some intense roles, most recently as the star of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale. But that doesn't mean she can't bring the calm: Her 2005 commercial for Excedrin might actually relieve your headaches. There's something about her straightforward, thoughtful delivery here that could really reduce your anxiety. It's a performance that even Mad Men's Peggy Olson would approve of.
Jason Bateman (Golden Grahams)
Depending on which era you grew up in, you might know Jason Bateman from Silver Spoons or Arrested Development or Ozark. And if it's the first, you might have first spotted him in a 1980 commercial for Golden Grahams. Sometimes it's hard to find child actors who can be precocious and sincere, but you really believe Bateman when he champions that delicious honey graham taste.
Keanu Reeves (Coca-Cola)
The star of the Matrix and John Wick franchises has more range than people give him credit for, and this 1983 Coca-Cola commercial shows it all. The pathos here is remarkable—this ad isn't just selling Coke, it's selling a whole story. In just 30 seconds, you get the whole saga of Keanu Reeves' cyclist and his profound relationship with his father, which is more depth than you'll find in many major studio films. Get this man an Oscar!
Britney Spears (Maull's Barbecue Sauce)
It's a pity Britney Spears has never covered the catchy jingle accompanying this 1993 commercial for Maull's barbecue sauce, but then, why mess with perfection? By the time this ad aired, Spears was already appearing on the '90s revival of The Mickey Mouse Club, and it's doubtful this TV spot had much of an impact on her career, which took off five years later with "…Baby One More Time." Still, seeing young Spears chowing down is quite the delight.
Seth Green (Nerf)
There's so much to unpack in this 1990s ad, starting with Seth Green's incredible hair swoop. There's also his accent work: Is that his natural voice when he says, "Allow us to demonstrate propah usage whilst you frolic"? Really, it's all just a perfect time capsule of the '90s, a decade when Nerf ruled the scene, and the funniest thing you could do was say something untrue and follow it up with a "not!"
Elijah Wood (Cheese)
Milk wasn't the only dairy product to have its own ad campaign. Before those iconic milk mustache ads in the 2000s, America's Dairy Farmers were pushing cheese in the early '90s. And a young Elijah Wood stretched his acting chops as a kid who prefers his broccoli covered in melted cheddar. This old commercial may not exactly have had the cultural impact of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but "Cheese Makes All the Difference" is a pretty accurate tagline.
Kristen Stewart (Porsche)
Although Kristen Stewart wasn't old enough to drive when she filmed this 1999 Porsche commercial, she made a great passenger. So many of the traits that have come to define Stewart's career were already on display here. She seems wise beyond her years, which is what it takes to pull off the low-level scam of getting your dad to drive you to school in his fancy car.
Milo Ventimiglia (Apple)
Before he was Jack Pearson on This Is Us, then-Gilmore Girls star Milo Ventimiglia melted hearts as the worst person to sit next to on an airplane in this 2001 Apple ad. Seriously, anyone requesting the middle seat should immediately raise alarms, and this guy spreads out all of his equipment so he can edit a movie on his new iBook mid-flight. The audacity! The surprise addition of "Who Let the Dogs Out" helped establish this old commercial as a true classic.
Leonardo DiCaprio (Bubble Yum)
If you only know Leonardo DiCaprio from films like The Wolf of Wall Street or Titanic, you might not be familiar with his really early work. Before a stint on Growing Pains in the early 1990s, DiCaprio put in his time in commercials, including this late '80s spot for Bubble Yum. But if that's not enough retro center-parted hair for you, check out this other ad he did for Kraft Singles.
John Travolta (Band-Aid)
The Band-Aid jingle remains one of the all-time greatest, and you've never really heard it properly until you've heard it sung by John Travolta in the shower. It's an odd choice, to be sure, but the 1970s commercial sticks with you almost as well as Band-Aids allegedly stick to your skin even after getting wet. This ad aired around the time Travolta was getting his start on Welcome Back, Kotter, before his ultimate breakthrough film role in 1977's Saturday Night Fever.
Brad Pitt (Pringles)
Once you pop, you can't stop—that holds true of Pringles whether you're a nobody or Brad Pitt. The actor wasn't famous back when he made this Pringles commercial in 1989. But he had the smile, the hair, and the physique to make an impression. While the association between Pringles and surfing may be dubious, this ad sells the aesthetic well, and Pitt's overwhelming charm would of course lead him to superstardom. And if you can't get enough classic taglines, then travel back in time and check out These Memorable Taglines from the 1980s That Will Make You So Nostalgic.
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