Put a Pumpkin on it: A History of Halloween Advertising

If you’ve entered a chain superstore recently, you may have followed signs toward a bootastic explosion of costumes, candies, and plastic pumpkin heads. Wallets are loosened, credit cards swiped. It’s so very hard to resist. And there’s a reason for that.

Halloween first achieved “merchandising necromancy” in the roaring twenties. The headline below spells it out: “Making business where none was before.”

Several issues of Women’s Wear Daily in the 1920s counsel store owners to prime shoppers with inexpensive candy—before leading them to the party favors, costumes, specialty grocery items, and cold-weather apparel. How little things change! Join us on a ghost walk through Halloween’s dark advertising past.

Credit: Women’s Wear, 29, 15. ProQuest courtesy of San Francisco Public Library.

1901: Creepy babies in the moonlight

American inventor Thomas A. Edison first earned fame in 1877 for recording voices on the phonograph. And a few years later, we saw his work in one of the earliest uses of Halloween symbols to push product.

What does the dead-eyed baby in this National Phonograph Company ad see in the mirror? Is her horrifying reflection the reason she so desperately grips one of the first jack-o’-lanterns in print advertising? “No amusement of modern times equals it,” the copy reads, which seems to imply that all witchy babies will love Edison phonographs.

Credit: ChurchofHalloween via Pinterest

1920s: “Eat candy for energy”

This beautiful illustration of a terrifyingly well-mannered costume party touts the “delicious taste—of cheer—of love—of good fellowship” of sugary sweets. (Apparently, run-on sentences didn’t bother early copywriters.) “Make your Hallowe’en perfect by adding to it the winsome witchery of the world’s nearest approach to ‘food for the gods’—CANDY.” There you have it, folks. Candy time is always a good time.

Credit: Cabinet of curious treasures

1940s: Peeping Tom is a pumpkin

“Ah! No seams …” sighs the leering pumpkin in this 1946 Hanes nylon ad. There are many, many vintage Halloween pantyhose ads, but this one tops our list thanks to the pumpkins’ drooling devotion to a seamless pair of hose. If you’re curious about why short skirts are a central component of the winter apparel season, blame advertising (and the patriarchy).

Credit: vintageads.tumbler.com via Pinterest

Early 1950s: Scary “morning mouth”

Even if your legs look great, nothing strikes more fear in a man’s heart than bad breath. This ad does “confess” that many of us suffer from breath that’s “not as frosh as it might be,” which is a nice way to tell the sad lady behind the pumpkin to stop hiding and brush her teeth. Chlorodent toothpaste “won’t get you married within a week”—but it should help.

Credit: grayflannelsuit via Pinterest

1950s: Treats instead of treatment

“Scare claims fool no one, so … trust Old Gold.” Hey, if a scarecrow can smoke Old Gold, maybe we should, too. And don’t worry, the cigarette industry has been spewing alternate facts since the Irish introduced Stingy Jack (a drunken mischief-maker and the origin of today’s tradition of carving jack-o’-lanterns).

Credit: Haunted Wisconsin.com via Pinterest

Early 1960s: Family bonding with pumpkin (and cola)

Look inside this pumpkin, son, while I awkwardly hug you with a full soda. Pepsi-Cola is a “light, bracing” refreshment that “matches your modern activities,” including forced pumpkin carving. Enjoy the “clean taste” for those who “think young” (a tagline open to many interpretations, if you ask us).

Credit: vintagemagazineadsuses via Pinterest

1966: Bewitch Him Brown and Gone Mad Mauve

Yes, those are lipstick colors created for one ghoulish season. Lovely ladies, stalking beasts, and spooky shades that coordinate with your nail polish. The women are dressed to party, but no one wants to see the monster conjured by “Stark Raving Pink.” Worth noting: No pumpkins are featured; first time for everything.

Credit: johnny708burnet via Pinterest

1960s–1980s: Batman, Superman, Mickey Mouse…oh my

By the late 60s, mass-produced costumes based on characters from television, comics, and movies were big business. Department stores, such as the now-defunct Woolworth, created detailed illustrations to highlight the wealth of (cheap) costumes and candy. Check out the prices—79 cents for a bag of fun-size Snickers.

A bit of Halloween nostalgia: Ben Cooper costumes, seen in this ad, opened shop in the 1930s when Halloween took off as a major holiday. They licensed Spiderman for a costume in 1963, Batman in 1964, and Disney personalities soon after. Any 80s kid will remember wearing Ben Cooper’s omnipresent plastic masks and vinyl suits.

Credit: 2 Warps to Neptune

1975: Pushing “happiness by the handful”

Thankfully, everyone now knows that offering raisins instead of candy is a sad, desperate trick played by evil adults on innocent children. Also, these 70s costumes are showing their age.

Credit: Mascola retro ad of the week

1980s–1990s: Very freaky TV episodes

Remember when TV advertisements ran in print magazines? Yeah, that happened. Back then, Halloween was a “frightfully good time” to tune in to quality programming, such as “Silver Spoons” (joking). Or, if it’s October 1996, you could choose an “X-Files” episode that is “so controversial” (a claim echoed by this New York Times article) that it was pulled from network television for three years.

Credit: 2 Warps to Neptune

Perhaps this ad copy looks too promissory. But don’t you kind of want to watch? To test this late-90s trigger warning? If you’d like to invite Mulder, Scully, and vile Halloween spirits (of murderous rural families) into your home: your wicked wish is our command.

Credit: Paley Center for Media via the New York Times

However you spend your All Hallows’ Eve, beware the pumpkin-filled ads lurking around every corner. Raisins, that tricky faux treat, are never far behind.