False advertising in comics

False or exaggerated advertising was rampant in the comic books of yesteryear. Many of these ads were for cheap toys that were meant to make a child’s dreams come true. Some were said to give you strange powers, while still others could help you see through walls… and clothing.

Why were these advertisements allowed to be printed? Did the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) just turn a blind eye?
Well first off, let’s take a brief look at some of the policies of the FTC.

FTC policies

The FTC has some invaluable information on deceptive advertising in the frequently asked questions section of it’s official website.

Consider these two questions and their answers:

How does the FTC determine if an ad is deceptive?

A typical inquiry follows these steps:

  • The FTC looks at the ad from the point of view of the “reasonable consumer” – the typical person looking at the ad. Rather than focusing on certain words, the FTC looks at the ad in context – words, phrases, and pictures -ÿto determine what it conveys to consumers.
  • The FTC looks at both “express” and “implied” claims. An express claim is literally made in the ad. For example, “ABC Mouthwash prevents colds” is an express claim that the product will prevent colds. An implied claim is one made indirectly or by inference. “ABC Mouthwash kills the germs that cause colds” contains an implied claim that the product will prevent colds. Although the ad doesn’t literally say that the product prevents colds, it would be reasonable for a consumer to conclude from the statement “kills the germs that cause colds” that the product will prevent colds. Under the law, advertisers must have proof to back up express and implied claims that consumers take from an ad.
  • The FTC looks at what the ad does not say – that is, if the failure to include information leaves consumers with a misimpression about the product. For example, if a company advertised a collection of books, the ad would be deceptive if it did not disclose that consumers actually would receive abridged versions of the books.
  • The FTC looks at whether the claim would be “material” – that is, important to a consumer’s decision to buy or use the product. Examples of material claims are representations about a product’s performance, features, safety, price, or effectiveness.
  • The FTC looks at whether the advertiser has sufficient evidence to support the claims in the ad. The law requires that advertisers have proof before the ad runs.

What standards does the FTC apply when evaluating claims in ads aimed at children?

The FTC pays particular attention to ads aimed at children because children may be more vulnerable to certain kinds of deception. Advertising directed to children is evaluated from a child’s point of view, not an adult’s. The FTC also works with the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. CARU is a private, self-regulatory group affiliated with the BBB that publishes self-regulatory guides for children’s advertising.

Comic book advertisements

Laws about false advertising have been around for a very long time. The following ads either slipped by the FTC due to no one filing a complaint, or the FTC deemed them appropriate for print after investigating them.

I would say that if the FTC followed the steps outlined above, the companies which ran these ads should have been hit with the consequences.
After all, the “reasonable consumer” in this case would be a child, the express claims are that the following products can make all of your dreams come true, make you the most popular, or give you special abilities.
They don’t have a disclaimer that these are just toys and intended for fun, the claims made are definitely material, and there is no evidence in the ad to support these claims.

Jet “Rocket” Space Ship!

Jet rocket space ship ad

The advertisment asks it’s reader to “Imagine all this!” and then goes on to describe a fanciful mission in which the “captain” blasts off for a mission in space and guns down some unknown target with “disintegrator guns” and “powerful nuclear bombs”.
The paragraph sums up with the following sentence:
“This is just an idea of all the wonderful things you can do with your sensational new Space Ship. Sturdily constructed of fiberboard, it will bring you more fun and adventure than you’ve ever known.”

First off, this thing apparently comes equipped with actual disintegrator guns and nuclear bombs. That’s pretty advanced equipment for a pre-teen space cadet to handle. Secondly, it’s supposed to bring the buyer more fun and adventure than they’ve ever known. I call that exaggeration. Not to mention breeding war mongers.

The message: Killing is fun, and for only $4.98 you can assemble a rocket from fiberboard (glorified cardboard) that will actually fly you and your friend in to space where you can nuke aliens, and in turn this will make you happier than anything else possibly could.

I guess they could get away with this since the title uses quotes around the word rocket. It’s a real space ship , but a fake rocket.

This is just one of the cheap toys the Honor House Products Corporation advertised and sold. Among the others were submarines, log cabins and tanks… all made of cardboard. Fun!


According to one testimonial from a man who purchased this toy when he was a young boy, the sub fell apart easily and the missiles, which were made of plastic, were launched through a cardboard tube with a rubber-band. He also claimed that the actual product looked absolutely nothing like the illustration. He described the toy as a cardboard box painted to look like a sub. No doubt the same could be said about the space ship, log cabin and tank.

X-Ray Glasses!

x-ray glasses

This is a particularly interesting toy, and by far my favorite ad due to the text. Here’s what it says incase you can’t make it out:

Hilarious optical illusion! Scientific principle always works! With these X-Ray Specs you apparently see through flesh and peek at the bones underneath! Apparently see through clothing – and “embarrass” friends – they’ll BEG TO TRY IT FOR THEMSELVES! Be the most popular at work / school – BE THE LIFE OF THE PARTY! You also get funny tricks and amazing illusions to perform for your friends! Only $1.50 plus .50 postage & handling.

Now that’s good stuff. I guess advertisers can easily cover their tracks by adding the word “Apparently”. The sad thing is, this ad is from a 1987 comic book!

Where are they now?

What happened to the mail order companies of the ’50s such as Honor House Products, Helen of Toy and Norton Products (no, not the virus people)? Simply put: no one knows. I have done some rather intensive research in to this and haven’t been able to get any information. I have even emailed comic book companies and asked if they have any back information on the matter, and they don’t.
Most likely these companies folded as soon as people realized the garbage they were pumping out.

Mail order toy companies still exist, but they seem to be a little more forward and honest with what you get.

Does deceptive advertising still exist in comic books?

Sensational promises of space flights and overnight muscles have fallen by the wayside. However, there is no doubt that deceptive, unfair or exaggerated advertising still exists, even in comic books. Unfortunately advertisers are able to sneak it in without textual descriptions. Instead they use more impressionable images to get the job done. Visuals in advertising are meant to suck the viewer in and lead them through a series of strategically placed elements used to sell him or her on the product in question.
Advertising is more rampant in today’s comics than those of the past. The ads are more effective, and if anything more deceptive since they accomplish their purpose in a non-forward way, using tried and true legal techniques to “guide” the target to a purchase.

Adults aren’t immune to the affects of advertising, however children are more susceptible and impressionable, and this is the main audience that comic book advertisers tend to target.

Regardless of the underhanded tricks the old ’50s advertisements used, they are still fun to look at and enhance the nostalgic value of old comic books.

36 responses to “False advertising in comics”

  1. Oh that brought back memories. I can remember the sea creatures. I wanted them so bad! They were drawn with little faces on them and it looked like a little family living in a fishbowl. I figured I could look at them all day. Never got them. It’s just as well. Those little faces were so cute – I would have been traumatized, I’m sure, by the real thing.

  2. Weren’t they called Sea Monkeys? They came in a dried state: just add water and instant sea monkey family. Something like that. What were they in reality?

  3. Yeah – that’s it. I’d forgotten. Sea Monkeys. I wonder what they were really like. I did get a Winky Dink screen once. It was sheet of thick plastic that you put over your TV (pre-colour) and you’d color in a puzzzle and find out the secret message on the “Winky Dink and Me” show. Unfortunately, one time I forgot to put on the plastic before colouring . . .

  4. The writers of South Park hit upon this one as an episode idea, changing the name of the “sea monkeys” to “sea men” with hilarious, if predictable, consequences.

    They were surprisingly accurate in their illustration of the aforementioned monkeys which look like little more than minute shrimp. The fact that their movement is (just) perceivable is, I’m sure, the only thing that lends the advertiser the right to claim they are alive at all.

  5. This reminds me of an old episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete, in which little Pete saves all his money or box tops or something to get a jet pack he saw in an ad (I think in a comic book.) The jet pack turns out to be a leaf blower.

  6. The Adventures of Pete & Pete is one of the greatest shows ever made! Unfortunately I don’t think I’ve ever seen that episode, sounds like a good one though.

  7. Hey, looks like they’re still around!

    Honor House Prods Corporation
    35 Wilbur Street
    Lynbrook, NY (New York) 11563-2358
    Phone: (516) 593-7170

    There is also a biotech firm called Advance Biofactures Corp. at that address, and the Google Satellite photo shows a warehouse. Probably full of carboard subs.

  8. Wendell: Good find. Honor House is obviously a secret government corporation bent on world domination working under the guise of a cardboard submarine manufacturer.

  9. I don’t remember the outfit that sold these, but I remember sending away for a “Lincoln Log Cabin”. I recall thinking that it would certainly be too big to be mailed, so I would get excited whenever I saw a UPS or other delivery truck come down my block. After what seemed like an eternity, I received an over-stuffed envelope in the mail. To my utter disappointment, it contained a sheet of plastic with windows, a door, and “logs” printed on it that you were supposed to drape over a card table.

  10. Don’t be dull!
    I had the rocketship. My dad put it together in no-time and I spent hours piloting myself thru space.

    I remember sitting in my ‘ship’ eating mom’s dinners while watching George Reeves as Superman. What more could a seven year old ask for?

    What the kid needed to add was a large dose of imagination. I had in in droves.

  11. I first came across some of my old comics and started to thumb through them,When I found myself into this advertisement.It was for Honor Products,and decided to “Google” it,Well,Here I am.Thanks for the info!

  12. I always wanted that submarine, though even as a kid I thought it was too good to be true and never sent away for it.

    I think I would have been extremely happy, though if I had been able to get anything that even looked like the sub in the picture, even if it was made out of cardboard. Let’s face it, it is a prop for your imagination!

  13. “Most likely these companies folded as soon as people realized the garbage they were pumping out.”

    The article mentions that these companies are from the fifties through at least 1987. I know the submarine ad appeared in comics at least as late as 1968. So it actually took around 20 years or more for people to realize that this stuff was garbage.

  14. I saw the ads when I was a child and spent more hours imagining what they would be like to play with them than actually send for them. I had ours of fun imagining how these items would work and if I could possibly make something similar without the expense. I did make a log cabin out of boards, two by fours and the cull log planks. My “real” fort was far better than the mail-order fort. The sea monkeys were actually brine shrimp that would be placed in salted water to hatch. The x-ray glasses worked far better in my imagination than the actual glasses which my friend sent away for. The “Spud gun” by the way actually worked very well. I was able to buy one at a local store and it was great fun. You stuck the sharp point of the gun in the potato which cut a small plug. The gun would be pumped up like an air rifle and the trigger would release the plug at great speeds. Usually just enough force to annoy the milk man and the mail man. My favorite was the miniature secret camera. Basically a cheap plastic camera like the disposables today. Ah memories.

  15. I don’t know if anyone remembers this or not but they also advertised “pen pals” in the older books. It was some kinda match maker for nerds. I wasn’t inclined to write any of those strangers, but I did feel sorry for some of them.

  16. I needed to contact the company because of work, so I called the number above. Turns out Honor House sold to David Geller Associates many years ago. That number is (212) 455-0100.

  17. I was just thinking about HONOR HOUSE today. About 28 years ago, I ordered some simple novelty items (around 15.00 worth, a tidy sum at the time, probably the equivilent of 35.00 bucks USD today) of some novelty items that never showed up. It was just simple stuff that you can find in the toy section of a grocery aisle now. No big deal. Since it was one of the few times that I’ve lost money ordering through the mail, it sticks in my memory to this day. Also, the party I went to might have been a little more fun if I’d had the stuff!

  18. BethB:
    Thanks for the info. I may give David Geller Associates a call and get more info on this.

    That’s horrible! I’d love to know if they actually ripped you off or the items were just lost. What items did you order?

  19. At the risk of making HONOR HOUSE look good (trust me, they weren’t), I actually ordered TWO items from these scoundrels, and after waiting for months for something, my mother wrote a very strongly worded, threatening letter to them. Lo and behold, I got my stuff! The “rocket ship” bore a slight resemblance to the ad and was quite flimsy, but guess what? I was a young, fledgling cardboard engineer in the 60s (made my own “Jimmy Jet” from cardboard), so I did some taping here and some bridging there, and whoopee! I made the “rocket ship” work! It had a rectangular hole in the bottom, and you got in through the “hatch” and pulled it up onto your waist. You could then pretend to “fly” all over the living room and down the hall while also pretending that your legs were inside. It was fun! Flimsy, but fun! Same of the “frontier cabin” that was poly thinner than a garbage bag, with “log walls” printed on it and a couple of folding cardboard peaks to hold the “roof” up over a card table. But it was there that I founded the “Buzzards Club,” and another household legend was made! The stuff actually sucked by modern standards and took forever to get in the mail, but made memories that remain with me even today. Damn them and bless them all at the same time — the dishonorable HONOR HOUSE!

  20. I had the Tank. “Imagine the look on your friends faces when you roll down their street in your very own tank”. Yup, I got sucked in at about seven years old too. And you know what? It was great (and for only $4.98 too!)! I waited for weeks to get that thing (yeah, it was laminated cardboard with the image of a tank printed on it) and my imagination went wild. I was so surprised too, when it arrived by U.S. mail in a flat box (how could that be?), It was a blast though as I always enjoyed cardboard boxs somehow anyway.
    I ran around the neighborhood with that thing “on” until we ended up doing a huge “dogpile” (I think with me in it) on it. What a blast….what great memories.
    p.s. I had the X-Ray Specs too (you could “look through peoples clothing”). I even checked out the “skeleton” on a cement block.

  21. I had one of those rocket ships and it was the best toy I ever owned. It was made out of good old fashioned die cut cardboard and was red with silver trim. Its gone now and I will just, I guess, have to make do with weak substitutes (my two restored AC Cobras and my five live in, willing and eager bathing suit model love slaves) instead of it for the rest of my life. And on the other side of the instructions to put it together was a real star map. And it would almost hold two kids. And you could hide in it from your sister. And…………………………

  22. I had the Tank also, however, I was somewhat diappointed when they didn’t roll it off the back of the truck. But, again, it wound up to be one of my favorite toys and boyhood memories. If I could find one today on e-bay, I would probably be suckered in again. I found an almost complete Rocket Ship. I think they wanted $400. Alos had the minature camera and the plastic “flat” soldiers. I loved the Honor House junk!

  23. I had the sub. I really suffered with the excitement of waiting for that thing. When it arrived in a flat box I was crushed! I really expected it to be just like the picture. Still played with it though…

    Here’s a guy that wrote a web page about it. He could have read my mind.


    Maybe it’s not too late for a class action suit.

  24. I remember many of these things from way back when I was a kid in the 60’s. For me there is a certain charm to the ads and I have a different tact from those who think these things were some sort of grand evil. In fact I rather resent a government which tries to protect everybody from everything. Yes the ads were hokey and overblown — the sort of thing kids learn from as many of the testimonials here demonstrate. Myself, I remember wondering about those X-Ray glasses. Could I really be like Superman and see through things? For that one all I had to do was ask my Mom and I got a little wiser. Many of these items (or clones of them) could be seen in drugstores and such on the novelty racks with things like onion gum, squirt lighters, insult cards, joy buzzers, trick black soap et.c etc.). A kid could see they were cheaply made. A kid learns you simply don’t get great and marvelous earth-shaking wonders for $1.98. Still, even when some degree of savvy has been obtained (a good thing), there still remains a charm to these ads. There was for me and I am sorry to see these guys go by the wayside. Many of the testimonials here indicate to me that they added to great childhood memories despite some disappointments. I miss this stuff.

  25. All I know is I bought the Helen of Toy sets and loved them–TASK FORCE turned out to be such a great toy that I eventually bought a set decades later when I was an adult. I sometimes credit Tank Trap and Task Force for making me into a professional game designer.

  26. i had a few of those old comic ad toys that i ordered as a kid. as a matter of fact i bought the stuff with money i made from selling seeds and greeting cards that i ordered from the backs of comic books. irony? lol. but i cant express any dissapointment. this medium stimulated the imagination, and the companies that sold through them sold childhood dreams. i think the memories that they gave were fare more valuable than the products they actually delivered. hey! its childhood a time in your life when dreams are everything. an old brick becomes a borge ship from another universe or an old clinker from a coal furnace becomes an unstoppable asteroid from space 5 bucks cant buy that kindda stuff today… 🙂

  27. regarding the polaris sub for years it has baffled me as i have seen one exactly like the one depicted in the picture from the ad. my neighbor had one his mother never said where she got it as it was used when she got it, the tail end was missing. it was red about six feet long i would guess at about 3 1/2 feed in diameter. it accomadated two kids and made of what looked to me at the time of fiber glass or an acrylic (plastic to my mind at the time) coated cardboard. it wasnt too heavy but wasnt light either it was constructed in sections which fitted together like pipe. it had a bench style seat made i guess of plastic i remember it wasnt metal, and it wasnt wood. it served i guess as a crossbracing for the center section. it had a control panel inside with leavers and buttons and lights which worked with 4 or so d-cell batteries, a red pariscope which was unimpressive it was like many of the ones sold in stores during that era. it fired plastic torpedos using a spring mechanism. the missel section was there but the missels were not nore the mechanism for firing them. it was far from flimsy. this was late sixties around 69, after a few years the neighborhood kids cannabalized it for other things only the nose cone survived which his dog used for a shelter. it sat out in the elements for over ten years. i remember visiting his house in mid-eighties and it was still sitting out there in the yard. the red color had faded terribly revealing a white blotchy color underneath similar to a half sucked peppermint candy. the core was definitly somekind of heavy cardboard. i tried to lift it but it seemed to have embeded itself into the soil by suction-vacuum. has anyone else seen this particular version of the polaris submarine? or was it a one of a kind made by the father of a dissapointed kid? this sub has perplexed me for 40 years. i wasnt dissapointed with the one i recieved in the mail but my friends mother out did me and it didnt even come marked c.o.d.! no one else that i have met who owned the polaris has ever had nor seem anything like the one i am describing. so my question is where did it come from? was it sold in stores? cudos to the heroic dad if that was case. that thing was incredible and i think every kid who wanted what they saw in the ad back in 69-74 would have loved to have recieved A’s submarine.

  28. The Johnson Smith Company morphed into the folks that turn out the “Things You Never Existed” , ” Clever Gear”, ” The Lighter Side” and “HalloweenOnly.Com” catalogs. Honor House and Helen of Toy disappeared. The cardboard tank was cool.

  29. Appreciating the hard work you put into your site and in depth information you provide. It’s great to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same out of date rehashed information. Wonderful read! I’ve bookmarked your site and I’m adding your RSS feeds to my Google account.

  30. Hey guys !!! None of you sent away for the Atomic Smoke Bomb ???
    They were great – and what smoke they made !!!

  31. This gave me closure on over forty years of wondering, the submarine in particular was something i badly wanted. I don’t think we ever saw a US dollar except on (black & white) TV, so there was no chance of sending off for one.

    Really grateful for letting us all know the truth of the situation.

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