Depressing 1950s Jell-O commercial

Lisa from Sociological Images came across this grim animated commercial from the 1950s for Jell-O. It shows a haggard woman on a treadmill being assaulted by symbols of her daily grind. The look on her face is one of pure despair. The female narrator seems to be taunting her. The plaintive harmonica tune that's playing is both sad and intentionally insipid. At the woman's blackest moment, she gets covered up by a black scrawl. (I wonder if UPA designed the commercial?)

All is cured, of course, once she buys a box of Jello-O instant pudding.



  1. Not sure how they got it to thicken in the Fifties, but here’s today’s ingredients.

    Sugar, Modified Food Starch, Contains less than 2% of Natural and Artificial Flavor, Salt, Disodium Phosphate and Tetrasodium Pyrophosphate (For Thickening), Mono- and Diglycerides (Prevent Foaming), Artificial Color, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Bha (Preservative).
    Tetrasodium pyrophosphate, also called sodium pyrophosphate or tetrasodium phosphate, is a slightly toxic and mildly irritating colorless transparent crystalline chemical compound with the formula Na4P2O7. It contains the pyrophosphate ion. Toxicity is approximately twice that of table salt when ingested orally.[1]. There is also a hydrated form, Na4P2O7.10(H2O).[2]

    Sodium pyrophosphate is used as a buffering agent, an emulsifier, and a thickening agent, and is often used as a food additive. Common foods containing sodium pyrophosphate include chicken nuggets, marshmallows, pudding, crab meat, imitation crab, canned tuna, and soy-based meat alternatives. It is the active ingredient in Bakewell, the substitute for baking powder’s acid component marketed during shortages in World War II.

    In toothpaste and dental floss, sodium pyrophosphate acts as a tartar control agent, serving to remove calcium and magnesium from saliva and thus preventing them from being deposited on teeth. Sodium pyrophosphate is sometimes used in household detergents to prevent similar deposition on clothing, but due to its phosphate content it causes eutrophication of water, promoting algae growth.

    Calcium pyrophosphate is the crystal deposited in joints in the medical condition pseudogout.[3]


  2. That’s quite a bit more depressing than the merry radio sound of Don Wilson doing the sponsor announcements for the Jell-O Program starring Jack Benny around the same time.. Stil, the animation reminds me of the old Tootsie Pops commercials:”How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? Ah-one, ah-two.. Crunch!”

  3. You laugh Mark, but I’m pretty sure a box of pudding would go a long way toward fixing the crappy and stressful day I am currently having.

  4. I think there are people out there who find out a scary fact about a product, then carry that fact around in a text file. They then google terms related to the product, Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V, and edit to taste.

    Now, the major theme of the article is the unhappy housewife. If the major theme were ingredients in food that are toxic by themselves and have a variety of uses, then we would give you and your wikipedia copy-paste a call.

    The toxicity only really comes into play when you ingest either 6 or 1.5 grams per KG you weigh (3g being the LD50 of salt) I don’t know how “Twice the toxicity of table salt” is calculated. I’ll assume it’s the smaller to make your panic look even sillier when I run through the numbers. At 1.5, you would have to ingest 120g if you weighed about 80kg, which, judging by the weight of the instant jello packages I have, would be about 3 cups… if instead of adding water, you replaced it with more tetrasodium pyrophosphate, and the package itself was nothing BUT tetrasodium pyrophosphate.

    If you assume that 10g of the roughly 80g package is tetrasodium pyrophosphate, that would mean that there would be 5g per cup of pudding. You would have to eat 60 cups of pudding. If the stuff permanently stayed in your system, that would be a dangerous amount. It probably doesn’t, I don’t know jack squat about the stuff.

    Now, as to the other places you find it… you know that human urine is about 95% water? and you drink water!? Ewwwwwww. Water is also found in the lungs of a person suffering from the medical condition known as drowning.

    There. Only Ctrl-V in there is tetrasodium pyrophosphate, because fuck if it isn’t annoying to type.

  5. Oh, crap. I made a cognitive error. It would be fatal if you used water instead of more Tetrasodium pyrophosphate. Bleh. Silly me. Still, that was just for emphasis, the rest of my point still stands.

  6. Sure it’s depressing, but it’s also nice to know television in the 1950s was willing to show how much work women had to do running a household back then.

  7. That fer sure is the voice of Rocky, June Foray, and the announcer from the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. So this must’ve come from the Jay Ward animation studios.

  8. The scariest part of the “debates’ like GammaBlog & Ghede’s is that the “audience” generally gets about 5% of the content, filtered by familiar sounding phrases, or what scared the specific audience member last, or typically just the summatory statements. The same industry that created the subject ad has unwittingly (God, I hope unwittingly) reduced people’s tolerance for debate and critical thinking. I despair. And also want pudding. Pistachio is pretty nice. Gotta go generic, though, as we’re boycotting Kraft (Jello’s parent company) for human rights abuses. Can’t remember why though. Oh well. The generic is cheaper! Can you make instant pudding with Soy milk?

  9. I cede the floor to Professor Finius J. Whoopie and his 3-dimensional blackboard.

    I haven’t had instant pudding since I was a kid.. Time to go get some I guess.

  10. i don’t care what you say, #4 — i had some jell-o pudding last night, and it was freakin’ awesome.

  11. I got the impression the female narrator was the woman’s internal monologue, what with the “Oh Herbert”.

    You guys are being unfair to Gammablog. He shows that sodium pyrophosphate is non-toxic, very useful, and different from the chemical that causes pseudogout. Then he says “yum!” and you all immediately assume it’s sarcastic?

  12. BMCRAEC, I don’t know any ‘natural’ food that thickens pudding-like without heating. Soy milk, arrowroot starch, maple syrup and vanilla extract make a nice pudding, but it must be heated to thicken, though less-so than if you used corn starch. That’s why my first reaction was to research what ingredient was used to make this then new miracle product, and harried housewife saver.

  13. I think very few commenters so far were alive in the fifties. The commercial is intensely information oriented because in the fifties everybody was MUCH better educated and preferred information to cutesy graphics.

    Also because tv was still considered sort of like radio with pictures. Ads were written voice first with pictures added later. (Did you notice the marvelous voice that accompanies the crummy cartoon? Everybody in radio and tv tried to sound exactly like Ed Herlihy.) Europe did not make such a transition, so European tv ads have always been much more visually oriented.

  14. @Gammablog. See, I thought you were being sarcastic with that Yum! Now I’m not so sure, and feel like a bit of an ass.

    I probably overreacted. Copy-pasting wikipedia and chemical-fear are two of my pet peeves.

  15. @Toothpicktower- Do you think that’s really June? I dunno, but then I don’t think I’ve heard her do such a straight “mom” voice before. Either way, she did voices for lots more than just Jay Ward Studios (Warner Bros. and UPA, off the top of my head) so there’s no guarantee. Besides, the animation doesn’t really look like Jay Ward stuff at all. The announcer? I don’t think he’s from Rocky & Bullwinkle, either, but I’ve been wrong before. :)

  16. GHEDE, no you were right, I do find the ingredients appalling, it hardly seems a food at all. I avoid such ‘foods’ on general principles, buying organic when possible, and preparing most meals from scratch. It’s a personal choice, you can ingest as much Tetrasodium Pyrophosphate as you like. I’m sure it will not kill you immediately (at least in the dosage found in the pudding)and probably it will do nothing at all. It’s just not for me. ;)

  17. The commercial is intensely information oriented because in the fifties everybody was MUCH better educated and preferred information to cutesy graphics.

    By your logic, people were still pretty smart, as late as the late 60’s … as evidenced by this commercial for SpaceFoodSticks, or this commercial for laundry detergent.

    Some might say, though, that your premise is false. Just watch an infomercial and tell me that these ads don’t give lots and lotsalmost too much — information, and yet they seem to appeal to the less educated.

  18. ARKIZZLE, that study did not address the pesticide issue. I prefer no pesticides on my salad, please.
    I’m not going to pay to read the article but I would guess that it did not deal with trace minerals. It is a review of other people’s studies. I would be interested to know who sponsored it and who spun the press release.

    Here’s the best summary I found:

  19. You should watch the Penn & Teller episode. The have some interesting info about pesticides, both the ones used in normal agriculture, and the ones used in organic farming.

    I’m not suggesting that P&T are the be-all-and-end-all of scientific research, but watch it :)

  20. Jewels Vern @22:

    I think very few commenters so far were alive in the fifties.

    Speak for yourself, tadpole.

    The commercial is intensely information oriented because in the fifties everybody was MUCH better educated and preferred information to cutesy graphics.

    No. They weren’t better educated, especially if you counted postsecondary education.

    The ratio you’re talking about isn’t information to graphics; it’s words to pictures. There were a number of reasons for the greater preponderance of words than we see in today’s ads.

    Television was new. So were the imaging and printing technologies that were gradually making it cheaper and easier to publish photos and illustrations in magazines and newspapers. Advertisers who were used to radio and to scantily illustrated print media were still inclined to think in terms of slogans and verbal arguments, and slow to take advantage of the visual possibilities of the form.

    Also, in some cases advertisers were better able to come up with arresting, memorable advertising claims because the government hadn’t yet regulated their ability to make false and misleading claims on behalf of their products.

    Dave Faris @28, that’s a bit of Hogan’s Heroes, a popular television show of the time, being used to advertise Jello. They couldn’t do that now.

  21. ARKIZZLE, I don’t see them addressing problems with organic pest control in that clip. Nor do they mention any problems with creating strains of proprietary plants that can be drenched in their proprietary weed killer without shriveling. Will we need an infusion of the proprietary gene that renders the plants immune?

    There are problems with organic vegetables, in as much as they are more likely to be contaminated with bacteria from manure fertilizer. I always wash my greens carefully, and pan steaming is my favorite way to eat them. Organic farming has gotten much more corporate in recent years. And non-organic shortcuts are sneaking in. Plus the quest for profit I’m sure tempts some to outright fraud. I do my best to sniff out the bullshit to my own satisfaction.

    If nothing else consider that the more organic, and hopefully local, farmers we support with our purchases the less polluted and depleted their particular plots of soil will be. This to the benefit of neighbors aquifers and the local friendly pollinators as well. Save the bees.

    I did not mean to hijack this thread to organic politics. I just thought the pudding ingredients would give a laugh.

  22. The political news these days makes me want to eat at least sixty cups of pudding.

    Chocolate pudding, and not the nasty instant stuff. I know how to boil things for cripes sake.

  23. Gamma, did you watch the other two parts to the episode?

    And I enjoyed your original post, as the fun it was intended :)

  24. ARKIZZLE, I was afraid of that, two more parts, gee. I was hoping to do something else with myself this afternoon. I’ll check them soon.

  25. Whoa, lighten up Gams.

    I don’t mind either way, it’s an entertaining show with some interesting questions mixed in. Just that.

  26. It’s funny having seen this video on boingboing, Jezebel, and Sociological Images. Yes, i follow all three. Now back to the funny part.
    I am a housewife, and no I don’t do nearly as much as the housewives did back then, but yesterday was a particularly busy day. By the time I got to dinner, I thought about dessert and brought out a box of instant pudding and I made a pie. Nothing awesome or worthy of accolades, but it was a pie after a home-cooked meal. If I had to do that from scratch, I would have been pooped (most likely I would NOT have done it from scratch).

    I have just become that woman in the ad.

  27. Sorry, that came off sarcastic, I though I was going for humor and self-deprecation, remarking on the amount of time I’ve used this afternoon expounding organic ad nauseum. Discussion to continue when I’ve seen the rest of the video.

  28. Well, this is bad enough, I guess, and has occasioned all kinds of comment, mostly analysis of the nefarious ingredients in that lil’ box o’ poison. BUT,
    here’s a ‘Jerro’ commercial from that era that’s sure to get y’all spun up! Let the righteous comments commence!

  29. DEVOPHILL – My thought processes were, “Boy I could swear on a stack ‘o Bibles that is the Rocky & Bullwinkle announcer” which I still think, then, “Wow that sure sounds like June Foray talking in a normal voice”, especially when you hear her say ‘Desert’ at the end, that sure sounds like Rocky. Then having arrived at a theory of course I try and make my data fit into it by thinking, “That sure looks like cheesy Jay Ward animation.” So I may be wrong about Jay Ward and June Foray. But that sure sound like the R&B announcer!

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