Remember the days when our TVs were overloaded with commercials about everything from chips and fast-food chains to bubble gum and Listerine. While most of us have switched to commercial-free streaming services, some of our favorite actors in the shows we watch might not have become famous without the help of those old-school commercials.
Some celebrities begin their careers selling Pampers and end up advertising Depends when they retire. While most of us avoid commercials at all costs now, the good news is, whether it’s hawking dish soap or expanding on the wonders of Castor motor oil, these celebrities’ slightly embarrassing moments are never more than a click away.
Leonardo DiCaprio – Bubble Yum
While most people think Leonardo DiCaprio got his start in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape or Growing Pains, the Academy Award-winning actor actually broke into the acting world through the small screen. The Wolf of Wall Street star preferred attending auditions instead of going to school and often misbehaved on sets.
Although DiCaprio was once removed from the set of a children’s show, he had undeniable talent in front of the camera. In the late ’80s, young DiCaprio starred in various commercials for things like Bubble Yum, Matchbox cars, and Apple Jacks. Although he was a teenager, his baby face helped him get younger roles.
Ryan Reynolds – Push Pops
Long before he was one of our favorite Canadian heartthrobs or the hilarious Deadpool, Ryan Reynolds was donning baggy ‘90s clothes while licking five Push Pops at once and dancing around to a funky rap. He might have only been in the commercial for a second, but you can recognize that face anywhere.
Reynolds got his first acting job playing Billy Simpson in the teen soap opera Fifteen. He also had a recurring role in the fantasy series The Odyssey. However, we will never be able to unsee Reynolds jamming out to the lyrics, “You gotta be hip to the pop.”
Mila Kunis – Lisa Frank
There is nothing more synonymous with the late-‘80s and early-‘90s than tween girls’ love for all things Lisa Frank. You didn’t have cool school supplies unless they were by Lisa Frank, and if you grew up watching the commercials and begging your parents to get the latest colorful items, then you might have spotted young Mila Kunis.
The actress started acting classes at nine years old and quickly grabbed commercial parts. At 13, Kunis promoted Lisa Frank school supplies and accessories. She might have looked like a child, but it was just two years before she started playing Jackie on That ‘70s Show.
Brad Pitt – Pringles
After getting minor acting roles in shows like Dallas and 21 Jump Street, 26-year-old Brad Pitt landed a Pringles campaign in 1989. He played a shirtless guy whose car breaks down. Luckily, Pitt and his fellow shirtless bros find a group of girls with Pringles − because those fix everything.
They have a party, their car gets fixed, the boys drive away, leaving the girls without Pringles. It was a strange commercial, but that was advertising in the ‘80s. Luckily, Pitt went on to play Academy Award-winning roles, but we will never forget his shirtless surfer bro Pringles-loving character.
Keanu Reeves – Coca-Cola
Keanu Reeves was born into a life of performing. His mother worked as a costume designer, and her partners ranged from Hollywood producers to music promoters, making Reeves want to pursue an acting career. The Matrix shot him to stardom, but that’s not where he started.
In the early-‘80s, Reeves made his acting debut in an episode of Hangin’ In and landed some major TV ads, including a Coca-Cola commercial. He appeared as a cyclist in a race who is motivated by the thought of an ice-cold Coke at the finish line.
Amanda Bynes – Buncha Crunch
Most of us remember Amanda Bynes starring in spoof commercials on Nickelodeon’s All That. However, she was in real advertisements before starring on the skit show. Bynes began her career as a child actress starring in multiple stage productions and advertisements.
Bynes’ first professional acting gig was in a Buncha Crunch candy bar ad. The commercial looked like the ones she would later create on The Amanda Show. It was cheesy, but Bynes looked adorable as the Addams Family tune played with candy-themed lyrics.
Lindsay Lohan – Jell-O
Lindsay Lohan was only 12 when she starred in The Parent Trap, stealing the spotlight from her high-profile co-stars, Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson. She was already a natural in front of the camera because she was signed to Ford Modeling Agency at age three.
Lohan appeared in various national ad campaigns from when she was a toddler, including one for grape Jell-O. Alongside Bill Cosby, the young actress danced around with other kids showing how tasty grape Jell-O could be. Despite the efforts, it’s still the worst flavor.
Ben Affleck – Burger King
Everyone has to get their start somewhere, even Academy Award-winning actor Ben Affleck. One of his first breaks was in a 1989 Burger King commercial. The then-teenager delivers food to a woman who calls the wrong number, thinking he is a delivery boy.
Young Affleck picks up his car phone and leaves the woman’s food on her doorstep. Affleck then had a recurring role on the PBS series The Voyage of Mimi. From Burger King ads to playing DC’s Batman, Affleck has come a long way since the ‘80s.
Drew Barrymore – Pillsbury
Drew Barrymore has been acting practically since she came out of the womb. Performing was in her genes as her grandfather, John Barrymore, was a successful stage actor and silent film star. Barrymore’s parents were also actors. Therefore, it was only natural for her to go into the industry.
Before her iconic role in ET the Extra-Terrestrial, Barrymore’s life started on the small screen in commercials. A four-year-old Barrymore starred in a Pillsbury cookie dough ad, but her first commercials began when she was less than a year old.
Britney Spears – Maull’s
At 17, Britney Spears catapulted into the spotlight when she released her debut album “…Baby One More Time.” She became a global superstar overnight, but she had been in the acting and music industry long before she became a pop princess.
Spears started her performing career by singing in the church choir and taking dance and gymnastics classes. Her skills caught the eye of a talent agent who started getting her cast in commercials, including one for Maull’s barbecue sauce. Her commercial jobs led to her becoming a Mouseketeer.
Channing Tatum – Pepsi
The origins of Channing Tatum’s career have been widely discussed since he starred in Step Up. Tatum began his entertainment career as a stripper and ventured into other avenues through modeling for Abercrombie & Fitch. His agency also got him booked for TV campaigns.
In one Pepsi commercial, Tatum can be seen as a DJ at a party. He might not be the star of the ad, but young Tatum is as hot as ever. His small TV appearances led him to bigger and better roles, including 21 Jump Street.
Jodi Foster – Crest
Jodie Foster demonstrated talent from an early age. Her mom saw Foster’s potential and got her into acting by the time she was three. While people mainly know Foster from her later movie career, she started with TV commercials.
Foster’s first TV appearance was in a Coppertone commercial when she was three. That quickly led to other work in several Disney projects, ads, and TV spots, including a Crest commercial from 1968. Foster excitedly tells her dad and his golf buddies that she didn’t have cavities because of Crest.
Matt LeBlanc – Heinz
When Matt LeBlanc got the role of Joey Tribiani on Friends, he only had a few dollars in his bank account. He had been a struggling actor, much like his character, for years before getting his big break. One of his first acting jobs was in a Heinz commercial.
In 1987, he played a food-obsessed guy who sets up an elaborate trick to put Heinz on his hot dog. The commercial was silly, but there is nothing more enjoyable to watch than a young Matt LeBlanc.
Hilary Duff – Subway
Known for being the star of everyone’s favorite Disney show Lizzie McGuire, Hilary Duff got into show business at a young age. She started doing TV commercials after moving to California with her mom in 1993. Duff spent most of her childhood in ads, including a 1999 Subway commercial.
When Duff was ten, she achieved breakout success in Casper Meets Wendy and landed the role of Lizzie McGuire a few years later. Duff was destined to be a star with her looks and acting skills and made early-2000s TV iconic.
Heath Ledger – Chicken Treat
Unless you are a huge Heath Ledger fan, you might not know that he got his start acting in his home country of Australia. He had various roles before moving to the United States in hopes of expanding his career. Some of his earliest parts were in commercials.
Ledger starred in a commercial for the Australian fast-food chain Chicken Treat. He watched rotisserie chickens cook in the back of a restaurant with excitement. Ledger would soon become a teen heartthrob in 10 Things I Hate About You as Patrick Verona.
Kristen Stewart – Porsche
It only makes sense that Kristen Stewart became an actress because her dad, John Stewart, worked as a producer for Fox. Her mom, Jules Mann-Stewart, was also in the business. While Stewart imagined she would spend her career behind the camera, acting jobs rolled in quickly.
As a child, Stewart appeared in many TV commercials, including one for Porsche, where her dad drives her to school in the fancy car. Little did Stewart know that her future ride would be on the back of a vampire.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Pop-Tarts
Young Joseph Gordon-Levitt got his acting start after playing the Scarecrow in a stage production of The Wizard of Oz when he was four. After the show, he was approached by an agent, who signed him to do commercials for things like cereal and peanut butter.
In 1991, he encouraged a businessman to eat a couple of Pop-Tarts before heading out the door. His performance was so convincing that it made us want Pop-Tarts too. He was so adorable and grew up to be a terrific actor.
Kirsten Dunst – Trouble
Before Kirsten Dunst got her breakout role in Interview With the Vampire, alongside Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, she was a commercial actress. She starred in ads for board games like Trouble when she was just a few years old. Dunst is unrecognizable with a head of curly blonde hair.
Dunst would have her big break when she was 12. She became an iconic movie star in films like Bring It On and Spider-Man. Besides commercials, Dunst also worked as a model before she made her big-screen debut.
Selena Gomez – Joe’s Crab Shack
Before her days on Barney & Friends or Wizards of Waverly Place, Selena Gomez was the face of Joe’s Crab Shack. The 12-year-old actress can be seen snacking on some “scrumptious shrimp.” The adorable young star had a face for TV and movies, and people saw her potential.
Gomez would go on casting call after casting call, hoping to land a big role. Her big break finally came when she was noticed by Disney executives who cast her as Alex Russo in Wizards of Waverly Place.
Steve Carell – Brown’s Chicken
While he is a massive star today, it took Steve Carell a while to get his career off the ground. His big break only came when he starred in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. However, he was in the industry long before seeing his name in lights.
In 1989, Carell starred in a Brown’s Chicken commercial as a peppy employee. The much younger version of Carell probably didn’t imagine that he would be a household name and the star of one of the best mockumentary series on TV.
Bryan Cranston – Preparation H
Although he became one of the greatest actors of a generation playing Walter White, Bryan Cranston got his start in commercials. After graduating from college, the award-winning star was in Preparation H commercials throughout the 1980s.
It might not have been how he imagined spending the beginning of his acting career, but the commercial roles helped him gain smaller parts, leading to his big break and Malcolm in the Middle. Cranston probably isn’t embarrassed about his Preparation H commercials or the other ads.
Courteney Cox – Tampax
Less than a year after starring in Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” music video, Courteney Cox joined forces with Tampax to advertise the power of feeling clean. In the commercial, Cox reminds everyone that Tampax can “change the way you feel about your period.”
She looked like the classic woman of the ‘80s, with her leg warmers, hot pants, leggings, and a cropped haircut. Just a decade later, Cox finally got her big break playing Monica in Friends. If you look closely, you might find Tampax in Friends.
Morgan Freeman – Listerine
It’s hard to compare anyone to Morgan Freeman because he is the closest thing Hollywood has to God. However, even actors like Freeman have to work their way up the ladder in Hollywood. In 1979, Freeman was already working as an actor and took roles regularly.
He had not yet broken out into superstardom, so he took some commercial roles. You can see Freeman in a 1979 Listerine ad. He plays a construction worker who needs to keep his breath minty fresh because he is close to people who can smell his breath.
John Travolta – Band Aids
In the early-‘70s, there was a brief period when John Travolta made his living out of singing in the shower with men. While it might sound strange, he starred in a few athletic-themed commercials, one for Safeguard and the other for Band Aids.
Travolta was featured in the commercials smiling and enjoying a well-deserved shower with his teammates after a game. Luckily, he found fame in Grease in the late-‘70s and never had to do a bizarre commercial again. Once he became an international star, Travolta never looked back.
Farrah Fawcett – Noxema
Like countless other actresses, the late Farrah Fawcett was discovered by a Hollywood publicist who saw her photo in a magazine and urged her to move to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, after she moved, it took many years for her to receive the call about Charlie’s Angels.
While she waited, Fawcett worked in commercials. It was some of the only work she could find, and she worked for many different brands. Fawcett was seen in an Ultra Brite Toothpaste ad and in a Noxema commercial with Joe Namath.
Dakota Fanning – Tide
She was just a child when she starred opposite Robert DeNiro in Hide and Seek, but Dakota Fanning had already acted regularly before that. She attended a kids’ playhouse where children put on plays each week. Fanning immediately stood out, and her parents took her to auditions.
Within a few weeks of arriving in Los Angeles, five-year-old Fanning beat out countless other children for a starring role in a national Tide commercial. It didn’t take long for her career to skyrocket after that. She starred in some of the most popular films.
Tobey Maguire – Doritos
He might be known for battling the Green Goblin as Spiderman, but Tobey Maguire considered becoming a professional chef. However, he took a drama class and booked his first role in a Doritos commercial while he was in eighth grade.
Maguire said he had to eat Doritos for four days in a row, and after that, he vowed to never eat Doritos again. Maybe his love of cooking came in handy after he finished the shoot and wanted to eat anything but Doritos. We wonder what Maguire’s culinary specialty was.
Tom Selleck – Pepsi
After a few failed appearances on The Dating Game in the late-‘60s, Tom Selleck turned to commercials until he got his big break. The Magnum PI star never shied away from any role he was offered in film or on TV.
Selleck starred in six failed pilots before Magnum. Therefore, he had to supplement his income if he wanted to keep acting. He appeared in commercials for Pepsi and Close-Up Toothpaste. Selleck eventually made it big and no longer had to be in commercials.
Tina Fey – Mutual Savings Bank
Back in the mid-‘90s, Tina Fey was still trying to make it into the world of acting. She hadn’t yet gotten a spot on Saturday Night Live, and she was still finding her way in Hollywood. In the meantime, Fey took jobs in commercials like a 1995 ad for Mutual Savings Bank.
Fey shows off her Liz Lemon levels of awkwardness. The commercial called for some genuine floundering, and she was a natural. Fey’s background showed she was a natural in front of the camera long before she landed 30 Rock.
Mark Ruffalo – Clearasil
Before he battled villains as the Hulk in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Mark Ruffalo battled acne with Clearasil in a 1989 commercial. The stakes weren’t as high as universally threatening bad guys, but breakouts can feel like a Thanos-grade threat.
If you watch his 30-second ad, you can see Ruffalo’s emotional range that would propel him to stardom. He goes through an emotional rollercoaster as he deals with a breakout that could ruin his entire day. We can all relate to feeling upset about acne.
Jeremy Renner – Kodak
While sporting the perfectly long ‘90s hairstyle, Jeremy Renner had to face an alien invasion in a 1996 Kodak commercial long before he took on extraterrestrials in the MCU. In the mid-‘90s, The X-Files was huge, and every company used alien-related themes to push their products.
Thinking that aliens were in outer space was just as common as transferring your photos to a CD. Who would have thought that the guy in the Kodak commercials would become one of the Avengers a decade later? We bet Renner didn’t imagine that for himself.
Paul Rudd – Nintendo
Ant-Man star Paul Rudd once brought his dorky yet loveable charm to an intense 1991 Super Nintendo commercial. With his floppy ‘90s hair, he stepped into the world of gaming. Rudd played all the hottest games wearing a long trench coat in front of a projector screen.
The commercial said, “When you decided to step up to this kind of power, this kind of challenge, this kind of flying, rushing feeling, when you decided to get serious, there’s only one place to come.” It seriously could have been a line from any Marvel movie.
Aaron Paul – Corn Pops
Like Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul also got his start in commercials. In a 1999 commercial for Corn Pops, Paul’s character eats a delicious bowl of the beloved breakfast cereal as his parents watch. He looked like the average kid who loved having a bowl of cereal before school.
Aaron Paul would later become one of the biggest stars in films like El Camino and shows like BoJack Horseman and Breaking Bad. He has won several awards and is a highly regarded actor. Is there anything Aaron Paul can’t do?
Salma Hayek – Burger Boy
In the ‘80s, Salma Hayek was beginning her career as an actress in Mexico. Her first major TV appearance was promoting the chain Burger Boy. They say sex sells, and she made a lot of people want to go to Burger Boy.
Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you can see she’s having fun. And why wouldn’t Hayek be? She’s wearing a cape and sweatband. The commercial got her noticed by producers, and she began acting in telenovelas. Hayek overcame a lot to become the actress she is today.
Stanley Tucci – Levi’s
Remember the creepy serial killer in The Lovely Bones? Yes, that was Stanley Tucci. Before he was scaring us in the supernatural thriller or helping Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada, Tucci was in a memorable ‘80s Levi’s commercial.
Once we saw this, we couldn’t stop thinking about how good Tucci looks in his white tank top and jeans. The ad was like the ‘80s version of a “thirst trap.” Tucci was ready to be in front of the camera with a body like that.
Wesley Snipes – Levi’s
If you wanted to make it big in Hollywood in the ‘80s, the key was to star in a Levi’s campaign. Like Tucci, Wesley Snipes donned some figure-hugging Levi’s 501 jeans, a striped sweater, a hat, and his charming smile that was just as captivating.
Snipes went on to make his film debut in 1986 with Goldie Hawn and appeared in Michael Jackson’s music video for “Bad.” Although he only had a small part in the Levi’s commercial, his camera presence was enough to get him noticed in Hollywood.
Jason Bateman – Golden Grahams
Depending on which decade you were born in, you might know Jason Bateman from Silver Spoons, Arrested Development, or Ozark. If you are from the Silver Spoons era, then you probably saw the young actor in a 1980 commercial for Golden Grahams.
Sometimes it is hard to find a young actor who can be convincing in a commercial, but Bateman truly sold the delicious honey graham taste. His tremendous acting skills from an early age must have been why he became such a successful star.
Seth Green – Nerf
There’s a lot going on in this classic 1990s ad for Nerf, starting with Seth Green’s bizarre hair swoop. There’s also his weird accent when he says, “Allow us to demonstrate ‘propah’ usage while you frolic.” This commercial is the perfect time capsule for the ‘90s.
Nerf ruled the decade, and Green made the most of it. He had already been in a few movies and TV shows, but the commercial showcased his comedic skills. We will never be able to unsee this truly chaotic commercial.
Elijah Wood – Cheese
Milk wasn’t the only dairy product to have its own national campaign. Before the “Got Milk” ads took the country by storm, dairy farmers pushed cheese in the early ‘90s. A young Elijah Wood tested his acting skills to help everyone get on board with buying more cheese.
In the campaign, Wood preferred his broccoli with melted cheddar. The thought was that cheese could help everyone like vegetables because “Cheese Makes All the Difference.” It might not have been as captivating as his Lord of the Rings performance, but he had to start somewhere.
Bruce Willis – Seagram’s
Back in 1987, Bruce Willis signed a two-year contract with Seagram’s to promote their line of wine coolers for about $7 million. It was a large contract for the time, but Willis was popular because of his stint on Moonlighting. It just proves he was always a hunk.
If you watch the commercial, you will have the song stuck in your head for the rest of the day. He also filmed a commercial for the wine coolers while singing on a porch with Sharon Stone. It was definitely a sight to see.
Elisabeth Moss – Excedrin
Throughout her career, Elisabeth Moss has taken on some intense roles, including her part in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. However, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t taken on some simpler roles. Moss might have been acting since the early ‘90s, but her 2005 Excedrin commercial got her noticed.
Her performance might cure your headaches because there is something about her straightforward delivery. It’s actually kind of calming, and it was a performance any of her co-stars would approve of. It might have been Moss’s last mild acting part.
Sarah Michelle Gellar – Burger King
Sarah Michelle Gellar rose to superstardom when she starred in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but her acting career goes way back. When she was just a child, Gellar educated consumers about how Burger King is the superior fast-food chain.
Gellar showed a hand-drawn diagram about why Burger King is better than McDonald’s with her two little bows and overalls. It’s hard to focus on what Gellar is talking about because she is too adorable. You’ll have to watch it to understand what we are talking about.
Jennifer Lawrence – My Super Sweet 16
It’s hard to imagine the last decade of film and award shows without Jennifer Lawrence. Who else could have made tripping in front of millions of people look semi-graceful? However, before she was winning the Hunger Games or hanging with Meryl Streep, Lawrence was still an it-girl.
One of her first TV appearances was advertising an upcoming season of MTV’s My Super Sweet 16. She might not have been one of the bratty girls throwing a party, but she got to pretend to be one for the ad.
Sharon Stone – Finesse Shampoo
The natural beauty of Sharon Stone was perfect for the 1980s commercial for Finesse Shampoo. As she lathered and rinsed, Stone convincingly showed that the shampoo could give you luscious locks just like hers. Everyone wanted to have hair like Stone.
Her commercial days pre-dated her shocking performances in Basic Instinct and Casino. She also did a commercial with Bruce Willis for Seagram’s where they sang on a porch and drank wine coolers. Stone has come a long way since then, but she still has great hair.