Spooky Spokes-King

September 15, 2017 — Today, Stephen King is a bigger cultural force than he's ever been. This year alone, we have IT, Castle Rock, The Mist, the Dark Tower, Gerald’s Game, and Mr. Mercedes—all shows and movies based on his work. And I’m probably missing others and that’s in addition to the books he came out with this year, Sleeping Beauties and Gwendy’s Button Box. But, honestly, that dude’s always been a consistent cultural force. The only thing that’s really changed is that these days way more studios are making way more content for way more outlets. And way more content is what Stephen King does best.

Personally, I like him most as spokesperson for the horror genre, whether that’s in his essays and book introductions or in his interviews or the few times he’s jumped in front of a camera as a pitchman. And that latter’s what I want to talk about here. Because it’s only happened a few times.

Stephen King never adopted a spooky persona that advertisers could really capitalize on. He’s always come off as a laid-back, everyday guy who likes baseball and dogs and just happens to have a typewriter full of monsters. Compare that to, say, Vincent Price, whose work as a creepy product pitchman almost rivals his horror movie resume. Or Elvira, who has shilled everything from beer to Blockbuster during the Halloween season.

And while King doesn’t cackle maniacally or pair goth wigs with ghostly cleavage, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t tried here and there to be the twisted weirdo people want him to be. To the YouTube.

In 1985, Stephen King did a couple of American Express Card commercials as part of the wildly successful “Don’t Leave Home Without it” campaign. This is the closest I’ve seen to him embracing a persona to match his literary output. That plus American Express’s advertising budget for a haunted house set makes for exactly the kind of commercials I want in October. But you can kind of tell it’s an act for King. He’s not entirely comfortable holding a candle while walking down long, dark halls or disappearing behind a secret, fog-filled passage. Although from him, “Don’t leave home without it” does take on a more sinister meaning.

King has had about 1.2 million movies come out based on his work, but only one time that I know of did he do a commercial for one. That would be the 1986 Maximum Overdrive, a story about machines coming to life and attacking humans. We know it these days mostly for the Green Goblin-grilled semi-truck that was the face of these mechanical bad guys without faces. But why is Stephen King pushing this movie during breaks in ALF? Because Maximum Overdrive represents King’s solo directorial effort. Apparently, it didn’t go well and the movie didn’t turn out great, and he never tried again. But we got this promo out of it. I love how he tries to be spooky while wearing a blue plaid shirt with rolled-up sleeves. This feels much closer to King’s brand than the American Express campaign. I also love the fact that he shivs every movie based on his work to date with an “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.”

Here’s a PSA King did for libraries in 1992. This commercial seems the most King of the three. He’s a little goofy, a little earnest, dressed like he works as an editor at a science journal, and only throws mild sops to his spooky oeuvre to please the people who hired him.

This commercial for IBM’s Watson came out last year, and shows Stephen King as the elder horror and culture statesmen he has become. No goofiness, some nice threads, a good bit of bemusement. The commercial is completely in IBM’s brand as opposed to King’s. Very clean and corporate. Makes me wish Watson's and King's conversation had been held on that American Express set.

Basically, this guy always just comes off as likable and I wish he’d done more commercials over the years. You’ll make me way happy if you can point me to any I missed.

UPDATE: We've found another one thanks to Brian Milhorn on the OTIS Facebook Page. Here we have a 2008 ESPN SportsCenter commercial. It's part of their "This is SportsCenter" campaign that ran for an astounding 25 years (just ended this year, actually) and pretends to show the behind-the-scenes of the show in a kind of mockumentary style. This is the only real comedic commercial in the bunch, and with King's love of baseball and Sport Center's need for writers, it's kind of a perfect fit. Like most of the ads in this campaign, it fells kind of like they wrote the spot on the spot. All King really had to do was hang out in a cubicle and throw stuff in the trash, a fate that Carrie saved him from so many decades ago.