Rewind: Young Christopher Reeve Sells $10 Dress Shirts in 1974 J.C. Penney Ad

Before he was Superman, he was a Salesman

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As J.C. Penney makes moves to overhaul its ad strategy and logo to refocus on its roots, it feels fitting to, for this edition of Ad Age Rewind, revisit the spots that aired during the retailer's heyday in the 1970's.

The department store was incorporated in 1913, named for its founder James Cash Penney. What began as a local presence in Wyoming and Utah expanded rapidly, with 1,000 locations around the country within 15 years. Some may not be aware that an early employee was Sam Walton of Walmart fame. Still, J.C. Penney's peak didn't come until the end of Mr. Penney's life, with the launch of a catalog and broadening of merchandise to include auto parts, appliances and services like a photo center. As of 1973 it had more than 2,000 locations.

At about that time, J.C. Penney was prepping an ad blitz featuring a now very famous face. But back then he was just another young and handsome commercial actor.

Before he was cast in the dual role of Clark Kent and Superman, effectively launching his big-screen acting career, the late Christopher Reeve appeared in commercials. In this one for J.C. Penney he's shilling for dress shirts, extolling the virtues of the "silky smooth" polyester material. It's comical now, but of course polyester was all the rage during that era (see also the spot featuring actor Judd Hircsh below).

The rest of the pitch sees him wax poetic about a special collar that's soft yet stays in shape, and how's this for revolutionary: JC Penney's version of a dress shirt has seven buttons instead of six, so it doesn't pop open at the waist. If only at that time America knew that Reeve's signature move would become ripping apart a dress shirt to reveal a Superman costume underneath!

The big message Reeve is hammering home here is quality for a reasonable price. That focus on snagging a $10 shirt from J.C. Penney rather than more costly competitors likely has to do with the fact America was smack-dab in the middle of a recession brought on by a stock market crash.

"We know what you're looking for" was the store's tagline around this time, and marketing individual pieces of clothing and playing up the materials they were made from was common. Actor Judd Hirsch of "Taxi" and "Dear John" fame on TV, who later went on to star in films such as "Independence Day" and "A Beautiful Mind," also appeared in J.C. Penney ads in the 1970s. Here's one where he -- along with a couple of touchy-feely ghosts -- are pushing a pair of polyester pants. For more Ad Age Rewind, head here.

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