Lock of Ages: Masterlock and the Super Bowl

By Published on .

Grainy, alarming and exploiting the growing crime rates of the time, this Master Lock spot premiered on the seven-year-old Super Bowl in 1974. In it, "a high-powered sharpshooter" blows a hole in a No. 15 lock pinned to a target at a range—with the dramatic, tattered but still-intact results in slow-mo.

Five years before Mean Joe Greene made his charming jersey-throwing debut in a Coke spot and sports audiences became primed to watch the Super Bowl for that other game, the commercials, this extreme product demo from Milwaukee agency Cramer-Krasselt, which had a "Dirty Harry" vibe, connected with the American psyche. In various iterations of smashing the lock to smithereens, but not breaking it, the imagery (gun, target, bang) attracted serious buzz, becoming a perennial that audiences expected to see. Perhaps the repetition led to some psychological sense of feeling secure. Certainly, the gravelly voiced announcer fed on fear, telling viewers to buy the lock "if you want to hold on to what you've got." The
tagline didn't pull any punches either: "Tough under fire."

But by 1996, the dark, brooding spots looked out of step. Crime rates were down, and the use of sex, celebrities and stupid pet tricks dominated the Super Bowl ad lineup. Certainly, the conceit never really made sense in terms of protecting a family. Forget the rifle—weren't thieves more likely to have bolt cutters? Also, the peddling of paranoia hardly clicked with moms buying the increasingly neon-colored padlocks for kids to safeguard smelly gym clothes in a locker.

Still, in the mid-'70s, Master Lock marketers were smart enough to risk three-quarters of their annual ad budget on a $107,000 media buy, making it a big-game mainstay. Attention must be paid. Vengeance was theirs.

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