Whilst plenty of celebrities lend their faces to famous brands, the world of advertising has also kickstarted some of the most famous Hollywood careers. What’s more, many stars started out in adverts that were wildly different from the roles they enjoy today.
From military recruitment schemes to Clearasil face washes, here are 30 celebrities whose early days in advertising might surprise you.
Mark Ruffalo – Clearasil
Today, Mark Ruffalo is best known for playing that big guy with green skin, the Hulk. Years earlier, an early acting job for Ruffalo involved an altogether different skin issue, as he appeared in TV commercials for the anti-acne product Clearasil Double Clear. The 1989 ad sees the future star ‘zapping’ away zits on his face using the cleanser.
Recalling this first acting gig on the Jimmy Fallon show in 2016, Ruffalo revealed that the ad’s director handed him a rather backhanded compliment, informing the young newcomer, “I really really liked what you did because you just seem like you came right off the street, like you don’t know how to act at all.”
Elisabeth Moss – Excedrin migraine relief
Today, Elisabeth Moss is a hugely respected actress in film and TV. One of her earliest jobs included a 2002 TV commercial for Excedrin, the migraine relief medicine. Her talent truly does shine through in the advert – you’d be forgiven for thinking Moss was a legitimate migraine sufferer.
The ad was enduringly popular, and continued to earn Moss a decent salary while she looked for a more stable acting gig. She found such a gig in 2006 when she was cast as Peggy Olson in Mad Men, Moss’ breakout show. Since then, she’s made a huge impression in TV’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and on the big screen in The Invisible Man.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Pop-Tarts
After appearing in a local production of The Wizard of Oz at the age of four, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was scouted and encouraged to audition for various commercial jobs. His first job was on a Pop-Tarts commercial in 1991, which saw him make his on-screen father Pop-Tarts for breakfast.
The budding young actor also appeared in commercials for Sunny Jim peanut butter, Cocoa Puffs cereal, and Kinney Shoes. He really broke through in his teens with TV’s Third Rock from the Sun and roles in movies like 10 Things I Hate About You, paving the way to a varied and successful career in adulthood.
Morgan Freeman – Listerine
“The taste people hate” is a truly bizarre choice for a tagline – but then, the esteemed Morgan Freeman has the ability to make anything sound good. This 70s ad sees Freeman explain that the powerful Listerine taste gives him confidence that the product is working – which makes a lot of sense.
“You say you hate it but you keep on using it?” his baffled colleague asks. “Well, yeah! Think if it didn’t taste so strong, it wouldn’t be working,” Freeman responds. Freeman goes on to explain that the mouthwash has the power to kill germs that cause bad breath. It’s no surprise Freeman found success with commercial work – his warm, distinctive voice could sell anything.
Matt LeBlanc – Heinz Ketchup
Long before he was a household name for his catchphrase, “how you doin’?”, a pre-Friends Matt LeBlanc made one of his earliest TV appearances in a 1989 commercial for Heinz Tomato Ketchup. The ad cast LeBlanc as a hip youngster with a novel approach to getting ketchup on his hot dog: setting up a bottle on the roof of a building.
The ad saw LeBlanc casually make his way downstairs as the ketchup slowly oozed out of the bottle, right on time for him to catch the falling sauce on his freshly purchased hot dog – illustrating how ‘the best things come to those who wait.’ Quite how LeBlanc stopped the ketchup from pouring all over himself and other passers-by was never addressed.
Ben Affleck – Burger King
Ben Affleck may be an Oscar-winning screenwriter, prominent leading man and acclaimed director, but he too comes from humble beginnings. Affleck got his start in acting by playing a ‘delivery boy’ in an old Burger King commercial. The ad features Affleck receiving a call from a girl who has the wrong number.
She asks Affleck for a chef salad – and he obliges and picks one up for her, despite not actually being a Burger King employee. It’s implied that Affleck plans on introducing himself to the girl (there’s a shot of him preening in the car mirror). Unfortunately, he’s ultimately forced to leave the salad at the girl’s door when his dad calls and tells him to come home.
Leonardo DiCaprio – Bubble Yum
Leonardo DiCaprio is undoubtedly one of the best actors of modern times – whether he’s portraying a Wall Street stockbroker or loved-up Romeo, he always dazzles on screen. Before he was catapulted into the limelight, DiCaprio appeared in a number of low-key commercials. At 14, DiCaprio appeared in a Bubble Yum commercial in the late 80s, sporting his trademark floppy blonde hair.
He went on to appear in several other commercials, including one promoting Japanese Suzuki cars. He didn’t stop there: Leo also advertised Kraft cheese, Fred Meyer clothing, and Apple Jacks cereal. DiCaprio made his first big non-commercial breakthrough in 1990 when he was hugely praised for his performance in sitcom Parenthood.
Dakota Fanning – Tide
Dakota Fanning has been modelling and acting for most of her life (she actually began by attending a playhouse in Georgia where children put on weekly plays). It was immediately clear that Fanning had star potential, and her parents were encouraged to let her audition for bigger gigs in LA.
At just five years old, Fanning was cast in a Tide commercial. It was the first of many acting jobs for the young talent, who went on to become one of the most in-demand child actors of her generation, appearing in such movies as Man on Fire, War of the Worlds, Charlotte’s Web and the Twilight series.
Tobey Maguire – Atari Lynx
Long before he scaled skyscrapers as Spider-Man, a young Tobey Maguire was considering taking extra economics classes. However, his mother saw he had acting potential and offered him $100 if he took extra drama classes instead. Obviously, no kid could refuse that, so acting was indeed the path Maguire took.
One of his earliest roles was in a 1990 commercial for early handheld games console the Atari Lynx, in which Maguire is a proper little rebel and takes a bathroom break at school to play games. Sadly for Atari, this didn’t do much to boost sales and the Lynx was soon discontinued. Maguire, however, just kept going up in the world.
Farrah Fawcett – Schick dryers
Farrah Fawcett was one of the most renowned beauties of the 1970s, earning particular fame for her distinctive and widely imitated hair style. Small wonder, then, that Fawcett got one of her big breaks appearing in commercials and marketing for a line of hair dryers, Schick, which promised customers similar follicular miracles.
After making a splash as a model and a bit part actress, Fawcett became a superstar as one third of 70s television’s best loved female crimefighting team, Charlie’s Angels. Infamously, she then proceeded to quit the show after one season to pursue a movie star career, which proved a dismal failure.
Lindsay Lohan – Duncan Hines
Lindsay Lohan’s career may have slowed down in recent years, but back in the 90s she was extremely in-demand. If a commercial needed to feature a young, innocent-looking girl, Lohan was often the first port of call for any casting directors. Her first TV appearance was on a Duncan Hines cake commercial in 1993 when she was just seven years old.
Lohan was so determined to get the role that she told her mother she would quit acting for good if she didn’t get the job. Thankfully, she did secure the part. She went on to appear in over 60 TV commercials for big brands like Pizza Hut and Wendy’s, before breaking into film acting with the 1998 remake of Disney classic The Parent Trap.
Jennifer Lawrence – My Super Sweet Sixteen
Jennifer Lawrence shot to stardom in the early 2010s when she starred as Katniss in the Hunger Games series. Since then, she’s had a successful career and has been nominated for four Academy Awards, going on to win one in 2013. Her first paid job was way back in 2005, however, as she featured in a short promotional video for MTV’s series My Super Sweet Sixteen.
The video sees a disco ball smash into Lawrence’s birthday cake, splattering her and other partygoers with icing and sponge. Lawrence then throws a small tantrum, screaming and shouting like a true spoiled 16-year-old diva. It’s hard to imagine anyone on set that day thought they were in the company of a future Oscar winner!
Robert De Niro – The AMC Ambassador
Few people would disagree that Robert De Niro is a true legend among actors, with two Oscar wins to his name and a slew of the most powerful performances ever committed to film. Early on, however, ol’ Bobby took a very different, far gentler role to pay the bills, in an early 70s car commercial.
The ad for AMC’s Ambassador sees De Niro drive to his family home to show off his flash new wheels. He assures his mother that it was surprisingly affordable, then offers to take his parents for a spin in his new ride. It’s a far cry from that other role where De Niro gave people a ride, in Taxi Driver!
Jodie Foster – Crest
Jodie Foster has spent most of her life in front of a camera. She was one of the busiest child actors of the 70s, before going on to enjoy massive success in adulthood, with two Best Actress Oscars for The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs. Long before that, like so many others she found her first work in TV commercials.
Foster was only three years old when she made her first ever commercial for suntan lotion brand Coppertone. She’s more recognisable, however, in this later 1968 commercial for toothpaste brand Crest, running over to give her screen daddy a hug after he wins a game of golf.
John Travolta – US Army
Few actors have had so many professional highs and lows as John Travolta, who’s gone back and forth between acclaimed hits like Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction, to disasters like Battlefield Earth and Gotti. You won’t be surprised to learn his first major role was in a TV commercial, but you might not have expected it to be an ad for the US Army.
Produced in 1973 (when the Vietnam War was still raging), the commercial cast Travolta as a young solider, encouraging young people to join the Army. It might raise eyebrows that the ad promoted the salary of $288 per month as a particular incentive, showing Travolta’s character driving off in a sports car.
Paul Rudd – Super Nintendo
Those who believe Paul Rudd to be a vampire are given compelling evidence by the 1991 Super Nintendo commercial, in which actor (officially 21 at the time) looks basically the same as he does today. Rudd’s character stands transfixed as he plays SNES games F-Zero, Sim City and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past at an abandoned drive-in movie theatre.
Rudd ends up drawing a crowd of fascinated onlookers who similarly appear enthralled by the games. The ad proudly claimed that “no one else creates this kind of experience, because no one else creates these kinds of games.” That no doubt came as a kick in the teeth to Sega, Nintendo’s biggest rivals in the early 1990s.
Meg Ryan – Burger King
Meg Ryan, who achieved massive success in the 80s and 90s thanks to When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, started out in acting with a 1982 Burger King commercial. Starring alone, she advertises a Burger King giveaway of cash prizes while flashing a beaming smile.
Sure, it’s just a fast food commercial, but it still seems to suggest that Ryan was destined for great things. She went on to become one of the most in-demand actresses of the late 80s and 90s, before she surprised many by more or less retiring as an actress in the mid-2000s. More recently, Ryan has pursued work as a director.
Steve Carell – Brown’s Chicken
Nowadays, Steve Carell is best known for his portrayal of Michael Scott on NBC’s hit show The Office, but before he landed any big acting roles, Carell starred in an ad for fast food joint Brown’s Chicken. The ad sees Carell fix up a sign reading ‘Cholesterol Free Cooking’ outside the restaurant – only for the wind to blow away everything but the word “free.”
As crowds flood to the restaurant, Carell remarks “the response has been better than we anticipated.” He then does a double-take, anxiety creeping into his voice as he realises that the sign now reads ‘free.’ It’s a little cringey, perhaps, but it does give some indication of the comedy powerhouse Carrell would grow into.
Keanu Reeves – Coca-Cola
He found his breakthrough in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but in the early 1980s, Keanu Reeves had just dropped out of high school with no film credits to his name. Among his earliest roles was a Coca-Cola commercial, in which Reeves plays a keen young cyclist. The ad sees Reeves compete in a cycling competition where his father encourages him to keep going with the help of a glass of Coke.
In an interview with James Corden, Reeves praised the scene as a “real-world, working experience” and said he shaved his legs for the occasion. “It was like a three-day shoot,” he explained on Corden’s show. “So for me it was a great experience. You’re going from school, from study, to the real world, to practical […] it was real-world, working experience.”
Tina Fey – Mutual Savings Bank
Before she became a critically-acclaimed comedian and writer of cult classic Mean Girls, Tina Fey was in this rather bizarre 1995 commercial for Mutual Savings Bank. The gauche ad sees Fey promote the Mutual Savings Bank’s high interest rates. It’s fair to say she was better in Mean Girls.
It’s a good job Fey’s known for being funny, as you’d need a sense of humour to have this rather embarrassing clip on your resume. Not that it held her back professionally; within two years Fey had joined the cast of Saturday Night Live, and then five years after that she launched her acclaimed sitcom 30 Rock.
Mila Kunis – Glitter Hair Barbie
Best known for her roles in Black Swan, Bad Moms and TV’s Family Guy, Mila Kunis comes from a Ukrainian family that relocated to Los Angeles when she was seven years old. Only two years later, having learned English from scratch, Kunis was successful in her very first audition – for a Glitter Hair Barbie commercial.
Kunis was an instant hit and quickly began building up a portfolio of TV work after her success on the Barbie commercial. Notably, in the mid-90s Kunis appeared on another commercial for girls’ accessories brand Lisa Frank. Although she’s only a teenager in these ads, it’s clear that Kunis was always destined for stardom with her palpable determination and enthusiasm.
Kirsten Dunst – Trouble
Most people think that Kirsten Dunst’s first foray into the acting world was her breakout appearance in Interview with a Vampire, but the truth is that she began her professional acting career far earlier than that. She began racking up acting credits when she was just three years old, starting with a slew of commercials.
Though many of those early appearances are now impossible to find, her commercial for the board game Trouble has survived, complete with her adorable blonde ringlets. Isn’t she cute?
Ryan Reynolds – Push Pop
Ryan Reynolds has had a rich and varied career, spanning everything from thrillers like Buried to meta smash-hits like Deadpool to more rom-coms than you can shake a stick at. He also has the questionable honour of starring in the most 90s commercial ever made.
As a kid, Reynolds was tasked with helping to sling Push Pops, in an advert filled with hip-hop music, backwards caps and baggy waistcoats. Most bemusingly, there’s also a shot of him wearing a bunch of Push Pops like Freddy Krueger finger knives.
Heath Ledger – Chicken Treat
Depending on your age, chances are you either know Heath Ledger from the 1999 romantic comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, or Christopher Nolan’s ultra-slick superhero flick, The Dark Knight. Either way, it’s difficult to imagine Ledger first coming to prominence as a chicken slinger in an Australian commercial.
One of Ledger’s earliest acting gigs was in a somewhat offbeat commercial for Chicken Treat, where his manager explains to him that a Chicken Treat chicken must be barbequed for exactly an hour and a half to be perfect.
Hilary Duff – Subway
Thanks to Lizzie Maguire and A Cinderella Story, Hilary Duff was basically the face of the early 2000s. However, even before her first prominent role in Casper Meets Wendy, Duff had been working for a full five years, starring in numerous commercials with her sister Haylie.
In this 1999 Subway commercial, Duff plays a news reporter promoting the Subway Kids Pak, a kind of knock-off Happy Meal that comes with an even smaller and cheaper-looking toy, plus a cookie!
Elijah Wood – Cheese
Lots of actors have careers as children before starting work as adults, but few big names have been as prolific child actors as Elijah Wood. Not only did Wood appear in a Paula Abdul music video and Back to the Future Part II, he also did his fair share of commercials too.
In one of the many adverts he starred in, Wood was sponsored by the National Dairy Board and tasked with promoting cheddar, which he did by pouring a mountain of boiling hot cheese over a plate of just broccoli. Healthy!
Amanda Bynes – Buncha Crunch
For most people, Amanda Bynes’ story starts with Nickelodeon’s All That, the show that allowed her to showcase her talents and get a starring role in the spin-off The Amanda Show. However, she actually got her start in commercials, with her very first job being an advert for Buncha Crunch.
Bynes is only seen for a few seconds in this Buncha Crunch advert, which takes the form of an Addams Family parody, but it was a strong enough start to her career to set her up for decades of success.
Channing Tatum – Pepsi
Unlike many others in the entertainment world, Channing Tatum didn’t begin acting professionally as a child. Instead, after spending his early adulthood away from the spotlight, aside from a period spent as a stripper, he took his first steps towards fame as a young man by doing commercials.
Not only did Tatum book modelling jobs with Abercrombie and Fitch, but he also starred in this national ad campaign for Pepsi, rocking an extremely early 2000s look that wouldn’t be out of place in his movie Step Up.
Drew Barrymore – Pilsbury
Very few people are born with more glitter in their veins than Drew Barrrymore. Not only were both her parents actors, but her grandfather was also an iconic performer from the silent film era. It’s no surprise, then, that even before Barrymore was booking feature film roles as a child, she was churning out commercial after commercial.
By four years old, Barrymore had already been acting for three years, and was ready to take on a demanding cookie dough ad for Pilsbury. Why demanding? Well, she had to resist eating the prop cookie dough between takes, which would be a tough task for most four-year-olds!
Britney Spears – Maull’s
Not everybody who acts in their early years grows up to be a professional actor. Some go onto other bigger and better things, and no one is a better example of this than Britney Spears.
Before she had a smash hit debut album at the age of 17, Spears was picked up by a talent scout, who got her placed in several high-profile commercials. The most famous of which was a summer barbeque-themed advert, which sets out to promote Maull’s barbecue sauce.