Elisabeth Moss, Rob Lowe and Other TV Stars Reminisce About Their Most Memorable Ads

Excedrin, Pabst Blue Ribbon and AOL spots gave them an early boost

Don't be this Rob Lowe.
DirecTV

Long before Elisabeth Moss, Chris O’Donnell and Patricia Heaton were big TV stars—and they were either looking to break into the business or pay the bills until their next big part came along—they relied on commercial gigs to keep them going. As part of an recurring series, Adweek has asked TV personalities like Andy Samberg, Kiefer Sutherland, Kelly Ripa, LL Cool J and Matt LeBlanc to reflect on their most memorable ads. Now, a new group of television actors is looking back on the commercials that helped get them on their way, or, in the case of Rob Lowe, took their long-established career to surprising new heights.

Elisabeth Moss, Excedrin

Before she pitched clients on Mad Men, Moss appeared in ads of her own. When she was 20, “I did an Excedrin commercial that aired for years, so I kept getting paid. It was awesome, especially when I was not making any money. I will be forever grateful to that company for allowing me to survive for many years,” said the actress, who next stars in The Handmaid’s Tale, debuting April 26 on Hulu. “Remember when they were doing the ones where you talk to the camera and tell your personal experience? So of course, I do a commercial and it’s somehow dramatic and complicated and has a performance element involved! But it was a great ad, and frankly, I saw an Excedrin ad the other day and I think they’ve got to go back to that campaign.”

Rob Lowe, DirecTV

Lowe, who hadn’t done TV commercial since a 1977 Coca-Coca ad that ran in the Super Bowl, was lured back for those DirecTV spots in which he played alternate versions of himself. “I had a feeling it could be like a look at what I would have been like had I been a not-ready-for-prime-time player on Saturday Night Live. It was an opportunity for me to do comic characters that I wasn’t going to get to do anywhere else, and I thought the copy was really funny, and really subversive,” said Lowe, who now appears on the CBS medical drama Code Black. In one ad, “I was smelling a woman’s hair in a movie theater. I mean, come on!” And while Lowe might have been more enticed at first by the campaign’s big paycheck, “ironically, this ends up being, creatively and in terms of audience outreach, among the best things I’ve ever done. It also reached an audience that even I, who have been on the network schedule uninterrupted since 1999, hadn’t permeated. There’s a very specific demographic that will come up to me, based on the commercials, that I promise you, had never even heard of The West Wing.”

Patricia Heaton, Pabst Blue Ribbon

The Ohio native, who had moved to New York to pursue acting, was thrilled to land a Pabst Blue Ribbon ad, alongside some actors actors who also hit it big later: Jason Alexander and Polly Draper. “They were working actors at that time; it was a fluke that I got the commercial. But I played a waitress in the bar, and Jason was in there,” said the star of ABC’s The Middle. “So not only did I get to work with these two people who later went on to great things, but it ran during the [1984] Olympics, so it ran constantly. I was able to take a lot of that money, move to L.A. and produce a play with the residuals I got from that.” And then, things came full circle for Heaton: “That play got me cast in thirtysomething, which had Polly Draper in it!”

Gina Rodriguez, America Online

The Jane the Virgin star still cracks up thinking about the America Online spot she did in 1998. “It’s hilarious, because I’m 13 years old, and I say, ‘All my friends are on it!’” she said. “It was my introduction in the world of Hollywood, because that commercial made me ‘the AOL girl’ in high school, for four years. It played 30 times a day.” But despite the spot’s ubiquity at the time, Rodriguez barely pocketed any money from it. “It was non-union; I made $500 on it. If it was today, I would have made a fortune. They didn’t even give me free AOL!”

Chris O’Donnell, McDonald’s

As a Chicago child actor during the ’80s, it was probably inevitable that at some point, O’Donnell would end up filming a commercial with Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan. “It was pretty special. I was from Chicago, a huge fan of Michael Jordan, and I got to spend a whole day with, so that was fun,” said O’Donnell who now appears on NCIS: Los Angeles. “We were filming at a real McDonald’s with the real employees there, and everyone was all over him. It was just neat to be around him. There’s not that many people that I get really starstruck by. And as a kid growing up in Chicago, I got starstruck by Michael Jordan.”

Yvette Nicole Brown, unnamed automotive ad

One of The Odd Couple actress’ worst commercial experiences happened a decade ago while shooting an ad for an automotive brand she declined to name. “I played a nurse delivering items as a woman was giving birth. So she didn’t just give birth to the baby, she gave birth to a mobile, a crib—and I was catching the items. That’s bad enough, but then they decided that the items were coming out too clean, so they started to smear them with strawberry jam and cream cheese. So you have that image,” she said. Then, after all that, “It never aired! And I knew it would never air.”

Allison Tolman, AE Dairy

Before she broke out in the first season of Fargo, the actress, then 25, filmed a yogurt commercial for the Midwestern brand. “I’m reciting a poem about yogurt with an animated fantasy land behind me,” said Tolman, who next stars in ABC’s comedy Downward Dog, which premieres May 17. “It was my first time on a green screen. It was a special, very strange day at work.”