In the late 1970s, there were over 2 million United States military personnel, and many of them were deployed overseas in countries such as Germany, Japan, Korea, South Vietnam, and the Philippines.
Keep in mind that this is decades before cell phones were in everyone’s pockets. Television only had a handful of channels. And there certainly was no streaming. Likewise, there was no social media to idly waste hours worth of time and attention.
You were alone with your thoughts.
Books provided good company to troops. Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein were best sellers, as was Tolkien.
Yet it was comic books that provided the majority of entertainment to troops at the time. Popular comic book stories in the 70s were genre-heavy and new characters were still being introduced by Stan “The Man” Lee and Jack Kirby. Troops could read horror titles like Werewolf by Night, be entertained by Master of Kung Fu, or read cosmic superhero tales in Avengers, Fantastic Four, and Thor.
Most critically, comic storytelling wasn’t decompressed at the time, so a single issue of a comic in that day told a lot of story. Troops didn’t need to track down a dozen issues to get a complete tale and there weren’t company-wide crossovers at the time. So troops loved to have a stack of comics in their footlockers.
Mark Jewelers: Missing the Girl Back Home
Just imagine being a lonely soldier at that time. Your mind wasn’t numbed by a million media options blinking for your attention. Instead, you were lost in your thoughts to a much greater degree and you were thousands of miles away from the ones you love, with no FaceTime to stay in contact.
Maybe your mind fixated on your best girl back home and you had a locket like Steve Rogers carried of Peggy Carter. Maybe you though about your high school sweetheart. Maybe she was the Homecoming queen and you the big school quarterback. But you were now serving Uncle Sam thousands of miles away with only a blurry Polaroid picture and some hand-written letters as company.
Now imagine that an advertiser leveraged those emotions by placing a thick four-page advertisement for engagement rings into the center of the comics you read to take your mind off your duties as a soldier while you were stationed far away from home. That kind of advertising would hook you hard.
Mark Jewelers: Don Draper Strikes!
But before advertisements for engagement rings, advertisers turned their attention, er, below the belt. These first inserts were printed on glossy cover weight paper and are affectionally known as the “lingerie inserts” due to a rather risqué ad (at that time) for women’s underwear.
Those lonely soldiers needed something to, er, do with their hands when they weren’t, erm, cleaning their gun or, ahem, firing off their rifle.
So, in the early 70s, comics such as Thor 187, Sub-Mariner 37, and Incredible Hulk 139 had one of 8 National Diamond Sales (NDS) inserts, if the comic was sold on a military base. These were printed on heavy cardstock and stapled into the comic book as a centerfold.
But that wasn’t the only way ad supplements were directed at overseas military personnel. Perhaps to save on paper costs, an insert wrap was featured just inside the cover of a few comics printed during this era. Called the “Mennon Wrap,” this advertisement featured a “Live Like a Millionaire” sweepstake. Military members were asked to fill out a coupon and mail it in to enter.
The Grand Prize was an all-expenses-paid vacation to the Italian Riviera, where the lucky soldier (and his best girl) would be treated to a private villa and $1700 worth of Italian Lira, which was approximately $1,000,00 at that time. The Mennon Wrap included consolation prizes such as motorcycles and golf clubs, provided the poor sap ordered albums or 8-track tapes via mail, or joined the Pentagon Federal Credit Union.
This was followed by an Alka Seltzer ad that appeared in military-directed comics dated October 1973. This ad featured a cartoon of a gruff Army sergeant who is yelling at a lowly private. The accompanying text reminded service personnel that Alka Seltzer cured headaches as well as upset stomachs.
Mark Jewelers: Put a Ring On It
But none of those ads were Omega-powered like the most super-changed advert aimed at military personnel. That distinction goes to Mark Jewelers.
Mark Jewelers inserts were made of cardboard versus the slick paper of the NDS inserts, although they were similarly placed as a centerfold, and not inside the cover like the Mennon or Alka Seltzer adverts. In fact, some comics included both the centerfold as well as the slick advert just inside the cover.
Alas, Mark Jewelers advertisements removed the lingerie photos. Instead, Mark Jewelers ads were comprised almost entirely of engagement rings throughout the four pages of the inserts. Grunts, if you want to keep your girl back home, you better put a ring on that finger.
Remember, these soldiers were lonely. They couldn’t distract themselves by binging Ted Lasso, they spent all their idle time dreaming of their loved one back home. So, the Mark Jewelers ads were extremely effective because they leveraged that emotion of lonliness and converted it into engagement ring sales.
Mark Jewelers: What happened to Mark?
I tried to find Mark Jewelers, but the trail ran cold. A Mark Jewelers exists in California but that business was started in 1981, years after these first comic book advertisements began. Desperate, I messaged a Mark Jewellers in Wisconsin. They politely informed me that their name is spelled with two Ls. I knew that, of course, I was just desperate for a lead. The lovely woman at Mark Jewellers – two Ls – told me that they get inquiries about these old comic book ads from time to time, but they don’t know anything at all about Mark Jewelers, one L.
No one really knows anything about Mark Jewelers, except old school comic book collectors, who go out of their way to track down the comics that contain these rare inserts. NDS inserts often got torn out because the soldier wanted to mail in to enter the sweepstakes. And Mark Jewelers ads often got pulled out of the centerfold because the card stock made the comic a little harder to flip through and read.
Remember, these inserts were only included in comics directed at military bases. So, they are rare to begin with and only got more so as inserts were removed for reading. So, they are collectible and can fetch a premium over a similar issue that doesn’t include the insert.
I have several myself. When I was in Hawaii, I looked for more in the shops that are located just outside that military base. But when you find one, the comic will often be in good condition. It turns out that the cardboard advert kinda acts like a backing board, keeping the comic flat.
If you do run across one, think about that lonely soldier stationed overseas and let it be a lesson to you. Mark Jewelers inserts are a good reminder to take a break from your phone to give that attention to your best girl back home.