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A look at Charles Atlas and his Advertisements

The press would one day dub him ‘The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man’, but in his youth Angelo Siciliano had been a ‘scrawny 97 pound weakling’, a tempting target for sand-kicking beach bullies. Inspired to attain physical perfection by the statues of Greek gods he saw in New York’s Brooklyn Art Gallery, he joined the Y.M.C.A. and exercised obsessively until he could boast a godlike physique of his own. Then he changed his name to…Charles Atlas.

Those who grew up reading the pulp magazines and comics of the 1940s to the ‘70s will surely remember the comic-strip advertisements for the Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension bodybuilding system which appeared with startling regularity in those publications. So who was the man in the leopard skin trunks?

Angelo Siciliano was born in Italy in 1892 and emigrated with his parents to the U.S.A. in 1905. Toiling in the leather industry as he worked on improving his body, he caught the public eye by winning a 1921 contest sponsored by the magazine Physical Culture. Changing his name and capitalising on his new-found fame, the good-looking Charles Atlas became the first celebrity bodybuilder. Publicity stunts such as towing freight trains, bending railroad spikes barehanded and tearing telephone directories in half were a specialty.

Inspired by watching zoo animals as they tensed and stretched in an instinctive effort to maintain their physical prowess under the constraints of captivity, Atlas created a system of muscular development called Dynamic Tension which he claimed could produce results in only fifteen minutes of practice each day. Advertising in pulp magazines he marketed his method by mail order, but business was sluggish until he linked up with a young advertising copywriter called Charles Roman.

Roman looked at the lacklustre Atlas ad campaign and saw that a change of approach was needed to appeal to a predominantly youthful male readership. He jettisoned the emphasis on health and fitness and offered instead the prospect of confident, assertive manliness and sex appeal. Crucially, he communicated this message via the bold and direct medium of the comic strip and over the years refined a formula which attained a peak of development in the unintentionally hilarious gem, ‘The Insult That Made A Man Out Of Mac’.

This strip opens with Mac, all ribs and spindly limbs, relaxing at the beach with his girlfriend when a burly lout carelessly kicks sand in his face. Mac protests and is threatened with a beating. Indignant, he says to his girlfriend that he’ll get even with the bully someday. She replies, with withering contempt, “Oh, don’t let it bother you, little boy.”

Back home, Mac takes out his frustrations on a chair. He’s “…Sick and tired of being a scarecrow,” and decides to see if Charles Atlas can help. Skipping lightly over the effort involved (“Boy, it didn’t take Atlas long to do this for me!”) we next see our hero sporting an impressive build and brimming with confidence. He returns to the scene of his public humiliation and, without preamble, punches his antagonist in the face. Remarkably he is not arrested for assault, but is instead praised by onlookers as ‘The Hero Of The Beach’ as his fickle girlfriend fondly strokes his bulging biceps and declares that he is a real man after all.

Atlas claimed that the story was based on personal experience. Whatever the truth, it was a brilliant piece of marketing and offered a seductive prospect for the average skinny young man feeling powerless amongst his peers and painfully shy with the opposite sex. Now, rather than being ‘only HALF-ALIVE’, he could be, with just fifteen minutes of practice each day in the privacy of his own room, ‘…Full of zip and go…a real HE-MAN from head to toe.’ The ads even suggested that he could develop a ‘magnetic personality’. How could the puny runt resist? Who wouldn’t want to be ‘…A man who STANDS OUT in any crowd.’?

From the early 1940s Roman’s comic strip commercials began to appear in the fledgling format of the ten cent comic book, and it was surely no coincidence that they reflected the archetypal superhero myth of the ineffectual everyman who gains great power which he then uses to combat evil.

The ‘Atlas ads’, as they were fondly referred to in the publishing industry, became one of the most memorable advertising campaigns ever created. A delighted Atlas offered Roman a major share in the now-successful company in return for his continued services.

Charles Atlas died in 1972, but Charles Atlas ltd. lives on, still occasionally using that cheerfully cheesy advertisement. Firmly rooted in the fertile soil of popular culture, Charles Roman’s comic strip seems to have taken on a life of its own despite, or perhaps owing to, the hilariously un-P.C. attitudes it gleefully displays.