Soul Train History Book: Afro-Sheen and Ultra Sheen Commercials

When Soul Train began airing nationally, its creator and host Don Cornelius scored a major sponsorship deal with the Johnson Products Company. Because Soul Train attracted a predominantly black audience, the Johnson Products deal would offer viewers commercials that would advertise how to keep their afro hairstyles together with its Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen products.

Afro Sheen Blowout Kit ad

Afro Sheen Blowout Kit ad

The Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen commercials aired largely between 1971 to about 1980. One of the first Afro Sheen commercials featured a student about to leave for school when abolitionist, scholar, and former slave Frederick Douglass appeared in the student’s doorway, admonishing him for his unkempt hair (Douglass called it a “mess”) and prompting the student to spray on some Afro Sheen to make his hair neater and more presentable.

A series of early Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen commercials featured a lady named Sunny Harper demonstrating to women how to apply Ultra Sheen Facial Fashion makeup as well as how to style one’s hair in various hairdos. Several of these commercials featured Soul Train Gang dancers, including Jan Robinson and Patricia Davis.

A popular string of Ultra Sheen commercials airing from 1973 to 1976 featured a pest of a reporter approaching women in various places to ask them how they kept their hair together. A flight attendant, a welder, an ice skater, and an author were just some of the women who told the reporter that Ultra Sheen Afro Sheen photo 2kept their hair looking nice and natural and easy to manage.

Any big fan of the TV series Good Times remembers the two-part episode in which actor Oscar DeGruy portrayed the menacing gang leader Mad Dog. A year before he was Mad Dog, he was a more charming guy who put on his “fox-hunting” hat after spotting a gorgeous “fox” walking down the street (played by Sparkle’s Dwan Smith) and applied Afro Sheen to her lopsided afro.

One heartwarming commercial showcased a teenage daughter lovingly giving her mom an afro hairstyle, stating that it would make her look younger.

One of the most bizarre Afro Sheen commercials featured some sort of futuristic guru or wizard named Zacar showcasing a number of people with their neat looking afros while strange and eerie music played in the background. It has to be one of the creepiest commercials ever made.

Afro Sheen 1978 ad

Afro Sheen 1978 ad

One of the last Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen commercials aired in 1978 and featured three stylishly dressed dancers (including Altovise Davis, wife of Sammy Davis Jr.), tap dancing and doing various dances around giant size jars of the products.

These commercials helped to sell millions of Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen products and made millions of dollars for the Johnson Products Company, and also boosted Soul Train’s popularity. Soul Train dancers received a gift supply of Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen products when they correctly solved the Soul Train Scramble Board.

As the afro faded in popularity by the early eighties, the Jheri curl became the new hair craze. A new commercial aired during Soul Train advertising Classy Curl to keep those Jheri curls from being too greasy with little or no dripping. This commercial featured a then-unknown model and actress named Ola Ray, who later gained fame playing Michael Jackson’s girlfriend in his landmark “Thriller” short film.

The Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen commercials of the ‘70s remain a part of classic television and are just as durable as the Soul Train program.

Since Soul Train advertised hair care products up until around 1986, the program’s dancers were not allowed to wear hats, caps, or even wigs during tapings so television viewers could see the dancers’ neat and natural afros and relaxed hairstyles (wigs were permitted for the ladies on the show who from time to time wore either afro or curly wigs and clip-on afro puffs). Unfortunately, one male dancer’s afro wig fell off of his head during a Soul Train line taping, prompting Cornelius to state emphatically, “No more wigs!” By the ‘80s, the rule was relaxed for dancers wearing caps and hats which, in many cases, were a part of the dancers’ outfits.

It has long puzzled some Soul Train fans why Don Cornelius never did an Afro Sheen commercial. After all, he had one of the largest afros in 1972 and 1973, along with The Sylvers. Just picture Cornelius applying a bottle of Afro Sheen spray to his afro stating, “Get you some Afro Sheen to keep up your fro! Much love, peace and soul!”

—Stephen McMillian

Journalist, actor, filmmaker, dancer, performer, writer, poet, historian and choreographer. That’s Stephen McMillian.

2 Comments

  1. Stephen McMillian says:

    Thanks so much Jason! Much appreciated.

  2. Jason Elias says:

    Very cool Stephen!

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