Tune in Tonight: And Now a Word From Our Sponsor (the 80s)
Now we’re into the 80s, one of the most prosperous decades in American history, even though at the same time more families were homeless than at any other time since the Great Depression. Nevertheless, it was not just encouraged, but expected, to be obsessed with class and status, and that was reflected in every aspect of television from shows like Dynasty and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous to commercials. Even diet soda was advertised as being for “the beautiful people,” and it was no longer odd to see ads to buy diamonds and luxury cars shoved in between Banquet frozen dinners and no-wax floor cleaner.
It was also when someone discovered that it was no longer enough to simply have a smiling housewife or a trusted celebrity sell you said no-wax floor cleaner: heavily influenced by MTV, commercials could be art too, little 30 second short films in which it wasn’t always clear what they were selling. Even commercials aimed towards children couldn’t escape this unnecessary turn towards the weird—check out this ad for Colgate, with a jingle heavily lifted from Madness, because if there are two things kids can’t get enough of, it’s ska and pump toothpaste dispensers.
In 1981, however, things still looked like that same shade of 70s green and brown, and the very first ad in this October block is for Soup Starter, a can of powdered broth and dried vegetable bits that, with the addition of hot water, could be turned into something vaguely soup flavored that your family would pretend to enjoy. Following that, there’s a trailer for Looker, a Michael Crichton-directed sci-fi thriller that, for a brief time, seemed to be on cable every ten minutes or so before abruptly disappearing, as if Crichton gathered together every copy of the film and buried them in the desert. Despite its spookily prescient plot about TV models being replaced by computer generated simulations, it stunk like 3-day old clam dip, with Albert Finney playing the hero with all the effort and engagement of someone forced to attend an insurance seminar, and a synth-rock theme song about how hard it is being incredibly beautiful.
We were still in a long, embarrassing phase of convincing ourselves that alcoholism wasn’t a problem as long as you were classy about it, and no ad campaign illustrated this better than Riunite. According to Riunite, there was no occasion that couldn’t be made better with the addition of a cheap bottle of wine. Going hiking? Shove a bottle of Riunite in your backpack along with some trail mix and blister pads. Bicycling with your sweetheart? A bottle of wine fits nicely in that basket. Celebrating that big account? Keep a bottle of wine hidden in a file cabinet. If the 90s had to answer for the concept of “genteel poverty,” then the 80s equivalent was certainly the idea that drinking was an elegant pursuit. Like “wine moms” of today, it was a character trait, and the only time it was a “problem” was when your glass was empty.
Women may have been efficient at cooking, cleaning, and minding the children, but they folded like a cheap beach chair when it became to comparison shopping, as two separate commercials in the block show us. In the first one, a woman walks into a pharmacy in a rage that suggests her Valium was swapped out with sugar pills. The pharmacist, hearkening back to a more innocent time when (a) pharmacists ran an entire store by themselves, and (b) didn’t spend their days arguing with insurance companies, spends an inordinately large amount of time explaining to her the difference between deodorant and antiperspirant, with all the dedication and due diligence of someone trying to help choose a nursing home. In the second ad, a woman keeps a grocer after store hours as she debates what kind of Lysol she needs. While by this point Lysol was no longer encouraging women to use it as a douching solution, it was still convincing consumers that different kinds of Lysol were needed for different rooms of the house, and if you’re looking for a culprit for the hole in the ozone layer, you’ll probably want to start here.
Coming into the home stretch, we have an ad for Freshen Up, which the older, cool kids in my school referred to as “cum gum,” thanks to the viscous fluid that splurted out whenever you bit into a piece (see also Chewels, the sugar-free version). There’s also a pretty excellent promo for a news story about “video game addiction,” accompanied by footage of a middle-aged man playing Pac-Man like he was shoved in front of it just before the camera started rolling. Closing it is an ad for SCTV, one of the greatest sketch comedy shows ever made, the Rubik’s Cube follow up Missing Link, which ended up in the bottom of toy boxes and collecting dust on shelves even faster than its predecessor, and what looks like an early 80s “career woman” Halloween costume.
The next block, airing during a showing of The Goonies in October of 1988, is a real goldmine, if for no other reason than it features Brad Pitt, three years before Thelma & Louise, in two commercials. He first appears for barely half a second in a promo for the TV movie A Stoning in Fulham County, featuring Ron Perlman in a magnificently fake looking Amish beard, but if that isn’t enough for you, then don’t worry, because here he is again, in full future star mode, shilling for Pringles. The ad, which is so full-on, sun bleached late 80s it feels almost like a parody, features Pitt and several other attractive young half-naked people partying it up and swooning over Pringles like they’ve just gotten out of prison camp and that was the first food they saw.
Another familiar face in this block is Northern Exposure’s Janine Turner, in an ad for Scope that seems to endorse sexual harassment, and, alas, doesn’t end with Turner biting into a big ol’ sardine and onion sandwich. But the true icons don’t show up until later, when we get an appearance from Mac Tonight, the terrifying McDonald’s spokesman who later would inspire The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth (I have no proof that that’s true, but I have no proof that it isn’t true either), and then one from the Doublemint Twins. Considering that the commercial aired less than a month after the release of Dead Ringers, David Cronenberg’s psychological horror film about identical twins who share women, drugs, and mental illness, it gives an even more sinister edge to Doublemint’s longtime ad campaign featuring grown adults who look alike, dress alike, walk at the same pace, and smile knowingly at each other like they’re communicating telepathically. Considering the product had all the consistency of a minty paint chip, it’s understandable that they felt they had to make a memorable commercial for it, and they ended up with something even more unsettling than Doublemint’s sister gum Juicy Fruit, which featured a jingle inviting you to “take a sniff, pull it out.”
As a bonus for this post, I also watched a block from MTV in April of 1984, perhaps the golden era for the network, before reality television took over and old people like me started grousing that the M no longer stood for “music.” To watch '84 era MTV now is to be stunned at how not cool it actually is. Still struggling to find its footing and figure out who exactly its target audience was, it played a mish-mosh of Top 40 pop, hair metal, yacht rock, and dad favorites, with actual edgy, new wave music reserved for blocks late in the evening. Nostalgia has clouded our memories and convinced us that we were getting Kraftwerk and Lydia Lunch, when really it was more like .38 Special and Air Supply.
It's already been long established that MTV took a shamefully long time to start featuring artists of color beyond Michael Jackson and Prince, but it takes watching these blocks to really see just now noticeably, defiantly Caucasian a channel that purported to promote everything that was new and hot in music was. Other than an ad for a Motown compilation, the only non-white face here is the late, great J.J. Jackson, reporting on a Huey Lewis and the News tour and a breakdancing instructional video (made, of course, for white people), before saying "Let's check out those Dance Hall Days with Wang Chung," with a resigned "I guess this is how it goes" tone in his voice.
Somehow the commercials are even whiter, with a trailer for Sixteen Candles and an ad for Body Flowers, a perfume spray in which the actress applies so much of it on her skin that my throat was closing at the sight of it. Between this and the Lysol commercial that suggests every room in your house should be filled with a choking, impenetrable fog of aerosol disinfectant at all times, I think we can now scientifically chart at what exact period of time Earth began to die, and it is circa 1980 to 1985.
Peak cracker is achieved here, however, with an ad for Merry Go Round, a long defunct mall clothing store best known for employing aggressively friendly salespeople to follow customers around until they either bought something or got so uncomfortable that they left. In this commercial, a bunch of fashionable young people wearing the latest in studded belts, white leather, skinny ties, and what appears to be the flag of Japan made into a shirt, emerge from a giant, pulsating speaker and dance, strut, play air guitar, and just rock the fuck out to a cover of "Cum On Feel the Noize." It will make you cringe so hard you'll feel something snap in your midsection, and it's made worse by realizing that this wasn't a Saturday Night Live parody of what the young folks were into those days. It was aspirational, adolescent MTV fanatics such as myself were supposed to watch it and understand that that was cool. I'm sure that's exactly what I thought, and I'm sure I went to my dad to ask for money to buy a mini-dress with a hem that looked like it had been pulled out of a paper shredder, and I'm sure he told me to get the hell out of his face with that nonsense, as he should have. What were we thinking? What was anyone thinking? Whose idea was this? What day is it? When’s lunch?