Tune in Tonight: And Now a Word From Our Sponsor (the 70s)
In these uncertain, frightening times, we often find ourselves relying upon emotional security blankets to face the latest bit of bad news. Whether it be a favorite book, an absorbing video game, or the sweet embrace of heroin, it’s important for our sanity to just shut ourselves away from the real world, at least for a little while.
For me, that security blanket is old commercials. To watch a commercial from your childhood is to experience an almost visceral sense of nostalgia, moreso than even watching a cartoon or hearing a certain song. This is largely because we’re trapped in a constant cycle of reminiscence (likely because things are terrible now, though honestly we’ve always thought things were better when we were kids), so it’s not unusual to randomly encounter a Bugs Bunny cartoon, or an episode of M*A*S*H*. Somewhere at this very moment there’s a grocery store that’s playing a-ha’s “Take On Me,” a one-hit wonder that, even more than 30 years after its release, still seems bizarrely inescapable. But when’s the last time you’ve heard anyone mention Tato Skins, Keebler’s heartbreakingly brief attempt at selling potato chips? Have you thought recently about that Heinz ad where a pre-Friends Matt LeBlanc puts a ketchup bottle on the edge of a roof and somehow times it perfectly to fall on his hot dog? An increasing reliance on streaming television makes it so we’re hardly watching any commercials anymore, let alone those from the past.
Luckily, if you look beyond the “Man Spends 25 Minutes Talking About a 2 Minute Teaser Trailer” and “Hi-lie-ry Did 9/11 THE TRUTH THEY DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW” videos, YouTube is a treasure trove of old commercials, often served up in thick, delicious fifteen to twenty minute (and even occasionally more than an hour) blocks. To watch one is to be launched Space Mountain style into an almost disorienting mish-mash of childhood memories, where things you haven’t thought about in years aggressively kick down a door inside your brain. You’ll discover that, even though you can’t remember anyone’s phone numbers without speed dial anymore, you can remember word for word the dialogue for the Tootsie Pop commercial, right down to the way Mr. Owl says “two-HOO!” Somehow you’ll still recall the recipe for “Sunshine on a Stick,” and you’ll bristle with old resentment that you never got Pink & Pretty Barbie. Well, you might not bristle. I’m definitely bristling.
But I digress. I’m taking a break from series and TV movies this month to focus on commercials. Watch a few of these blocks, particularly from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, and you’ll come away understanding a few things about American society at that time, such as:
Though women were still portrayed as mostly housewives (career women were just starting to show up, but they rarely had families, except for that intimidating Enjoli perfume lady), advertising took a sharp turn towards pre-packaged convenience foods as a substitute for home cooking. Presumably to allow them time to watch more commercials, housewives were now encouraged to serve meals consisting entirely of frozen, canned, or dried “boil in bag” food, enriched with preservatives and packed with enough sodium to knock over a horse. If you’re in your 40s or older, you’ll likely remember eating Chun King canned chow mein, a strange, gluey mix of chicken and vegetables that, despite the shockingly high salt content on the label, managed to taste like nothing at all. Chun King was absorbed by its competitor, La Choy, back in the 90s, and La Choy’s canned chow mein is still enjoyed by people today who, if you were to take them to a real Chinese restaurant, would grimace at the menu and ask if they served hamburgers.
There was a time when no one thought it was weird or inappropriate to sell boxes of Cookie Crisp cereal in which the prize inside was candy. Nor was it a problem to portray kids double fisting Twinkies like they were just released from a basement dungeon, or to sell something called “Pudding Roll-Ups,” which were vaguely chocolate flavored versions of Fruit Roll-Ups, and probably contained just enough edible ingredients to legally qualify as food. Other than Life cereal, virtually no one was advertising anything but the most horrifying, diabetic coma inducing junk to children (which we all ate the living shit out of, obviously), to the point where networks began doing their own healthy eating PSAs. This is, of course, how we ended up with this guy, and another song that will remain in our brains long after the names of our loved ones and various family pets have faded into the ether.
One of the great unspoken tragedies of the 70s and 80s was the “fluoride for clean teeth” vs. “gel for fresh breath” war, an ongoing battle in which there were no winners, and tore hundreds of families asunder.
Nothing will make you double over in stomach knotting secondhand embarrassment like revisiting what advertisers sold as “cool,” particularly in the 80s. You might think the nadir was reached with Jason Alexander dancing around and trying to make “hot diggety T” happen for McDonald’s, but have you seen that aforementioned Heinz commercial lately, where the jingle is the no-hit wonder, ersatz Wang Chung “Jane’s Getting Serious”? Or how about virtually all of the TV spots for Levi’s 501 jeans, which featured everything that was atrocious about the late 80s, including models reciting poetry, white men singing the blues, and whatever the hell is happening here? Next time you get to reminiscing about the “simpler times,” remember those times included Bruce Willis, wearing a suit jacket with a fucking t-shirt under it, wailing on a harmonica, grimacing like the ghosts of Muddy Waters and .Howlin’ Wolf were fighting for control of his body.
A young John Goodman was in an inordinately large number of commercials in the early 80s, and he was adorable.
We start with the 70s, and even if you didn’t exist in the 70s, or remember any of the commercials or products, it’s easy to distinguish its very specific look and feel. After the embarrassment of Richard Nixon and Vietnam, there was a re-embracing of Americana and homespun, traditional values, where everything was mustard yellow and avocado green and men still had many years left to get away with being incompetent about simple household tasks. It was also probably peak era for unflattering women’s haircuts, a long, painful period of shags, Dorothy Hamill helmets, and Joey Lawrence bowl cuts. They’re on full display in the first set of commercials I revisited for this writeup, which aired in September of 1976.
Mother and son have matching bowl cuts in an ad for Campbell’s, one of many times the beloved soup brand has tried to convince consumers that children preferred salty chicken water over PB&Js or hot dogs for lunch. That’s followed by a Hostess commercial where kids engage in pagan worship of frosted snack cakes, dancing and parading like a G-rated version of Summersisle. The jingle suggests that consuming large amounts of shortening-based “creme” is not just a rite of childhood, but damn near a requirement, and that any mom who isn’t supplying her kids with between-meal Ding Dongs is a mom who’s asleep on the job (because Dad is too busy trying to find his own ass with a map and a flashlight to make any decisions involving what the kids eat, of course).
One thing the 70s had over any other decade, at least as far as advertising, was some absolutely cracking TV show promos. All seemingly narrated by the same voiceover actor (Ernie Anderson, also the TV horror host Ghoulardi and Paul Thomas Anderson’s father), they accomplished exactly what they set out to do—make certain shows sound way more awesome than they actually were. Baretta, a middling crime-drama about a cop who doesn’t play by the rules and wears some really dumb hats, suddenly sounds a lot better when an episode is described as “A vow of vengeance becomes a death wish as Baretta takes on a kung fu killer!” You may not be terribly interested in Charlie’s Angels, an action show about a bunch of bikini models working for a detective agency, but when they go undercover as “race track groupies”? Put it in my eyeballs. However, neither of these compare with the newest episode of The Bionic Woman, which features a guest appearance by Bigfoot, and Jamie Summers slapping and flinging a boulder at him.
There are, of course, fast food commercials, including one for Burger King that features a young female employee who looks entirely too happy, considering the appalling red and yellow uniform she’s wearing, with a hat not much smaller than that worn by Jamiroquai in the video for “Virtual Insanity.” You could hide a basket’s worth of fries inside that hat, and if that doesn’t make you hungry, then how about Jack in the Box’s woefully misguided attempt at serving tacos? If your bowels aren’t already cramping at the thought of tacos made with American cheese slices, then consider this—as of 2017 they remain Jack in the Box’s most popular menu item, seemingly because they’re repulsive, and that really tells you everything you need to know about the mystifying, disturbing world we live in.
Donny and Marie celebrate television in a special guest starring only the hippest names in showbiz, including Desi Arnaz, Milton Berle, Art Linkletter, and Gale Storm. After that, we conclude with another promo for The Bionic Woman in which Jamie Summers goes undercover as a lady wrestler (awesome!!!), and then a young Kim Basinger shills for Kissing Potions, which, if you were a teenager in the 70s or 80s, you’ll recall as a flavored lip gloss with a texture that suggested it had been cut with Gorilla Glue. A reformulated version of it exists today, and hopefully it can be worn without one’s lips becoming coated in stray hairs, street grit, and the errant scrap of paper.
The next block, from January of 1978, doesn’t offer quite as much buried treasure, but it does feature a few puzzling moments, such as stars of ABC’s mid-season replacement series introducing previews while wearing silver lamé overalls, and footage of a Fourth of July parade shot almost exactly like the parade in Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving, which turns out to be an ad for an insurance company. There’s also a promo for an ill-advised remake of From Here to Eternity, described as “the whole story Hollywood couldn’t tell in 1953,” and which seems to consist of a lot of heavy making out scenes, in case you thought the original really suffered from a lack of same.
My Quantum Leap-esque time jump happened during a commercial for the short-lived Dodge St. Regis, a sedan that could fit anywhere from 18 to 40 people. This vehicle was comically large, getting an appalling 12 miles to the gallon. Popular with cops, my father somehow managed to acquire one and turned it into a taxi. Driving cars for a living, he saw no issue with my learning how to drive in this Mad Max battlewagon, in which I could reach the gas pedal only by plie-ing my toes against it. The front end was such a vast, desolate landscape that I couldn’t see the road immediately in front of it, including the flower bed/median strip in front of our house. I drove right over it, and it felt like I was driving a tank over a Smurf village. That wasn’t quite as upsetting as the look of horror and disappointment on my father’s face. I had a come from a long line of professional drivers, how was I not able to immediately bend this land yacht to my will? I hadn’t thought of that moment in years, until watching this dumb commercial block, which, like all of them, took me on strange, amusing, and occasionally bittersweet walk in the past.