February 4, 2013

Live-blogging the commercials from Super Bowl '85

Advertising in all forms has not only become boring but downright aggravating over the past 20 years. Even when it's not all in-your-face, "you only wish you were as extreme as us," it's so detached and snarky that you just want to reach through the TV or magazine and choke the life out of those smug dorky faces.

As an antidote, I thought I'd intersperse the usual posts here with some videos from the "80sCommercialVault" channel on YouTube. Mostly it's just to provide some relief from the irony, over-the-top-ness, and gloppy earnestness of today's world.

But I'll also scribble some notes for each commercial to highlight the differences from today, just for the record, and to provide a catalog of '80s design themes and motifs. Like for instance, why aren't there dark backgrounds anymore? -- that dark/light contrast looked pretty neat. And back in the '80s it was common to combine the primitive with the futuristic, neither of which you see much of today, let alone in striking juxtaposition. Like, when was the last time you saw neon signage across from an indoor jungle or oasis at the mall?

Lots of little and not-so-little details like that really gave the '80s a footloose, playful, shape-of-things-to-come kind of vibe -- the choice of a new generation.

To start, let's have a look at vol. 79 of the commercial vault, which shows ads from Super Bowl XIX in 1985. My, how our culture has decayed. But let's focus on what was good, not what's bad, and get on with it.

1. KFYI 1310 AM
On-the-go lifestyle, dark-light contrasts, a grid pattern on the coffee cup (the grid was everywhere in the '80s -- it was the future).

2. Eastern Airlines
Customers wanted to breathe free while walking around buildings, not have to focus on navigating an obstacle course of kiosks, island displays, sales bins, etc.

3. Chrysler
Nice inoffensive jingle, an '80s background sax.

4. Hormel Chili
Hint of the expressionist revival with a dark inside and smoky light coming from outside, shadowy figures.

5. Buick
A Super Bowl ad that isn't bombastic...

6. Parents United PSA
People who get tired of hearing me use the phrase "rising-crime times" forget how the threat of predation formed the background to the zeitgeist, including sex abuse of kids. Children are worth celebrating because you never know if something bad might happen and rob you of that chance. You didn't need to hear that message constantly, just often enough to remind you. It's like the "negative visualization" that the Stoics used to appreciate what they had, only in the '80s it was natural rather than artificial.

7. United
See, that background made parents not take their kids or families (husbands) for granted, and value them more. Remember how when you got off the plane, the people waiting outside were family members eager to see you, and not uppity passengers on the next flight waiting for you guys to GTFO already? Dark-light contrasts.

8. Promo for "Police Story"
Do they make these short-and-sweet promos anymore? Or are even bumpers extended out to Lord of the Rings length?

9. Okidata
A grid, a broken / fallen pillar, bright light entering a dark room, a printer that looks alive with moving parts, though still using paper. Futuristic-primitive.

10. Almost Home Cookies
Bright smokey light entering a dark room. Even a dull ad could be saved by a catchy jingle at the end -- Na-biiis-co *ting!*

11. Diet Coke
Another dull one saved by a memorable catchy slogan -- "Just for the taste". They made a catchier jingle later, "Just for the taste of it ... Diet Coke!"

12. Promo for "Inauguration '85" presented by ABC News
Real old-timey colonial fifes (or whatever) playing in the background. Simple enough: going forward while being rooted in the past.

13. IBM Assistant Series
Too retro-looking for a computer company in the computer age. Needs a white grid in the background and a neon logo.

14. Goodyear Vector
Dark-light contrasts. Tires were hyped up for their performance qualities, not as part of a tell-the-world-your-lifestyle statement.

15. Classic Lite
The return of Jazz Age glamour. Sadly the whole low-cal, low-fat, sugar-free theme is pervasive in food ads even back then.

16. Promo for "Good Morning America"
17. Promo for "Hardcastle & McCormick" and "Scandal Sheet"
The '80s had its trashy and lurid shows too, although I wonder how many younger people watched them. I'm guessing the audience was more Silent Gen types in their 40s and 50s, raised on a diet of mid-century luridness. Remember, the Boomers were in their 20s and 30s.

18. Wesson Oil
Like everyone else, homemakers weren't very self-conscious -- like, "Hey, look at me viewers, I'm a homemaker." There were no "mommy wars" back then. And the African-American isn't the Sassy Black Lady.

19. United
Hawaii has been in the popular imagination since at least the '50s, but in falling-crime times its image is more about rest & relaxation. This ad from the '80s plays up its wild and sublime aspects. "Bring Hawaii alive" sounds like the island has a force of its own, not a domesticated, constructed playground.

20. Toyota
Bright smokey back-lighting of a scene in darkness. Nice jingle at the end with the word "feeling". Also, back when "a friend you can count on" was a major selling point.

21. Promo for "Cruise Into Terror"
Horror movie craze, the Egyptian Revival (also found during the rising-crime Jazz Age and Romantic-Gothic Era).

22. Toyota and Burger King Commercial Bumpers
Burger King's ad is boring -- "Aren't You Hungry?" -- but at least it wasn't the 21st century's over-the-top drag queen masculinity for castrated beta nerds.

And those were the commercials of the 1985 Super Bowl -- when the game was the spectacle, and not the ads. Come to think of it, these ones were pretty low-key and conservative compared to the typical '80s clips I've seen at the commercial vault. Maybe they were going for restraint during the Super Bowl. I'll get to the more rockin' and gut-bustin' ones later on.


  1. Wow, you are correct. Our culture has really decayed. Thanks for the memories.

  2. The ads this year were really bad.

    The Paul Harvey farmer ad by Dodge was uplifting.

    I missed the Clydesdale one, but I'm always a sucker for them.

    Maybe you could do some investigation/post on the characteristics/demographics of the people who do the "creative" side of marketing these days...because they stink. Who ARE these people?

    From this female's point of view, a really bad ad was the Calvin Klein ad (a short form of which was running today on ESPN). It wasn't provocative or anything, but typical of most Klein ads, was full of what looked like gay male models, abs fully ripped, bodies lithe, lean, yet not looking like athletes or models of masculinity but instead like gay guys, gay guys who spend all day in the gym either to be eye candy for other gay guys or to be underwear models for Calvin Klein.

    We women are the major purchasers of underwear for our husbands, and all I can say is it takes much more than defined muscles to make man look masculine. In fact, a guy doesn't have to have defined muscles to look masculine at all.

    These guys looked faggy, both because of the way they posed and because of their particular look of musculature.

    Since gay males of some wealth probably buy Calvin Klein anyway and because the gay market is small and limited, I'd think the company was marketing with an eye toward wives and girlfriends, yet it was a total turn off to me.

  3. I know you're keen on binding together cultural shifts with crime rates, but the first impression a young person gets from these ads from 1985 is that they share a level of earnestness which is also found in golden age of television commercials (that is, the low crime era) and which has been absent since the rise of irony, sarcasm, and vulgarity since the 90's.

    Couple of ads from thirty years before in 1955:



    On the other hand, the 50's and early 60's had the authoritative patriarchal narrator in many advertisements, something which is neither found in the high crime 70's and 80's nor in the low crime 90's and 2000's. Americans had much more trust in institutions, big business, and government in the last low crime era than in either the 70's/80's or today.

  4. The later half of the '50s wasn't too bad. That was the very end of the falling-crime period, when the irony, sarcasm, and detachment was more or less spent. That was more the mid-'30s through the '40s and even into the earlier '50s. Think of the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, flat affect in movie-star speech, "wise-cracking dames," etc.

    And TV was only part, probably a small part, of the overall ad culture. I don't have any idea what radio ads were like, but do a Google Image search for "comic book ads 1950s". They have that cartoony, extreme zaniness that recent ads do.

    And all kinds of unwholesome, dorky themes that stoke the fires of desperation and worthlessness -- Hypnotize women to obey your commands! Add 3 inches of pure steel to your biceps! You just don't see that kind of stuff in the '80s.

    Here's a great searchable database of ads from the '30s through '60s, though mostly mid-'30s through the '50s.


    Browse around by keyword, product type, or brand. And in either table or gallery form. You'd be surprised how much wacky-zany stuff is in there, sassy women, doofus dads, sappiness, and again the attempt to shame the audience. In fact, here are all the ones tagged with "shame":


    One thing that comes across strongly in mid-century ads is how self-doubting and helpless people felt -- otherwise advertisers couldn't have had such success for so long. That was advertising's heyday.

    People were more confident, carefree, and had a can-do attitude in the '80s, so you don't find the appeal to worthlessness.

  5. " I'd think the company was marketing with an eye toward wives and girlfriends, yet it was a total turn off to me. "

    Maybe it was selling a role-playing fantasy to the straight male audience. "Wear our underwear, and you'll get this ripped."

    Like you said, girls aren't so into the steroids and gym rat look, but guys obsess over it -- that's who they imagine themselves as in today's video games and porno videos. Neither of which the girls are that into.

    If only the Calvin Klein guy were offering to help the male viewers get back at that punk who kicked sand in his face, the comparison to the mid-century would be perfect.

  6. If only the Calvin Klein guy were offering to help the male viewers get back at that punk who kicked sand in his face, the comparison to the mid-century would be perfect.

    Apparently Charles Atlas founded his company in the early 1920s, launched the "bully kicks sand in my face campaign in the late 1920s" and was a roaring success through the '20s.

    No doubt this is be explained with "Of course people wanted to become more powerful and able to defend themselves in the age of rising violence" (rather than being "weird").

    Google's ngram for "body building" peaks in 1940, after a sharp velocity of growth from 1920 onwards, while the more frequent term "bodybuilding" really takes off in the late 70s to 80s.

    Aerobics took off in the 1980s as well.

  7. Yeah, there's fitness crazes and then there's insecure revenge fantasies. Rising-crime sees the former, falling-crime the latter.

  8. I stopped watching most of the ads. But the ones I remember:

    * "Where do babies come from?" The father tries to answer his small son's question. Apparently this is an ad for a car.

    * "I am the next big thing." Two actors fight it out verbally as to who is some phone company's spokesman. Then a third guy comes in to steal the show. This commercial went on forever.

    * People from different movie sets(?) race to get to a Coke mirage. There's Lawrence of Arabia and a train of camels. There's a bus full of Vegas showgirls. There's a Wild Wild West group.


    They were excruciating to watch.

  9. Someone already mentioned it, but there were two sentimental commercials I saw:

    * The Budweiser one where a man raises a Clyesdale from a small colt, gives it away , and then it comes running up to him to greet him after he come to see it perform.

    * Paul Harvey: "And God created a farmer." Car ad. The dialogue was about the qualities of a farmer and about his son wanting to grow up to be just like his father.


    They were different in tone at least from the others.


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