What is our obsession with TV commercials?
We’ve all been at Super Bowl parties rating the best of what American commerce has to offer for one exorbitant thirty-second spot. Does the game even matter? How many of us have groaned at the rampant sexism? The embarrassingly failed punchline? The basest of poor taste? Or, occasionally laughed at something actually creative, acknowledging that most viewers have half a brain.
This time, I travel back to examine some memorable commercials from the 1970s. As an aggregate, most were banal, inane, and often ridiculously misguided; yet in the end, some executives and organizations attempted to be noteworthy, effective and innocent. The era launched Public Service Announcements (PSAs), cross marketing (can anyone say McDonald’s Hamburglar?), using rock music to sell beer (selling out), and the emergence of celebrities in all entertainment genres acting as spokespeople. Now being status quo, why on earth does the very wealthy Samuel L. Jackson need even more money asking us, “What’s in your wallet?”
Before there was an obnoxious Flo on Progressive Insurance, the snarky Jack in the Box, that creepy Burger King mask, GEICO’s lame attempts at humor, the two gabby guys in the Sonic ads that never touch their food (if they aren’t eating it, why would we?), and dozens more, I could almost make it through commercials without slamming down hard on the mute button. Now all has changed; I binge-watch On Demand.
Let’s do some comparing, shall we?
There was the precious Little Mikey, peddling Life Cereal (1972), played by Bronx native John Gilchrist. First and foremost, the ad remained in regular rotation for more than twelve years, winning a Clio award in 1974. His needling brothers? They were his actual brothers, Tommy and Michael. In 1999, TV Guide rated it as its #10 commercial of all time. In a 2012 Newsday article, when interviewed, John Gilchrist, then a director of media sales for MSG Network commented, that he had no memory of filming it when he was three-years-old. On a side note, I happen to really like Maple & Brown Sugar Life cereal after all these years. Could it have been caused by the long-ago charm and challenge of, “He hates everything!”
Call to action
When this PSA was launched on Earth Day 1971, on many levels, it changed the way we thought about the small screen. The “Keep America Beautiful” campaign was established by a consortium of powerhouse companies (Phillip Morris, Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola). Say what you will about them, but the interstate system had been growing, and one of its unfortunate results was trash haphazardly tossed from vehicles along the highways. The Native American, actor Iron Eyes Cody, who played the role of the “Crying Indian,” was actually Italian-American. Perhaps this early example of a call to action was best served by the actor’s silence; all that is heard is William Conrad’s brief narration and then his final line: “People start pollution; people can stop it.”
Who would have thought indigestion would be so memorable? You hope to forget about in the morning, or sooner – like Ralph here in 1972, played by actor, Milt Moss, who was the spokesman of a catchphrase for the ages. We literally “ate it up.” In 1977, the gastrointestinal masterpiece was elected into the Clio Awards Hall of Fame. Once a relative unknown actor, this propelled Moss into the limelight allowing him to appear at conventions, clubs, and on TV. He was quoted in 2011 as saying: “That commercial changed my whole life.” Plop, plop, fizz, fizz!
Strategic? No doubt. Manipulative? Bordering on absolutely. We’re talking advertising after all. Amassing a group of beautiful young people from all backgrounds on an Italian hillside, singing in glorious harmony with an undercurrent of hope and love, for the sole purpose of selling a soft drink that can be addictive, cause cavities, diabetes and weight gain, and even possibly rot your teeth – well, at least it’s hummable. This made the jingle easily adapted to a non-Coca-Cola song, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” which became hits for The New Seekers and The Hillside Singers. For more background to the jingle’s creation from co-writer, Roger Cook, click here. However, most advertising and marketing polls continually confirm this to be one of the most beloved, popular commercials of all time.
Okay, so it is a farce. Those late-night infomercials still exist; however, not with the same ubiquitous presence from the late-night “hurry!” phone call era. Don’t forget the endless stream of: “But there’s more!” and “Operators are standing by.” A universal sales technique, do PR firms still believe that the “urgency” ploy really has effect? I suppose if I wanted to make a gourmet meal, there was always the “Bass-o-Matic.”
Just plain bizarre
And a somewhat gender-bending (considered very provocative in 1972) take on the locker room culture in American sports from Vitalis Dry Control. Women had come a long way, baby. I think.
“Nice game, Bob!”
Now we “click,” place items in our “cart,” and occasionally interact with a disinterested and usually underpaid salesperson or clerk at stores and shops. I have finally reached the point where I no longer watch my favorite programs in real time. Back in the day you felt like you belonged to an event being shared by millions. Think: Roots. It used to be that there was so much excitement. You would discuss it the following day with colleagues, family and friends. But the obnoxious and overbearing nature of the advertisement business has made me flee! Now – and thankfully – most on demand programming allows you to fast forward through the blur of inanity. It seems like only last year when this was not the case. I suppose that one advantage of a saturation of new networks – added seemingly almost daily – in order to keep you watching, they are allowing you not to be forced to watch the idiotic creations of agencies whose contrived humor or manipulative sentimentality can make it dangerous to operate heavy machinery. Or turn into this:
No other words, really. If you grew up in Southern California, Cal Worthington was the clown of late night television. If the movie was boring, his jingles and jangles would wake you from your stupor. Give the man credit: he could sell cars.
Ask yourself this: When was the last time you bought something as a direct result of a television ad or campaign?
For me? Probably “Creepy Crawlers.”
For those of you that enjoy seeing what constitutes award-winning advertising, click here.
And for the sentimental folks reading this piece, multi-billion-dollar corporation or not, it is lovely to see the next generation of the Hillside Singers with their spouses, families, children twenty years on.
Featured Image courtesy of Coca-Cola