Saturday, April 16, 2011

The tropes of '80s commercials

Last night after slogging through The Accidental Tourist*, the latest in John's losing streak of movie picks (he's seriously some kind of mad savant when it comes to finding films with good pedigrees that are nonetheless god-awful; see After Hours and They All Laughed), we watched a bunch of '80s commercials on YouTube, which was endlessly entertaining. After watching close to a hundred commercials from any given era, you really start to see some patterns. Here were the big ones:
  • The "Balanced Breakfast": So we're all familiar with the cliche of the balanced breakfast. The weird thing, the thing I didn't remember, is that the balanced breakfast, no matter the cereal, always looks exactly the same: two slices of toast with butter, a big glass of milk and a big glass of orange juice. Sometimes it's real toast, sometimes it's cartoon toast, but there's always the toast and the multiple beverages. What the hell? Wouldn't you expect the balanced breakfast to include, like, fruit or something? Or an egg? Why would anyone eat a bowl of cereal and then, to balance it, add more processed wheat and another pint of milk? In the late '80s, when fiber became all the rage, the toast became two bran muffins in some instances.
  • Businessmen: There are only a few kinds of males in '80s commercials: adorable/annoying kids, aggressively blue-collar guys with accents (see the Liquid Plumber commercial where they repeatedly compare the "thin stuff" and the "thick stuff"), and businessmen. The vast majority of males in commercials were businessmen. Businessmen eating cereal, businessmen drinking coffee, businessmen taking Pepto Bismal, businessmen lifting their arms to prove they wear Sure/use Dial, etc. (Women, on the other hand, are either sensible housewives, high-power secretaries, or out of your league.)
  • Gum Makes You Cool: Chewing bubble gum, putting gum in your mouth (especially in such a way that the stick folds in half visibly as you push it against your tongue), popping a big bubble on your face, stretching your gum out in a tether between your teeth and your fingers (the epitome of cool, I thought, when I was a kid): these activities all signal that you are awesome and having an awesome time. (My old friend Marisa has a distinct memory of putting her hair up in a side ponytail, checking herself out in the mirror approvingly, and thinking, "I need some gum.")
  • White People: Everything was marketed at white people in the '80s. Especially notably, McDonald's and other fast-food joints (Wendy's and Burger King were big) were all trying to appeal to a higher tax bracket than they do now. The only commercials we saw with black actors were for laundry detergent/fabric softener, whatever that means.
  • Gender Stereotypes: Evident throughout, of course (this hasn't changed), I was especially appalled by the kids' toys. The stuff for boys was SO FREAKING VIOLENT. It's like, aircraft carriers that unfold into missile silos that transform into nuclear warfare. WTF?! Toy company executives should be taken out and shot by the bloodthirsty Republicans they've created. Girl toys, of course, are sickeningly domestic and thoroughly pink. Barbie's furniture is all pink. Who buys a pink dining room table, I ask you? I noticed that board games, on the other hand, are always depicted in play by both a boy and a girl (if not a whole family). Why is it that only board games are gender-neutral?
  • Nightlife: The mid-80s-era commercials for Michelob, to which the night belongs: so hot, right? Singles' night out in New York. When I saw these as a kid I couldn't wait to be a grown-up. The aesthetics remind me of the video for George Michael's "Father Figure" (my favorite karaoke number, FYI). See both below.





*Up until watching this, John had a theory that William Hurt had never been in a bad movie. But wow is this a stinker. Within the first five minutes we were looking at each other like, "What?" It's so stiff and phony you think it must be by design, but eventually you realize it's just tone-deaf, poorly acted and poorly directed. I like Kathleen Turner so much better as a comic actress. Geena Davis is a bright spot though, and I liked the dog character, sort of.

25 comments:

  1. I really want to start a novel/epic poem with "In the late '80s, when fiber became all the rage,..." I assume board games are gender-neutral because the family qua unit is? Card games are similarly gender-neutral but for obvious reasons aren't advertised as heavily.

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  2. I think you can guess which two movies I just added to my queue:)

    As the middle ground between Transformers and My Little Pony, board games brought the sexes together and ensured the perpetuation of the species, and specifically American civilization, an important consideration during the Cold War.

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  3. Sarang, I just think it's interesting that they didn't end up splitting kid-directed board games up into two sets and marketing them separately. There were some of those -- Battleship was clearly designed with dudes in mind (though I liked it), and our side had "Girl Talk" (yay/ugh) (who could forget "Zit Stickers"), but for the most part the board games for kids were neutral (Hungry Hippos, Mousetrap, Operation, Candy Land, etc.).

    It makes more sense that adult-ish board games like Risk and Monopoly would be for everyone.

    Matt, good luck. What's the second one, They All Laughed? You didn't add that to the queue when I blogged it the first time?

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  4. Did you see any that had synchronized dancing? I remember a lot of dancing in 80s commercials, but that could be flashbacks from watching Breakin' as many times as they played it on Cinemax.

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  5. The dancing commercials that I remember seeing were Jason Alexander's McDLT spot (not synchronized) and one from the '90s for Folger's coffee that featured Irish step dancing, clearly a Lord of the Dance thing. (This whole thing started because we were looking for those old Folgers Crystals commercials where they swap out the coffee for instant and supposedly no one notices.)

    I also remember a Dr. Pepper commercial where a guy dances around an apartment singing to a can of soda to the tune of "Doctor, doctor, give me the news..."

    I'm sure there were also commercials inspired by Fame and Flashdance.

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  6. Hmm I must have missed that day.

    Just in case They All Laughed sours you against Bogdanovich, I would recommend The Last Picture Show, which affected me emotionally. It's about Texas!

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  7. I saw The Last Picture Show long ago, so no souring.

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  8. Do modern day cereal commercials still mention the balanced breakfast? I can't remember the last time I saw a commercial for cereal.

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  9. I fucking love 'Father Figure.' Always did. Thanks for attaching the video!

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  10. Matt, I'm not sure -- I think it was only kid's cereals that had that messaging. So you'd probably have to watch cartoons to find out.

    Josephine, glad you're also a fan!

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  11. I'm thinking that one reason for showing a boy and girl together playing a board game is to appeal to parents to buy the game -- Look, Mom and Dad, this game will make your kids stop fighting and start getting along. Something like that.

    The "balanced breakfast" thing, as I recall, happened in the aftermath of a lot of bad press cereal companies were getting for trying pushing cereals that were heavy with sugar. They tried to put a bandaid on the problem by seeming to actually care about kids' health and nutrition.

    One commercial from the '80's (early '80's, I want to say) that I remember clearly, that had dancing in it, was for one of the brands of "designer" blue jeans that were popular at the time. The commercial showed grade school kids in a classroom, standing up and dancing suggestively with each other(!), the whole roomful of them. The song, and the dancing, were vaguely disco-ish as I'm recalling it. I vaguely remember the presence of the teacher (a woman), though I don't remember clearly how she related to the scene.

    I've never seen The Accidental Tourist, or After Hours, or They All Laughed. Regarding Peter Bogdanovich, I liked The Last Picture Show, and also two others he directed, Paper Moon, and Noises Off.

    Noises Off is just hilarious. My sister, years ago, saw the original Broadway play of Noises Off, which I gather is even more amazing than the movie, because in the play all of the rapid and high synchronized running in and out of doors, and characters physically struggling with each other backstage, is done real-time, in front of the audience, without the aid of camera edits.

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  12. John loves Noises Off. It's one of his desert island movies, even.

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  13. Wait... really? You didn't like The Accidental Tourist? I LOVE The Accidental Tourist. For years, many, many years, I watched it at least once a year. It's so GRAY. Perfectly gray. I prefer it to The Big Chill. Davis is great in it, Hurt is only squinty-er in Until the End of the World (his character is going blind), and Bill Pulman the agent is charmingly sweater-ish.

    Really? You really don't like it? There must be some mistake.

    As for aircraft carrier toys that turn into rocket launchers: they seem kind when compared to the toy most heavily marketed to boys now--the "rated M for mature" video game. It's those cave-raised zombies I worry about.

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  14. Adam, I'm sorry to say, neither of us liked it. When did you first see it? Maybe it made more sense in the '80s, and you're still viewing it through that lens?? (I love The Big Chill, though, and didn't see it till post-2000.)

    You're lucky you have two girls.

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  15. The relationship between African-Americans and laundry detergent is pretty weird and interesting. Maybe it's a residual white-supremacist association between African-Americans and slavery (i.e. cleaning things)? In the sense that there was no other way for a white viewership to accept/feel comfortable with the presence of African-Americans in the media at the time except for in a "harmless" context, one that "made sense". It could also be a "they're just like us" gesture, much like how the Cosby Show fit an African-American family into the safe parameters of the middle-class family, sort of conditioning a white audience to "accept"/inoculate African-Americans.

    (By the way, I'm in Josh's poetry class—thanks for coming to Vassar! I really enjoyed reading your poems.)

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  16. Hi Raffi, thanks for dropping by! And thank YOU for having me, it was a great class.

    Good point about the Cosby Show.

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  17. I don't think that view of the Cosby Show is fair at all. The show was about depicting a positive image of a black family on tv, rather than the usual criminal stereotypes.

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  18. Hm, I don't see it as a "fairness" issue -- those interpretations aren't mutually exclusive.

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  19. What I mean is that it's not fair to just write it off as being something to appease whites. I'm sure Bill Cosby wouldn't see it that way.

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  20. Nobody's writing anything off. It's just a way of looking at the show. They're not contradictory -- it could be that the producers had pure/positive/not cynical intentions but that viewers were able to accept it only because it was a "safe" (and affluent) depiction of black family life.

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  21. I don't know, that's just the vibe I was getting from Raffi. (A lot different from the vibes I got from Raffi 25 years ago.)

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  22. My comment fields are open to Raffi's opinions and vibes, regardless.

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  24. Matt,

    My point, in my opinion, isn't as black-and-white as to say that the producers were flat-out racist, nor that Cosby himself was intentionally trying to appease whites to make some bank on a TV show. As a young person, I would happily admit that I loved the Cosby Show, and used to watch reruns of it on Nick At Nite like it was my job.

    The Cosby family is "positive", definitely—they absolutely don't fit into the criminal stereotype, and it's great that this sort of racist stereotype wasn't being perpetuated. But it's interesting to think about why and how we perceive them as being "positive". Isn't that just another way of saying that they're socially acceptable? Well-behaved, harmless, middle class—the Cosby Show wasn't made to appease whites, but they are "positive" in that they fit into rather than disrupt the "ideal" of the middle-class family. It's a landmark show for being about a black family, but it's about a black family that fits directly into what is a series of very white paradigms—the middle class, the doctor, the stable family. It eschews all sorts of more interesting possible narratives (What kind of obstacles did Dr. Cosby have to endure in order to become so successful? That would be more interesting, and would deal directly at least at times with racial tension, but it wouldn't really sit well with a lot of white viewers, would it?) As you can see, it's definitely not an explicitly negative message; but it's an "easy" and "safe" way of bringing race into the public sphere—a public sphere that was very much about white families sitting around and watching TV together. Is that a bad thing? I'm not making any value judgements, just trying to figure out what made the Cosby Show so popular as opposed to maybe a show about a disenfranchised single black woman trying to raise a family in a dangerous neighborhood.

    Their status gave them the privilege of seldom having to deal with issues of race. The audience never had to interrogate their own stereotypes—just add a little bit of difference to the ones that they already had (i.e. "Middle class families are good, even African-American ones"). It's like the seemingly harmless "color-blind" attitude that pervades political rhetoric today, which distracts from, rather than dealing with, messy issues of race. ("They're just like us! They have status and security! How nice. Now I don't have to think about their community's struggles.") The show's explicit message was never negative, but anything that's put out there and deals either directly or indirectly with race contains a whole system of implicit messages.

    I love the Cosby Show even with all of this in mind. It's just important for me to realize that it isn't as simple as being a show about "depicting a positive image." I'm sure that's what they intended, and it is in some sense, but there's always a lot more going on. A positive image in whose eyes, and created by whom? Why and how is this image positive? Interesting questions, not an attack on a good show.

    -Raffi

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  25. Raffi, I just wanted to say thanks for returning to comment. I found your perspective smart and enlightening.

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