One fringe benefit of discovering the Steampipe Alley tapes (other than being able to expose the world to the genius of Mario Cantone): they were also full of some “classic” ads from yesteryear. Anyone who reads this site with any regularity will know that I have a thing for old commercials. Because I think commercials say a lot more about their respective eras than other media do. After all, art wants to be timeless, but ads are aimed at The Now.
These ads are even more special to me. Why? Because they ran on WWOR, an independent station. So the spots are a little cheaper and a little more home grown.
I realize that many of the ads you’ll see below only resonate with me because I remember them from being a kid. I’ll cop to that. Because if you can’t indulge yourself once in a while, you can you indulge, really?
For instance, this spot for Young People’s Day Camp. This ad ran, virtually unchanged, for my entire childhood. The narration, music, and footage stayed the same for at least ten years. I imagine their PR/marketing department was run by one tyrannical, crusty, cigar-chomping veteran who refused to acknowledge that times change. “Look, the ad worked in 1979, it’ll work in 1995. Why shouldn’t it?!”
Young People’s Day Camp weren’t the only ones resistant to change. This ad for Charms Blow Pops comes from the same tape, which dates from 1988. However, as I’m sure you’ll notice, the ad itself was produced a tad earlier than that.
The rest of these ads, I’m pretty sure, date from around 1988. At that time, I guess some telecom rules changed or some loophole was just being exploited, because the Steampipe Alley contain acres of ads for 1-900 numbers. Like this one, which enticed kids to play video games on the phone. Or maybe it was more of a “choose your own adventure” kind of thing. They’re just vague enough to entice you to call up and find out for yourself, the clever bastards.
If you were into music, you could try 999-HITS, featuring fabulous prizes and the easiest rock trivia under the sun.
Or if you felt like scaring yourself, call up 999-1717 for bone-chilling tales, or something. This ad wants you to believe that winter is the best time to be frightened. What I believe: this company couldn’t get its act together in time for Halloween.
Here’s another baffling one: Call up and talk to Candy Claus! I assume she’s related to The Big Man in some way, though the ad never quite says how. They also say she’s “the Christmas Seal child”, and the American Lung Association is mentioned, but how (or if) this call benefits them is not explicitly mentioned.
In the food department, kid-oriented ads had already gone down the route of ACTION! Like in this spot for Corn Pops, where all the kids are dunking basketballs, diving into pools, or getting blasted in the face with cereal, accompanied by a song rejected for the Miami Vice soundtrack.
If you were in the mood to tap your toes, you could pick up a pack of Fruit Slush, which turned kids into budding Flashdancers. If you never had it, Fruit Slush (a frequent giveaway on Steampipe Alley) tasted exactly how it sounds.
Did I have the baseball sticker album featured in this ad? You bet I did. In fact, I went nuts trying to complete this very set, to no avail. Even so, I can’t imagine it being able to distract entire little league teams, as it does here.
I don’t remember Plantsters, seen here, and I usually remember the dumbest, lamest, flash-in-the-pan crap. Looks kinda fun, and educational, showing you how to grow your own garden. I’m guessing it never took off because of the horrifying anthropomorphic plant featured in the ad.
Here’s an example of something I’m sure looked great when it came out and looks like total garbage now: Footnotes, the keyboard you play with your feet, because all kids in 1988 wanted to be Robert Loggia and/or Tom Hanks. Hear how bad it sounds in the commercial? That was the best sound they could get out of it. Imagine how awful it must have sounded in real life.
Never mind that kids can play dress up using their parents’ clothes, thus making the Dressing Pretty set seen here totally useless. But one girl is dressing up like a bride at age 6. Isn’t that kinda weird? Or do all girls plan their weddings while in kindergarten?
But just because these ads aired during Steampipe Alley didn’t mean they were all aimed at kids. I can’t imagine too many kids being interested in insulated windows, so this ad for Aalco had to be targeted squarely at the parents. I love everything about this ad. I love the barely adequate green-screen technology. I love the aggressive Jersey-ness of the spokesman. I love the money flying out of, then back into, the windows. And I love how the windows look slightly crooked.
Obviously, I’m putting this Newmark and Lewis ad here so we can all laugh at the old electronics. But consider this: in 20 years, that iPhone’s gonna look pretty cheesy, won’t it? Don’t feel so smart now, do ya?
After years of scientific research, I have finally found it: the most sexist, sociopathic commercial of the 1980s. I present to you an ad from Profiles and Contours, a plastic surgery firm. Take a hot knife to your face so you can make your husband jealous! Enjoy! Or vomit, like I did.
I love this ad. You hear that, Time Magazine? U.S. News and World Report president jack Drasner is sick of your shit. And he’s gonna give out free stereos until you crash and burn.
And of course, there were ads for other WWOR programming, like this spot for People Are Talking, a public affairs show starring a young-ish Richard Bey and the mommiest 80s mom who ever mommed.
Here’s a promo for The Kids’ Place, channel 9’s block of early morning children’s shows, back when it was still okay to break up educational fare like Romper Room with actual funny stuff like Bugs Bunny.
Here’s a promo for holiday specials on WWOR. Anyone have any memory of The Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold? Cuz I sure don’t. I think maybe the boys at Rankin-Bass got a couple of holidays mixed up by accident and let the chips fall where they may.
“Hey, we accidentally put a leprechaun into a shot for this Christmas special. Guess we gotta reshoot.”
“Oh no, that’ll take hours, and this shit’s gotta be in the can by the end of the next week! It’s easier to rewrite the script than redo any shots. Just run with it!”
“Clarence, listen, this is your agent. I got you lined up to do this ad for AFS.”
“AFS? What is that, some kinda disesase?”
“No, it’s the student exchange program.”
“So what does this gig pay?”
“Nothing. But all you gotta do is stand on the Brooklyn Heights promenade for 10 minutes, play ‘America the Beautiful’ and boom, $5K tax writeoff for charity.”
“Sounds good. Is Little Steven coming too.”
“No, of course not.”
“Oh, thank God!”
No 80s ad retrospective would be complete without a look at the Chubb Institute, a name that once delighted 10-year-olds across this nation.