40 Years of Scoops, Bloops and Other Surprises From Adweek’s Archives

Plus, what we nailed and where we failed

Michael Jordan, and iPod and Joe Camel
Here's a look at some of the more noteworthy fare that’s popped up in our pages since 1979. Adweek

From the Archives

A magazine that produces an issue a week for four decades puts out a lot of information—and we mean, like, a lot. Some quick back-of-the-envelope math reveals that somewhere around 1,800 issues of Adweek have come off the presses, which puts our total article count well into the six figures. (Throw in the web-only content, and we’re easily over a million.) How can we possibly summarize all the news, views, people, companies and trends we’ve covered? Well, we can’t, of course. So instead, we compiled the following sampler. Here’s some of the more noteworthy fare that’s popped up in our pages since 1979.

The Adweek Crystal Ball

Given a front-row seat to developing news, magazines are in a unique position to spot trends before they become trends. Adweek is no exception. Over the course of 40 years, we saw a good many people, products and movements that we flagged—early—as game-changing stuff. But we also missed as much as we caught. So, time to come clean. Below, some highlights of what we nailed and what—at least in retrospect—we failed.

We Nailed It!

“Men are parents, too.” (1981)

Michael Jordan has potential as a brand endorser. (1984)

“The age of bottled water” has arrived. (1985)

“Catering to people with food allergies” is important. (1988)

“Thinking” cars are coming. (1988)

“Most of the kids” consuming black culture “are white.” (1992)

Department stores should “embrace the web” or miss out. (1998)

iTunes is “worth keeping an eye on.” (2006)

“Consumers are growing more comfortable spending real money on virtual goods.” (2011)

Gen Zers are “the new power players of consumerism.” (2012)

We Blew It!

“Companies looking to influence members of Congress directly through issue advertising might be better off writing letters.” (1981)

“AIDS isn’t a twentieth-century black plague. Heterosexuals … are virtually risk free.” (ad, 1986)

Fax machines will do a “bang up business” in the coming years. (1987)

Commercial jingle writing is “rewarding” and a “serious business.” (1987)

“Newspapers remain a wonderful franchise.” (1988)

Joe Camel is “a property that could fare well for the brand for a very long time.” (1988)

“The Trump name has obviously been a success in business travel, real estate [and] casinos.” (1989)

Minivans are a “hot product.” (1989)

A “lucrative new market” is “the Soviet Union and Hungary.” (1989)

Online ads are only “experimental.” (1998)

Well, This is Embarrassing

Any publication that’s put out over 2,000 print issues (never mind the website) is bound to rack up its share of, well, regrettable things—terms that shouldn’t have been used, jokes that shouldn’t have been told and attitudes that would be better kept in check. Adweek is, of course, as guilty as any of them. As the blame-deflecting politicians like to say: “Mistakes were made.” Here are a few of ours.

Now that Americans are aware that body shaming is an actual thing (and a problem), poking fun at someone’s weight is simply not funny. But 33 years ago, it apparently was—at least for us. In the fall of 1986, we selected a new ad for Prince spaghetti sauce as one of our “Best Packaged-Goods Ads” for the year. Designed to promote Prince spaghetti sauce’s Original and Chunky varieties, the spot featured a reproduction of the Mona Lisa above the first headline and, above the second, a Mona Lisa to which the brand had added meaty fingers, a corpulent bust and a double chin.

When tennis legend Billie Jean King separated from her partner Marilyn Barnett in 1981, news of the split—of the relationship, period—nearly destroyed King’s career. In a May story about King being dropped from a sponsorship deal with pharma giant Squibb, Adweek squirmed away from mentioning any specifics (“relationship” or “lesbian” appear nowhere in the copy)—preferring instead to refer to Barnett’s suit as “Galimony.”

Racial stereotyping has been a lamentable presence in advertising since the beginning, but Adweek hardly placed itself with more enlightened minds with a story in its Aug. 17, 1987, issue. As part of our “new and noteworthy” sampler, we lauded a print ad for Old El Paso that featured an Asian man (complete with prominent teeth and a coolie hat) with the headline: “Make great Mexican even if your name is No Kan Du.”

Just as women were beginning to make serious strides in the boys’ club of advertising, Adweek decided to weigh in with some helpful career advice. In the summer of 1983, we published some tips on getting a pay raise titled “Memo to Females”—authored by a man, no less. Tucked into our priceless tutorial was this tidbit: “The days when you could bat your eyes at your boss and show him a flash of thigh are over.”

When Advertising Week pitched its tent in town in September 2006, Adweek published a helpful insert directing our readers to some of the flashier sessions. Among them: a “provocative” and “full spectrum” sit-down featuring Charlie Rose interviewing Harvey Weinstein. In fairness, none of the later charges of sexual impropriety against these media titans was public yet. Still, the hindsight coaxes a shiver.

What Were They Thinking?

The only trouble with a great idea is: Allow for the passage of time, and suddenly it doesn’t sound so great after all. Below, some notable flops from the higher minds of advertising and branding.

Pee Wee says crack is whack
Of the many efforts made to discourage Americans from using drugs, few were as out of touch as Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” effort of the 1980s. But few of the celebrity-heavy PSAs of the time were quite as ridiculous as the anti-drug messages advanced by Pee Wee Herman. “With his face a white mask and those glowing red lips,” we said in our Aug. 31, 1987, issue, “Pee Wee looks like Dracula.”

When in Mississippi, keep your pants on
The teenage years are ones of discovery and experimentation, especially when it comes to you know what. But in the summer of 1998, the state of Mississippi decided to treat its adolescents to a statewide cold shower. A PSA from the state’s Department of Human Services didn’t talk about protected sex; it hired teens to go on camera and recommend no sex at all. Adweek caught up with the campaign’s creative lead, who leveled with us when it came to fulfilling the creative brief. “Talk about a tough product,” he said.

New Coke? No thanks.
What do you do when you have a secret recipe for the most popular soft drink in history? Why, mess with it, of course. In April 1985, Cola-Cola, spooked by declining market share, rolled out New Coke, a sweeter version of the famous soft drink. Its immediate result was to send millions of Americans stampeding into stores to buy up supplies of the old Coke. As Adweek reported a few months later: “The Cola-Cola Company admitted last week that it had grievously misread the desires of a huge segment of the American public.”

Just imagine: You could smell like a trucker
The global fragrance market is a $44 billion business today, and there’s room for scents of every sort. But it’s doubtful there would ever be room for a scent called Long Haul, the first (and probably sole) cologne themed after trucking. “Now there is a scent for the man who spends his career crossing the asphalt arteries of America,” we reported in our Dec. 3, 1984, issue. Long Haul’s maker was clear that the fragrance didn’t make you smell like a trucker; it was “for the average working man.” Still, it was also a flat.

Sound Familiar?

Everybody likes to complain about the business they’re in, and the advertising, branding and media industries are surely no exception. So, go ahead and bitch—but know this: Odds are that whatever you’re grousing about is nothing new. In fact, many of the industry’s most common complaints have been around for years, even generations. Below, a few examples from the back issues of Adweek.

Agency life sucks.
“Advertising agency professionals stuffer from many … symptoms of stress,” we said in 1981. “Yet few agency executives will acknowledge the problem exists.”

The industry gives out too many awards.
The ad business, we observed in 1984, offers “a plentitude of awards requiring that people looking dreadfully uncomfortable in evening wear … make annual pilgrimages to banquet halls to grab plaques and other assorted plauditory collectibles to be mounted in the office, den, garage, or thrown away.”

Americans hate cable companies.
“Everyone is out to get cable operators,” we reported in 1998, noting that at the dawn of the 1990s, “the cable industry treated its customers so badly that about half the callers to Congress mentioned that they couldn’t get their local cable companies to pick up the phone.”

Customers don’t feel secure online.
Think this worry is new? Over 20 years ago, in 1998, Adweek reported that while the internet might be super popular, “when it comes to buying things … many consumers abide by the classic admonition of horror-movie trailers: Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

Publicists don’t understand what editors want.
As we summed up a survey of editors and reporters in 2014, “The most common complaints from publishers is a failure on PR’s part to do proper research before the pitch.”

Check out the rest of Adweek’s 40th anniversary coverage:

Photo credits: Jordan: Courtesy of Nike; iTunes: Getty Images;  Bitcoin: Getty Images; Joe Camel: Getty Images; Fax: Getty Images; Advertisement: Prince; King: Bettmann/Getty Images; Weinstein & Rose: Joe Schildhorn—Patrick McMullan via Getty Images; New Coke: Bettmann/Getty Images

This story first appeared in the Dec. 9, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.