Opinion: Verizon Dials Up the ’80s

There’s a definite 1980s revival vibe in the air, and it’s not only due to the posthumous worship of John Hughes movies and reexamination of the artistry of Michael Jackson. The recently released hit Hot Tub Time Machine takes a group of guys back to the year 1986. We’re also seeing a slew of remakes of ’80s Hollywood movies like The Karate Kid. There’s an ’80s influence in fashion, too, with asymmetrical haircuts, leggings and booties, one-shouldered T-shirts and studded bags coming back to haunt us like a bad perm. (And, in fact, Japanese perms are hot now, too.)

Now, Verizon Wireless has parodied the iconic music and clunky imagery of Wrigley’s old Big Red commercials for an online spot now running as a pre-roll on sites like MTV.com, NBC.com and AOL.com. The “Kiss a little longer” fest, from BBDO Chicago, debuted in 1979, so it fits into the whole ’80s revival trend. It continued to air in some form right up through the early ’90s, so the Verizon spoof will tap a nostalgic vein not only for those who remember the ’80s but for anyone born as late as 1986 or so. (That covers at least two generations of people who can text and chew gum at the same time.)

As it turns out, the Verizon redo, from McCann Erickson in New York, is less a remembrance of the giant-shoulder-pad decade and more just a clever celebration of timelessly bad advertising. It links to something we know — the Big Red jingle aired so much, and has such a repetitive hook, that it’s hard-wired into our brains. And the nostalgia part makes us smile.

That said, there’s no apparent connection to Verizon — except for the fact (known primarily by journalists and people in the telecom industry) that the V-brand is colloquially called Big Red. That, in turn, started the whole red-state/blue-state 3G-coverage war of the maps that Verizon has been waging endlessly in advertising with AT&T and its good soldier, Luke Wilson.

(Come to think of it, with the emergence of the more extreme members of the Tea Party, the old red-state/blue-state designations apply less and less in politics. For better or worse, the red/blue maps now belong mostly to these wireless carriers, whose color-coded cartography battle began in the fall of 2009.)

So, appropriating the hilariously cheeseball imagery and lyrics of an unforgettable gum campaign is one way for Verizon to continue the relentless pounding about who has the better network without aggressively alienating already map-scarred viewers.

The Big Red spoof was created within the same well-received campaign as two broadcast spots: “Island of Misfit Toys” came out around Christmas, and “Silhouettes,” a parody of De Beers’ “A diamond is forever” advertising, broke around Valentine’s Day. While riffing on well-known cultural references, both of those spots showed the blue-mapped phones as limp and useless. Take that, AT&T!

But back to the gum.

The Verizon ad spoofs the most famous of the old Big Red spots, one that was hokey and dated even by the visual standards of 1979, filled with scenarios that are so peculiar that they appear to come from some other space/time dimension (an American cousin, if you will, to the Mentos surreality). Take the opening image, which showed a sculptor in a dust-covered cap chiseling a statue of two lovers kissing out of cardboard marble, while the two actual people sit there snogging next to it. The sculptor’s cap is right out of 1579 or so — the headwear of a real Renaissance man.

Clearly, the original spot was done by some Michelangelo of bad taste, setting unconscious standards for camp and kitsch that only Old Navy later knowingly tried to reach. And the Verizon version hits every fiercely cheesy detail. It opens with a shot of competing red phones and blue phones, the way Big Red showed little stumpy cinnamon competitor Dentyne against its own longer stick. But instead of lovers who won’t stop making out, the new ad shows Verizon users (including a goofy uniformed bellhop) who won’t stop looking at their phones — as the red coverage map pops up over their heads. The camping scene is particularly odd, with a plaid-shirted dad shining a flashlight in his face and apparently acting out a ghost story next to a tent as three kids play video games on their phone.