With websites, mobile technology and streaming services offering new avenues for advertising, television commercials are accounting for an increasingly smaller proportion of brands’ overall ad spend. And smaller budgets mean TV spots often don’t carry the same cachet they once did. Instead of setting the cultural agenda, TV ads now often reference pop culture and memes from other media.
But it wasn’t always that way.
For decades, Americans could communicate with one another through TV commercials. Their catchy jingles and memorable taglines helped form and inform the zeitgeist.
Nothing typified that more than the 1980s, which gave us some of the most iconic TV commercials. Even if you weren’t alive yet, it’s likely you can still sing along to many of these jingles, or remember the catchy slogans.
Here are some of the most memorable:
“Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?”
Show me kids born in the ‘80s, and I’ll show you kids who almost certainly poked their heads out the sunroof of a rented prom limo and shouted Dijon mustard brand Grey Poupon’s tagline at unsuspecting passersby.
“I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!”
This classic 1987 low-budget ad from LifeCall was instantaneous parody fodder upon its release—and for good reason. Whether it’s the bad acting, the overly earnest dialogue, the seemingly endless repetitions on daytime TV or all of the above, the classic tagline has stuck with us well into the meme age.
“I’m a Toys “R” Us kid”
Now that Toys “R” Us has folded, let’s shed a tear for future generations who will never get the chance to be Toys “R” Us kids. For the rest of us, though, there will always be this earworm of a jingle to remember our favorite toy store of yesteryear.
“Tastes great, less filling”
From its first airing, this tiny four-word tagline for Miller Lite wormed its way into the zeitgeist. From ballparks to theme parks, it quickly became a fun way for opposing sides to tease one another.
“Calgon, take me away!”
What’s a Calgon? In one of its many iterations, Calgon was promoted not as a water softener but rather as bubble bath. This catchphrase, however, took on a life of its own, and people still utter it when the world is in chaos and they just need a break.
“Clap on! Clap off! Clap on; clap off—The Clapper!”
In the ‘80s, a few clever ad agencies discovered that making intentionally campy, almost bad advertisements was an easy way to get the public to pay attention. Think “Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia!” or this simple yet catchy ditty.
“Who wears short shorts?”
What do you get when you take a ‘50s pop song, throw in some leggy dancers and tweak the lyrics to match your brand? You get this enduring classic from Nair that somehow made depilatory cream sexy.
“My buddy, my buddy, my buddy and me”
Piggybacking off the commercial success of Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, the My Buddy doll was marketed to boys. Its jingle—and its companion Kid Sister song—could play on repeat in your brain for days.
“I heard it through the grapevine”
For a few years in the mid- to late ‘80s, these little wrinkled rockers promoting the California raisin industry were everywhere: talk shows, TV specials, cereal boxes and, of course, commercials. Although their fame fizzled in the ‘90s, the California Raisins are still very much alive, with talk of a stop-motion feature film in the works.
“Gimme a break”
Although the “Gimme a Break” slogan predated the 1980s, it didn’t quite catch on until the updated jingle was paired with Kit Kat-loving friends asking to “break me off a piece of that Kit Kat bar.”
“This is your brain on drugs”
One of the most enduring PSAs of all time, this ad was just the right amount of frightening and accessible to scare an entire generation about the dangers of drug use. Even today, parody advertisements and follow-ups are still being made.
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