Opening Up A Can of Whup-Ads: Advertising in the 1980s and '90s

Part 3 of Trove's ad nauseam blog series


Hello again loyal readers! This week we’re witnessing the passing of a dear, dear friend--our Ad Nauseam blog series. As a group of boys who later became men once said, “so now we’ve the end of the road.” With these week’s blog, we conclude our journey through the decades by boogieing past the right on ‘70s and entering the veritably gnarly decades that were the 1980s and ‘90s.

Our first stop this week, the totally tubular 1980s. That’s right baby, it’s going to be pretty “fresh.”

bless the rains down in ad-frica

After the societal revolution that was the 1960s and ‘70s, the cultural pot that had boiled over finally simmered down in the 1980s, a period which saw much less political unrest. (Unfortunately, it saw also a complete and wanton disregard for dressing like a normal human being and played pretty fast and loose with the word “fashion” but, I digress.) The world was by no means tiptoeing through the tulips though, there was still quite a fair share of problems which affected America; there was Cold War tension early in the decade, the Tiananmen Square protests in China, the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, as well as the evolution of Al-Qaeda in the Middle East. Despite all of that, America still found a way to improve its economy and watch it, as well as positive international relationships, really begin to grow. Some would attribute that to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, culminating in him ordering Mikhail Gorbachev to, in truly manly fashion, “tear down this wall.” America was still prospering though, and with that prosperity came an incredible era in advertising.

However, if one were to look at the proverbial hoops advertisers had to jump through during the ‘80s, it would seem like it’d be an era of failure more than an one of success. The conquering the latest technologies the 1980s dropped on America seemed almost as likely as not crying during a viewing of “Terms of Endearment” (DON’T JUDGE IT’S DIFFICULT TO DO). A little show by the name of CNN dropped in 1980, which sold advertising to countries all over the world, helping U.S. advertising spread farther than ever before. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, MTV showed up in the ‘80s as well, as video effectively carried out the ruthless assassination of the radio star. Together, these two channels represented the beginning of a new age of television, where advertisers could now hone their target audience--cable. By the end of the decade, the Three Amigos (or Amigas, we don’t discriminate) of broadcast television, NBC, ABC, and CBS claimed about 19 percent each of television’s audience, while cable and independent channels had a little over 40 locked down, as more and more channels began to join MTV and CNN on the dark side.



Another pair of villains that began to axe their way through the door of advertising in the ‘80s was the dreaded duo of the remote control and VCR, the second scariest twins advertisers saw in the ‘80s (yes, I referenced “The Shining” twice in one sentence, and that’s okay). With that duo, television audiences could either record television and speed through the commercials, or flip to another channel once whatever they were watching took a commercial break. That’s when advertisers went all John Hughes and found their brat pack in the form of 15 second ads, the infomercial, and home-shopping networks.

With the public’s attention span beginning to run thin thanks to the VCR and remote, advertisers had to resort to either getting to the point as quickly as possible, getting a big name to represent their product to rope viewers in, or have them tune in solely for the sake of looking for commercial goods, and each of those methods accomplished those goals, respectively. Brands like “Nair” and “Energizer” were popular early examples of 15 second commercials thanks to the shrill cries of bare-legged women crying out “WE WEAR SHORT SHORTS!” and a rabbit going H.A.M. on a bass drum; Mr. T called you a fool and, therefore, pitied you if you didn’t buy the FlavorWave Oven Turbo, while Brooke Shields frequently washed her hair with Wella Balsam shampoo and encouraged you to do the same in a pair of running infomercials from the decade; and a dude by the name of John Eastman introduced an AM/FM shower radio on the first ever episode of QVC back in 1986. These were just some weapons that advertisers used to wage war on the pernicious pairing that was the VCR and remote control. Of course, we had our fair share of popular, more traditional ads in the ‘80s as well, such as an elderly woman, mad with power, asking “Where’s the Beef?” to tell viewers that the beef is, in fact, at Wendy’s, as well as Michael Jackson doing his “cha’mone” on behalf of Pepsi and Ridley Scott creating one of the greatest ads of all time for Apple’s new Mac. But really, the story of the decade was the evolution of technology, something that would continue as we move into the 1990s with the advent of the one, the only, the internet! Queue the dial-up sound!

the bomb dot com

Think I could have possibly ended this blog series on any decade besides the ‘90s? As if! As much as there is to dig into the 2000s and 2010s, chances are everybody reading these has been alive for those decades, unless we have some very literate infantile followers or fandom coming from beyond the grave (a.k.a. phantom fandom, you’re welcome). So, it’s ‘bout time we roll to the ‘90s, a decade defined by two massive factors, the World Wide Web and Generation X. Starting to have the faint aroma of teen spirit around here, eh?

So, let’s start with the dubya dubya dubya. Once one did battle with the techno-screeching of the dial-up, they found more information at their disposal they ever had before. It’s like that scene where the ape in “2001: A Space Odyssey” figures out that he could use a bone to beat the hell out of his ape-adversaries and next thing you know we’re launched into the future. Suddenly people had significant control over what content they wanted, when they wanted it, and how they wanted it, along with the ability of increased access to information. On top of the birth of new “dot-com” businesses like eBay and Amazon which sold products directly to the customers, this also changed advertising in that it gave advertisers a new venue to campaign, albeit a very expensive one at the time (Hotwired began charging 30,000 dollars for 12 weeks of advertising online in 1994, a pretty hefty price at the time), but also challenged advertisers to have to become much more specialized in their approach. Ethnicity, age, race, and values all were able to be targeted, and advertisers utilized specialized consultants and various different departments to do so.

x gon' give it to ya'


Speaking of values, those were very much in question by those aging baby boomers as a new generation changed the cultural landscape of the decade--Generation X. The head-banging, authority-defying, cynicism-spreading generation was hitting their twenties and thirties by this time, and they were taking the world by the cajones led by the likes of Kurt Cobain, the man who sold the world. Similar to the counterculture revolution of the 1960s, advertisers quickly took advantage of the skepticism of the new bulk of its audience, and proceeded to create some truly memorable, irreverent, and comedic ads that were just totally flippant or ridiculous. Macho Man Randy Savage screamed at you to “SNAP INTO A SLIM JIM,” while a couple of extreme teens instructed you to “Do the Dew.” Bud went on a rampage, putting a gang of frogs on display ribbiting the titular brand in excellent vocal choreography, while also presenting us with a posse of pals casually asking one another “WASSUUUUP?” A seemingly hispanic chihuahua implored people for some Taco Bell, and an endless lineup of celebrities and non-celebrities alike inquired as to whether or not you “Got Milk?” All of these famous ads went hand-in-hand with the internet, as their ability to go viral made them even greater phenomenons than they would have been initially. Halfway through the decade, total web ad spending was at 300 million, and by the end of the decade, it was nearly at a billion, a trend which would continue into the new, technology-dominated millennium we live in now…


So whoop, there it is! Here ends the tale of advertising through the ages, and what a tale it was, undoubtedly comparable to the likes of Homer’s “The Odyssey” and Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” I’m very fond of you little hobbits for reading, and while Ad Nauseam must end, stay tuned for future blogs from Trove that we post weekly on our website! As a little sign off, here are some of the best ads that we at Trove are major fans of, being children of the ‘80s and ‘90s ourselves. Thanks for reading!