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The Best TV Commercials of the 1980s

TV commercials hold a surprising amount of nostalgia for many of us. There are even several popular YouTube channels dedicated to TV commercials from bygone eras. The sights and sounds of these ads can evoke an immediate emotional response in people who grew up watching them.

Old TV commercials are worth more than just their sentimental value; these advertisements reflect the era in which they were made. They represent what advertisers wanted to convey at that moment and how everyday people were responding to change during rapidly shifting world events. 

1980s TV commercials have a lot going for them. They embrace the edgier themes and bright colors of the decade, yet watching them now, they still seem relatively wholesome and innocent. This likely has to do with the fact that these commercials aired during the last decade before the internet changed everything. 

Let’s have a look at some of these memorable – and for the companies, profitable – 80’s TV commercials. 

Events That Defined The 1980s 

Some world-changing happenings unfolded during the 1980s. Some of the major headlines included :

  • Reagan wins the Presidency 
  • The fall of the Berlin Wall
  • The Challenger space shuttle explosion 
  • The sinking of the Achille Lauro 
  • The 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles
  • George H.W. Bush wins the presidency

In addition to these world events, many social changes took place in the 1980s. 

The Rise of the Career Woman 

The ripple effects of the feminist movement of the 1960s manifested in some significant ways during the 80s. One of these ways was the focus on women in the workplace. 

Women realized they could have whatever job they wanted, from CEO to astronaut, and were taking steps to make those dreams come true. The career woman became a recurring theme in 80s media and even popular fashions. Thick shoulder pads and high-teased hair made them appear taller and wider, a physical display of their enlarging role in the world. 

Singles and Alternative Families

The eighties brought about changes in family structure. Divorce rates skyrocketed during the 1970s and continued into the 1980s, as no-fault divorce became law in most states. 

This led to high numbers of single people, including single parents, and more people seeking alternatives to the nuclear family. This trend showed up in things like the popularity of single-serving food products and TV shows like Kate and Allie, Diff’rent Strokes, and others that showed non-traditional families. 

Conspicuous Consumption

The term conspicuous consumption basically means using more products – or higher quality products – than is practical. The 80s was the era of this lifestyle, with people wanting bigger and better everything. The desire to live a wealthy life, or at least to give the impression of living one, led some people to spend beyond their means and put themselves in financial peril. 

Changing Racial Dynamics

The 80s brought a mixed bag of race relations. On the one hand, there was a rise in racial violence and increased poverty and upheaval in minority communities. On the other hand, there was a move toward greater representation of racial diversity and interracial relationships in entertainment and advertising. 

Presidents and Political Climate

Although Jimmy Carter was the first president of the decade (1980 and 1981), from 1981 to 1989, Ronald Reagan was President of the United States. His two terms in office helped shape the decade in such a way that those years are referred to as “The Reagan Era”.

Reagan had been a popular movie actor in his youth, and he used his natural charisma and public speaking abilities to win over voters. Despite being in his 70s when he was elected to office, Reagan’s vigor and quick wit allowed him to bring his ideas, and his style of conservatism, to fruition in the nation. 

Conservatism made a strong comeback in America during the 80s. This move to the right was likely a reaction to the effects of socialism and the loosening of social restrictions that played out during the 1960s and 70s. Some people felt that society had “gone too far” to the left. They believed that bringing back traditional values and fiscal conservatism would help revive the country. 

Conservative groups criticized popular music and sought to censor some TV programs in the name of decency. 

The ’80s saw the punk and goth movement growing and their “out there” styles catching on with everyday young people. Increasing acceptance of alternative looks and lifestyles took root as entertainers like Madonna, and Cyndi Lauper advocated for freedom of expression.

Economy and Advertisers

The economy flourished under the Reagan administration. 

His tax cuts and “trickle-down economics” helped boost a nation that had suffered some serious financial setbacks during the 1970s. His solution was by no means perfect; social programs suffered, and the deficit grew. But for a time, the United States experienced its most significant boom in economic growth since World War 2. 

Needless to say, this was an excellent time for brands and advertisers. People felt like they could finally cut loose after the restrictions of the 70’s recession. Because they were optimistic about the future, they made more purchases; especially impulse and luxury purchases. 

Many of the commercials in the 80s were aspirational in nature. They invited people to pursue a higher-end lifestyle and to show off their success by acquiring more possessions. This type of advertising has always been around, but it works best during economic upturns like those in the 1950s and the 80s when people feel upward mobility is within their reach. 

Popular Items Purchased In the 80s

  • Personal computers and game systems. These emerging technologies promised to make life more convenient, fun, and luxurious. Whether it was entertainment or work, these devices allowed people to do what they wanted without leaving their homes. 
  • Answering machines. With busy work hours and full social lives, people in the 80s didn’t spend much time at home. Answering machines made everyday folks feel like CEOs, or they could create silly messages that made their friends and family groan. 
  • Microwaves. Gotta have it, and gotta have it NOW! That was the motto of the ’80s. Microwaves helped families make convenient meals quickly on a busy schedule. 
  • Cars. Everybody wanted up-to-the-minute wheels in the 80s, and with the economy pumping and gas prices falling steadily throughout the decade, it was a great time to drive. 

The Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, Honda Accord, and Chevy Cavalier were top sellers for the average middle-class driver. If you made it big on Wall Street and were living the 80’s dream, you might be able to score a Porsche 969, Ferrari 288 GTO, or even a Delorean. 

1980 TV Habits

TV viewership spiked in the 1980s. For example, in the 1983/84 season, households spent an average of seven hours and 8 minutes of viewing time. 

Television offered more options than ever before in the 80s as cable services expanded to cover more and more households. With so many choices, families often invested in more than one television for the home to avoid arguments over who controlled the remote. 

Who Were The Top Advertisers? 

1980 TV ads had a ton of competition. People spent a lot of time in front of it. With that said, there were a few frontrunners in the advertising industry.

Hasbro and Toymakers

For years, advertisers knew that the way to a parent’s pocketbook was through their kids’ hearts, and in the 80s, they really ramped up the ads aimed at little ones. Companies like Hasbro, Playskool, and Fisher-Price filled the airwaves with bold, fun commercials that made kids’ eyes light up. Many remember the ads for Barbie, Kid Sister, and My Buddy dolls. 

Folgers and Maxwell House

The 80s was a high-energy era. People were always on the move, hustling to succeed. It’s no wonder that coffee brands Folgers and Maxwell House ran frequent ads. 

Folgers’ “Peter Comes Home” commercial was a holiday tearjerker that featured a young man coming home for the holidays to a house full of love and, of course, delicious coffee. 

Maxwell House’s (via parent company General Foods) introduced us to two women recounting their trip to France (and their cute waiter Jean Luc) over a cup of General Foods International Coffee. 

Wendy’s and Fast Food

In a similar vein, fast food companies thrived during the 1980s. People were often in a hurry and wanted quick, tasty meal solutions. While both McDonald’s and Burger King had some memorable ads, Wendy’s came from behind to win with the iconic “Where’s the beef?” tagline. The catchphrase went viral, making the ad that featured two little old ladies one of the best-known of all time. 

Cola Companies 

The so-called Cola Wars were raging in the 80s, with Coke and Pepsi going head to head to see which one came out on top. Both these companies poured millions of dollars into creating indelibly memorable advertisements for their products. 

The Pepsi Generation ad starring Michael Jackson was one of the decade’s most prominent commercials and one of the most iconic ads of all time. The first seconds focus on a group of kids mimicking Jackson’s dance moves on a city street. Soon, Jackson himself shows up to dance with them. 

The commercial featured a young Alfonso Ribiero, who would eventually play Carlton on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Ribiero was a talented dancer as a child, and appearing in that ad greatly helped further his career. 

Popular Eighties Inventions Ads

The 80s gave life to quite a few innovations, from technology to food and more. 

Chicken McNuggets

For those younger than Generation X, it’s probably hard to imagine the world without chicken McNuggets, but the crispy, tasty treats debuted in 1981. In light of emerging trends in diet and lifestyles, McDonald’s decided they wanted to give their customers more alternatives to red meat.

Nintendo Gameboy

Personal video gaming systems were introduced in the late 70s and saw heavy interest during the 80s. Kids used to have to visit their local arcade to enjoy these riveting games, but home entertainment systems like Atari helped bring the fun right into your living room.

We all know by now how important video games have been to generations of kids and adults, and many people remember what their first system and game were. Those of a certain age also remember the excitement surrounding the release of the ‘Nintendo Game Boy’. 

The ‘Nintendo Game Boy’ was introduced in 1989 and allowed players to take their favorite video games wherever they went. Understandably, kids went crazy for this product, and its TV commercials helped feed the fire. 

The Game Boy was the height of cool, and the ads, complete with stylishly-dressed teens and rock music, drove that message home. 

Kodak Disposable Cameras  

The late 1980s brought us a new way to capture special moments. Kodak disposable camera commercials showed people having fun, partying, skiing, and swimming while taking pictures with these new, easy-to-use cameras. 

The Sony Walkman

With the ‘Sony Walkman’, you could access whatever music you liked while on the go. Unlike clunky stereos, they were relatively compact and light. Unlike portable radios, you weren’t limited to whatever was playing on the radio at the time. You could buy whatever cassette tapes you want, pop them into the Walkman, and head out to the bus, a job, or whatever you liked. 

A popular ad for the ‘Sony Walkman’ depicted a man making his way down a busy street in his town while people danced, celebrated, and went about their business to music. The point was that everyone could now experience their daily routines with their chosen music in their ears, thanks to the Walkman. 

Best 1980s TV Commercials 

The 1980s offered some legendary TV commercials fueled by a booming economy and emerging technologies. It’s extremely difficult to pinpoint exactly which ad of the 80s was the greatest, but judging by a combination of creativity, memorability, and cultural impact, the 1984 ‘Apple MacIntosh Computer’ advertisement would have to win the prize. 

The ad references the dystopian George Orwell novel “1984”. 

A dictator addresses a room full of gray, soulless people via a movie screen. Suddenly, an athletic blonde woman is shown running down the auditorium corridor, holding a hammer. As she approaches the movie screen, she swings the hammer shot-put style and lets it go, smashing the screen and the dictator’s image on it. When it explodes, the spellbound audience appears to wake up. 

The voice over then introduces Apple’s new MacIntosh computer, saying it’s why “1984 won’t be like 1984”. 

Ridley Scott directed the commercial, and its drama and strong message made a deep impression on all who saw it. Looking back, it makes even more of an impression now that we know how deeply the advent of home computers went on to affect our world as a whole and us as individuals. 

What was your favorite commercial of the 1980s? Let us know in the comments below.

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  • Avatar for Marjorie Hogarth
    Marjorie Hogarth
    October 30, 2022, 10:00 am

    Looking good

    Reply