The Best TV Commercials of the 1970s
1970 TV was rife with political stresses and cultural anxiety for change. People wanted an end to the Vietnam and Cold Wars.
Domestically, Americans faced an energy crisis.
The best 1970 TV ads leveraged these anxieties to sell their products and reassure their buyers. The world might be in chaos, these 1970 TV ads said, but you could still trust Coke, Amex, and Budweiser.
But to properly discuss the efficacy of 1970s TV commercials, let’s review the history that informed them.
Presidents and Political Climate
The Seventies were a decade of political and cultural change. The most obvious hallmarks of this are visible in the American presidency.
There were three presidents throughout the 1970s.
Richard Nixon became president in 1969 on the strength of his promise to give Americans “peace with honor.”
It wasn’t Nixon’s first time running in an American election. His previous attempt was hampered by a lack of charisma during the televised presidential debates.
By the time of Nixon’s second election attempt, he had learned from the experience. This time he was prepared for televised debates and ran compelling television ads that portrayed him meeting voters in person.
Gerald R. Ford
Nixon remained American president until 1974 when Gerald R. Ford succeeded him.
Unlike Nixon, Ford wasn’t elected in a general election. Instead, he took over as president when Nixon resigned in 1974.
Ford’s was a fraught presidency. Although Ford signed the Helsinki Accords in a move towards détente with Russia, he also had to navigate:
- Aftermath of Watergate
- Collapse of South Vietnam
Ford remained president until 1977 when he narrowly lost the election to Jimmy Carter.
All presidents have goals they work towards. Jimmy Carter’s was to restore compassion and competence to a government he perceived to be struggling in the aftermath of several debacles.
In addition to tackling the ongoing energy crisis, Carter was influential in foreign affairs. He, continued talks with China, helped achieve amnesty between Israel and Egypt, and ratified Panama Canal treaties.
Carter’s term wasn’t without complications. He struggled to shake the consequence of the Iranian hostage-taking of several prominent Americans. His time as president ended in 1981.
What Defined this Decade?
So, that’s who was president during the 1970s. But what was the global backdrop for the Seventies?
Nixon’s tenure as president was colored by the Vietnam War. He promised and tried to achieve “peace with honor” for Americans everywhere.
But it was Ford that saw the end of the war. It wasn’t the honorable outcome Nixon hoped for either. South Vietnam collapsed, and America’s soldiers came home battered and exhausted.
There were no parades, and as much as possible, the country tried to put the war with Vietnam behind them.
In 1972, as President Nixon began developing a re-election campaign, several burglars were arrested in the Watergate complex in Washington.
It subsequently emerged that it wasn’t a burglary, it was an attempt to wiretap the phones and steal documents.
Nixon took steps to cover the scandal up, but was unsuccessful, and it cost him his presidency.
Since the end of World War Two, America had been locked in a missile armament race with the Soviet Union. Terrified of what the other country would do with their weapons store, they competed to see who could build more missiles more quickly and with maximum power behind them.
The tensions were exhausting, and in 1975, President Ford moved to sign the Helsinki Accords. These didn’t have official treaty status, but they marked the beginning of détente between America and the Soviet Union.
Economy and Brand Advertisers
The 1970s in America suffered from ‘Stagflation.’ This was a combination of slow economic growth and rising prices.
The 1970s energy crisis was one of the most obvious signs of this problem, but not the only one. The country was economically depressed, and it wasn’t until President Carter that the government could prioritize the issue.
So, what did that mean for 1970s TV ads?
More TVs, More Channels, More TV Commercials
Surprisingly, it wasn’t all bad. Despite the economic situation, color TVs outperformed their black and white counterparts as more families invested in them. And they made the ideal venue for colorized 1970s TV commercials.
Since the rising prices on everything from oil to televisions made people atypically reluctant to spend money, advertising companies responded by investing even more in their TV commercials. The result was that the average TV viewer, watching their newly-colorized TV, saw approximately 1,600 TV ads a day.
This was a significant departure from the past, where advertisement campaigns prioritized newspapers and radios.
But it made sense. Not only did most homes have televisions, but many also had more than one channel. There was ample opportunity to seek viewers out on their shiny new TVs and promise them bargains, deals, and decreased prices at a time when that was exactly what they needed.
Consumers Influenced 1970s TV Ads
Because so many homes now had multiple TV channels, customers began to shape the way Seventies ad campaigns worked. By the mid-1970s, the best advertising companies knew that if homeowners weren’t seeing an ad they wanted on one channel, they changed it.
The goal of 1970s TV commercials changed overnight. They stopped telling viewers what to do and started telling them what they wanted.
Previously, TV commercials were product-oriented. You notice as you watch them the advertiser’s tendency to talk you through how the product worked.
1970s television commercials changed gear. Instead of the walk-through product guide, commercials appeared that did point-by-point product comparisons.
No More Cigarette Ads
Another thing the political climate of the 1970s affected was who did the advertising. In the post-war era, televisions were rife with cigarette commercials.
But in 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Public Health Act. This meant many things, but the most significant for the advertising industry was that Nixon effectively stopped 1970s TV commercials for competing cigarette brands.
That was a problem for TV channels since many got their sponsorship from cigarette companies. The most famous example is the Camel News Caravan, which prominently featured a Camel ashtray on the news anchor’s desk.
Unsurprisingly, many tobacco companies fought the on-air ban. But they soon realized that if they didn’t have to budget for TV commercials, it would free up money to advertise in other, untapped avenues, and they reluctantly conceded to the Public Health Act.
How Much Time Did People Spend Watching TV in the 1970s
So, that tells you who had access to 1970s television commercials for advertising reasons. And we’ve talked a bit about the shifting approach to structuring 1970s ads on television. But who was watching? And how much time did Americans spend watching tv?
The amount of TV Americans watched in the 1970s varies, but on average, most households watched about six hours of TV a day.
Who Were the Top TV Advertisers?
Given how much TV people consumed, it stands to reason that they saw an astonishing amount of 1970s TV ads. Given not all ads are created equal, which advertisers stand out as the best of the 1970s?
Another prominent 1970s ad campaign was the 7UP advertisement for the ‘un-cola.’
The company ran their ad at the height of the Pepsi and Coke competition. Famously, they marketed themselves as the ‘un-cola.’
Not all memorable 1970s television commercials were for products. AT&T’s campaign to ‘Reach out and touch someone’ is an excellent example.
The emotionally-charged campaign focused not on purchases but on reconnecting friends and family through the power of a telephone call and was one of the most successful campaigns of the decade.
Another of the top advertisers in the 1970s was American Express. By the mid-Seventies, they hit upon a simple but effective formula. A celebrity would pop up, encourage viewers to guess their identity, and end by revealing they never left home without their Amex card.
Given the ongoing energy crisis and economically depressed straits faced by many Americans, the campaign was a stroke of genius.
What Commercials Were Popular?
But while many successful advertising campaigns ran throughout the 1970s, some of their commercials were more memorable than others. Here are some 1970s television commercials still remembered today.
I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke
One of the defining 1970s television commercials, ‘I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,’ famously opens with an anthem opposed to the Vietnam War.
The brilliance of Coke’s commercial was that it tapped into a popular political sentiment of the time. For several seconds this 1970s ad doesn’t sound like a commercial; It sounds like something out of the Sixties Folk Revival. Then the lyricist slips in the line about Coke, and the point comes home.
It’s also an incredibly catchy jingle. There’s a reason The New Seekers and several others went on to record the song as something besides a slogan.
Like Coke, Alka-Seltzer had several memorable commercials in the 1970s. The one that stuck featured the tagline, ‘I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.’
The line began as a catchphrase and later, part of America’s pop culture shorthand.
Another well-beloved 1970s commercial came from Xerox. It playfully contrasted the novelty of their copying machine with years of oral history and monastic transcription. The commercial effectively demonstrated the time-saving effects of their product on the workplace.
Volkswagen had dozens of memorable ads. In this 1970s television commercial, an elderly gentleman leaves his fortune to his Volkswagen-owning nephew. It put a whole new spin on the slogan, ‘It sure pays to own a Volkswagen’.
Notice that Volkswagen also takes subtle advantage of the economic constraints of the era. It’s not just that Volkswagens are more economical cars, but that the writer of the will wants to reward his nephew’s careful saving strategy.
Good and Plenty
Good and Plenty similarly tapped into the cultural awareness of saving a penny, but in a very different way. Its mock-electoral campaign for Choo-Choo Charlie offered Good and Plenty candy bars to anyone who voted for Charlie.
In other words, this 1970s television commercial stressed the accessibility of its product to everyone who wanted to buy it.
Only In Canada? Pity
We’ve talked lots about American commercials. But another memorable 1970s ad campaign came from over the border.
To market the technological breakthrough of the teabag, Red Rose Tea began running a series of commercials to promote their product.
Often these used a kind of British mockney accent, though a famous version of the commercial playfully integrated Queen Elizabeth. Whoever was drinking the tea, the slogan was the same. The disappointed Brit would say, crestfallen, ‘Only in Canada? Pity.’
Best Commercial of the 1970s
Of all the 1970s television commercials, and there are many, we think the best is Coca-Cola’s ‘I’d Like to buy the world a Coke.’
Coke had many adverts, but when you think of the 1970s, this is the ad most people recall.
Its jingle is singable and catchy. More than that, it capitalized on popular political sentiments without apology. As people joined hands singing that ubiquitous slogan, Coke effectively said it knew what the people wanted and would support them in getting it.
All they needed to do was choose Coke over Pepsi. And it worked. Coke remains the drink of millions, even decades later.
Many 1970s television commercials took inspiration from prevailing political sentiments or cultural mentality. These were the most successful ads because they left the impression that the companies behind them wanted to do more than sell a product. They were trying to change the world.
It’s a noble goal, but not an antiquated one. Our voice actors can help you reach an audience as effectively as any 1970s commercial ever did, if not better. So get in touch. We’re happy to help.