Back to Basics in the 1980s

In 1984 Jack Zipes published “Folklore Research and Western Marxism: A Critical Replay” in which he summarized the research of several folk lore scholars and ran it through a Marxists lens. In that article he concluded that fairy tales in television and film “exploit folklore to evoke images of the attainment of happiness through consumption.” And while Zipes doesn’t specifically include television commercials in that article, the TV commercial is a perfect encapsulation and culmination of the exploitation of folk lore iconography. Fairy tales and commercials mash up to show, through familiar faces, just how easily happiness can be bought.

While happiness wasn’t necessarily a defining theme of the 1980s, the decade was certainly livelier than the one it preceded. Earned or not, the 80s brought a renewed sense of enthusiasm through economic and technological advancements, reflected in media as what can only be described as an aggressive amount of energy. This was the decade MTV launched, the decade cable television became more accessible and popular, and the decade that saw video games go mainstream.

Apple’s iconic 1.5 million dollar Super Bowl ad announcing the arrival of the Macintosh computer is the most famous television commercial from the 1980s. The ad was successful for many reasons, chief among them that it was such an outlier in the advertising conventions of the time. The trends Apple avoided include a hard resurgence of the jingle extended to commercial-length original songs, the co-opting of rock music heavy with synths, and a manic pace. Look no further than the Kool-Aid campaign from the 80s for evidence of these tendencies.


The reason for these trends is understandable given the success of “I’m A Pepper” and “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” from the 70s, but in turning these concepts up to 11 the originality was lost. Let’s look at a Sugar Free Dr. Pepper campaign from the 80s that dates itself in the first few frames with headbands and spandex.

This first spot uses the story of Little Red Ridding Hood with just small bits of originality. Red’s optics are certainly modernized and she capably stands up for herself to the wolf, but these ideas are put on the back burner and eventually give way completely to romance once the product shows up. Another TV spot from this campaign uses a genie character with even less imagination, but features more blown-out hair.

Next let’s examine a 1980s multimedia Huggies campaign built around the tagline “happily ever after” with a commercial starring Sleeping Beauty.

The fairy tale angle ends up being nothing more than bookends to a by-the-numbers diaper commercial. Sleeping Beauty is introduced as sleeping for 100 years and dreaming of leak-free diapers, an inelegant combination of fairy tale jargon with straight ad copy. Some credit can be given, I guess, to the fact that no Disney-inspired design is used, but that might be more for copyright reasons than innovative ambitions.

Things just get more painful to watch with this Lucky Charms ad.

The bears, from Goldilocks’ story though she is absent here, don’t show up till the commercial is halfway done and they are never even named. And saddest of all they are summoned into existence by the magic of the cereal pitchman and only speak to talk about everything they love about Lucky Charms. Their entire role in the commercial is to exist only to sell happiness through products.

Again, fairy tale figures aren’t the only ones being mistreated and achingly marginalized in their own commercials. Just check out the way Roger Rabbit is used in this commercial for Diet Coke and how Slimmer, of Ghostbusters fame, became the face of a new Hi-C flavor.

This isn’t the first time this instance of slim traces of originality gave way to decades-old pat strategies has shown itself in television commercials. From previous research and posts it is becoming clear this is the disappointing pattern and 80s was no time for exception and maybe even had the worst showing. At the very least, one can hope the coming decades won’t bring commercials as tired as Fairy Tails, the unsuccessful My Little Pony spin off.

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