Culturally Embedded

reviewing World's Best Commercials of the Century

The color of the film looks like a yellowed newspaper found in the rear window of a car. Mikey and his brothers slide a bowl of Life cereal back and forth to each other in bouts of skepticism.

Originally intended by the advertiser to depict a sunny morning in a clean suburban home, the advertisement has deteriorated into a sound-defective, gritty image. Everything about it is embarrassingly 1970s—the equivalent of finding a lost family picture or a high school yearbook photo. Yet the audience, overcome with nostalgia, remains hushed and enthralled until the classic punchline reveals itself: “He likes it.”

What time has done to the original Life cereal commercial is insignificant compared to the impact in which this lost fragment of consumer culture has embedded itself into cultural consciousness. So many things make it memorable: the “I’m-not-gonna-try-it, you-try-it” dialogue, the freckled brother, Mikey’s red shirt, the kitchen table, and the colorful Life logo.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston celebrated the Mikey commercial and others like it in World’s Best Commercials of the Century. The 90-minute program leans toward a harmless, tongue-in-cheek gimmick, running historic television commercials back-to-back and thus providing a few snickers and some warm memories. Yet, the commercials reveal much about our personal and cultural identity, providing a glimpse at the images that aim to reflect our hidden, unconscious desires.

Focusing on American, European, and Australian advertising, World’s Best groups the commercial shorts into the following five categories: Laughter is the Best Medicine, Politically Incorrect, Public Service Announcements, Timeless Classics, and Advertiser of the Century.

“Laughter is the Best Medicine” displays some oddities from the 60s and 70s, pitching every product from candy bars to automobiles via the humorous premise. One German furniture polish ad demonstrates how a humble maid cleans a long conference table, by gathering a running start and sliding across the surface on her belly. A British vodka maker shows a stuffy old man becoming noticeably charming after drinking the much-sought-after drink. This category lets us know that, internationally, television advertisements are cut from the same cloth—the mildly humorous and overtly superficial kind.

Yet how well advertisers have our number, by disarming us with humor, can be seen in a British tobacco commercial: a mild-mannered gentleman appears to enjoy the solitude of a serene lakeside while smoking his pipe. Two obstreperous boys rush to race their noisy boat in the water with a remote control. From out of his pocket, the gentleman retaliates with his remote control for an underwater missile system that easily sinks the boys’ boat.

In less than 30 seconds, this commercial defends, not one ego, but an entire cultural ego from a noisy world that dares to intrude on its peace and quiet. It calls to mind the tag line of a famous beer advertisement: “The way life should be.” It’s a clever example of adult fantasy and wish fulfillment being the prime inducements to identify with a given product. The tobacco itself is de-emphasized, instead concentrating on a particular scenario that touches the right chord in the target audience—in this case, reserved middle-class men, who fantasize about taking revenge on a clamorous, intrusive world.

The irony remains that most television commercials are clamorous and intrusive. Most of us would like to take revenge on the thousands of television advertisements that clutter the airwaves between our favorite programs. The secret of the craft lies in the ones that make themselves impressionable to our cultural psyche without shoving the product down our proverbial throat. These are the ones that generate the most laughs, the most talk, and the most nostalgia.

In the “Politically Incorrect” segment, a European family of four strap themselves into their automobile for a drive. The father, behind the wheel, tunes into a radio station blaring a pop song, whose repeated chorus is “I wanna fuck you in the ass.” Father, mother and children begin to bop their heads in time with the music, smiling at each other, blissfully unaware of the obscenities going on. When they ride away in the car, the tag line appears on the screen: “Wanna learn English?” The name of the obscure European language school is quickly forgotten, but the premise of this ad is a modern-day classic.

The less absurd, and more poignant, were found in the “Public Service Announcements” segment. One of the most touching PSA’s captures various New York homeless people singing the upbeat, optimistic lyrics of “New York, New York.” A powerful yet shocking Canadian PSA for domestic violence shows a bruised woman, with cuts on her face, crying in the bathroom, while outside the door, a man on his knees begs to be forgiven. Since the intent is not to sell a product, but to promote awareness of specific social problems, these commercial PSA’s reveal themselves to be the most incisive, and daresay, sincere forms of public advertising.

The “Timeless Classics” segment contains the most memorable advertisements in television history, partly due to the unforgettable characters. In addition to Life’s Mikey, other figures include Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” lady and Coke’s Mean Joe Green. These characters prove historical, as they each correspond so well to a specific decade. With the Wendy’s lady, it’s the 1980s, while Mean Joe Green looks forever 70s. You can hear the giggling in the audience when these characters appear on screen, as if we’re all part of this collective, historical joke. Maybe it’s the realization that the joke is on us. Even though we pretend to ignore these 30-second bits of trivialities tossed at us on a daily basis, the impact of these trivialities is hard to deny.

Levi’s Jeans claimed the “Advertiser of the Century” award. Several Levi’s Jeans commercials, spanning from the 60s to the 90s, were shown back-to-back. Each premise was vaguely similar: a shirtless young man appears to be the center of the universe, with every woman eyeing, not his good looks, but his rugged blue jeans. At one point he’s undressing in a female-inhabited Laundromat. In another, he washes overboard at sea only to be rescued by a school of mermaids. In still another dream-like episode, he is pool-hopping in an opulent neighborhood while rich women admire him from beneath their sunglasses. The message is very clear in spite of the sexist imagery: In each ad, the Levi’s guy is always mobile. He never settles down, he never is captured, and no one woman can possess him. This is a very powerful feeling for a young man, as he assumes he will forever remain free of domesticity and sameness. Again, it is purely wish fulfillment and fantasy, but Levi’s is the best advertiser partly because they know exactly which fantasies to project images of in their commercials.

So aren’t these commercials really manipulative and insincere, exploiting unconscious desires all in the name of brand loyalty and product consumption? Of course they are; but whether advertisers are right or wrong, or whether their work is aesthetically credible or pop culture trash, is left for another discussion. Television commercials, as this short film makes apparent, speak volumes, like it or not, about who we are in the late 20th (now the 21st) century. World’s Best Commercials of the Century should be placed in a time capsule. In the future, academics and historians will probably look to these 30-second blips of information to dissect our cultural desires, fears, and hopes, however superficial and trivial they appear to us now.