Not only did the 1980s give us amazing movies, cartoons, and TV shows—it gave us generally amazing commercials. This is a look back on the 10 best TV commercials of the 80s.
I can’t remember the last commercial that made an impact on me. I think it’s because I don’t really watch commercials anymore. I rarely watch cable tv, and if I do, it’s either on-demand or DVR’d. The only thing I usually watch live is sports and often, I’ll start the game late as I’m able to forward through the commercials.
This is a tough time for advertisers as it’s become more difficult to get their message in front of an advertiser.
In the 80s, it was easy. With only three networks, television is all you had to focus on and there was a good chance that the majority of the public would see it. Today, advertisers aren’t even sure where to go for people to see their ads. Do you stick with TV? Online? Try to crack into a streaming service even though the biggest of them all — Netflix—don’t have any ads.
Back in the 80s, there was no worry about this and you could primarily focus on TV. I think this is why some of the most iconic ads of all time came out of this decade. Since there were really no other forms of entertainment—TV was all we had. And that meant there was a good chance many people would see your ad.
We got some real groundbreaking, entertaining, and culturally significant TV commercials in the 80s, and today, I will count down the 10 best. Here we go.
10. Milk – “It Does a Body Good”
Holy crap was this a significant commercial in the 80s. Despite all the issues that can arise from factory-farmed dairy, this commercial did a super-effective job of bestowing the virtues of milk. It connects to any kid that was a scrawny, gangly teenager and puts this idea into your head about how you can turn this around using their product.
The kid in this commercial is trying to woo a supermodel, but by drinking milk—he starts to physically mature.
This is as effective as marketing gets as it reveals a pain point, and how to overcome that pain by using the specific product. It’s weird to think of milk as a product, but it was this approach that pushed it into one of the best 80s tv commercials. It shows how important the message is and that with a strong premise—no flash or excess is needed.
9. Kool-Aid – “Oh Yeah!”
The 6-foot tall glass jar of cherry Kool-Aid known as the “Kool-Aid Man” goes back to the 1950s when he was known as the “Pitcher Man.” He evolved to the Kool-Aid Man we all know in love in 1974 because of advertising agency Grey Advertising. He also started using the familiar catchphrase.
But it’s in the 80s when he achieved pop culture status. It started in 1979 when a simple effect was used that was actually significant in the history of advertising to children: his mouth moved.
Up to then, there were regulations on how advertising to children could be conducted as cartoons were seen as confusing children when used in a commercial. Young children cannot differentiate between a cartoon show and a commercial and using cartoons was seen as exploitative marketing.
In the 80s, Ronald Reagan lifted all these regulations (read more about the significance of the 80s and deregulation in my blog here) and advertisers now had free rein on promoting to children. This is when the Kool-Aid Man really took off.
8. Coca-Cola – “New Coke, Catch the Wave”
This is significant because of the ultimate disaster that was New Coke and deserves a spot on the 10 best TV commercials of the 80s.
You can read the whole story that I wrote all about here. But New Coke was seen as the attempt to rejuvenate the now floundering cola company and make it seem like the hip new cola that Pepsi had become.
This meant turning to the creation of Max Headroom who was being used to help popularize the new MTV. New Wave music was a big movement in the 80s, and MTV and Max Headroom captured all this.
Coke thought this perfectly combined things to make sure that their new drink was seen in this hip new light too.
But it didn’t work. It’s mainly because they took away the original Coca-Cola and everyone went nuts. The backlash to New Coke was so big that they abandoned it a few months later and brought back the original formula as “Coca-Cola Classic.”
This was a big commercial in the 80s as it was creating a new movement through the changing landscape of the culture and deserves a place because of its historical significance.
7. Folgers – “The Best Part of Waking Up”
This jingle has probably been in your head every day since it first aired in 1984. Folgers has been using this slogan for years now, but it remains one of the most significant commercials of the 80s as it drives home the message about how great this instant coffee is with one of the best jingles ever written.
The jingle was sung by Leslie Pearl, who was a singer/songwriter who had a few songs on the charts. She then went into songwriting,, and then into jingle writing. “The Best Part of Waking Up” would be her biggest hit running for 25 years, making it one of the longest-used jingles in commercial history.
6. Tootsie Pop – “How Many Licks?”
One of the most iconic commercials of the 80s—and of all time. This incredible simple ad had a catchphrase that is part of the culture of kids growing up in the 80s. The ad is from 1982 and made us wonder for the rest of our lives, how many licks it actually takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?
As a kid, this made me want one more than anything. Not necessarily to find out the exact number, but to at least be in the mix and part of the conversation. The original commercial goes back to the 70s and featured a turtle, cow, and fox alongside the owl.
It was 60-seconds long and considered too long and was then edited down to 30 and 15-second spots just featuring the owl becoming the commercial you know from the 80s, and one of the best ever.
5. Pepsi – “Pepsi Generation”
It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Michael Jackson was the coolest thing imaginable. Pepsi was able to capitalize on the unbelievable popularity of him, which was instrumental in rebranding themselves as the “cool cola.”
This commercial is from 1984 and blew the mind of a young me. It was two years off of the release of “Thriller” and Michael Jackson was pretty mythical. Pepsi is also responsible for almost killing him in an ad that featured a concert and pyrotechnics that actually lit Michael Jackson on fire.
The “Pepsi Generation” ad is also notable as it features a young Alfonso Ribeiro aka Carlton Banks from the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
4. Miller Lite – “Tastes Great!…Less Filling!”
This 80s tv commercial was like the “whassup!” of its day. It was a classic call and response that you would hear everywhere from bars to sporting events. It’s one of the most memorable catchphrases of all time and is considered one of the best advertising campaigns in history by Advertising Age Magazine.
McCann-Erickson put together the commercial, and if you know your MadMen—is the king of all advertising agencies. After Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price, of course…
The ad made use of top sports celebrities such as Bob Uecker and John Madden, and the general premise was the disagreement over the catchphrase that would usually result in some sort of brawl.
3. Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum – “Twins”
It’s hard to not think of the Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum as the best commercial of the 80s—but there’s a couple a bit better. This ad, however, created a great vibe behind the product. Something as simple as gum was now seen as an accessory, and a way to connect with others.
The commercial used light-hearted music, and an airy approach making it feel more like an episode of “Three’s Company” than a corporate message.
Wrigley had been promoting the idea of the gum having “double the flavor” since 1914. They had also been using twins in their marketing since the 1930s, but the Doublemint commercial in 1985 created a great snapshot of the 80s.
It had a sense of the “yuppie” movement that was happening and featured some nice dyed hair and pastel colors. It also featured another great jingle that seemed more like a song you would hear on the radio as opposed to just pushing a slogan.
2. Wendy’s – “Where’s the Beef?”
There are catchphrases and slogans that are memorable, and then there are the ones that infiltrate the collective consciousness and take on a larger life. The phrase “where’s the beef” entered the public’s lexicon in the 80s and became synonymous with questioning the substance of anything.
This ad is pretty unique as it was made in contrast to ads like Wrigley’s Doublemint gum. Those ads were all bright and shiny, and the approach here was to change the appearance of how an ad looked. This all came down to Joe Sedelmaier, who would cast regular people—not models—and made the entire commercial less glossy.
Wendy’s “where’s the beef” commercial cast 82-year-old Clara Peller, who was questioning why other fast-food companies (namely McDonald’s) were scrimping so much when it came to the beef content of their hamburgers.
This commercial from the 80s was only supposed to run a short while, but it’s popularity kept it on TV for 10 weeks. And the explosion in popularity of the phrase “where’s the beef” cannot be understated. It would be copied throughout society, in late-night talk shows, and even into the 1984 presidential election.
During the primaries of the spring of 1984, democratic candidate and former vice-president Walter Mondale used the phrase, to sum up, that the program policies put forward by opponent Gary Hart were lacking in substance.
This was at the height of the popularity of the commercial, so it was a great way to tap into the public consciousness by using a topical phrase that also was a pretty cutting jab.
Check out my blog all about this history of this monumental commercial.
1. Apple – “1984”
One of the greatest TV commercials of not just the 80s, but in all of marketing history. The Apple “1984” commercial changed the way marketing would be done—while also forever changing the Super Bowl.
Apple was about to launch its new Macintosh computer, and Steve Jobs was adamant that they needed to launch with a splash. Apple was trying to create a revolution with what computers could be and get away from the mechanical drone-like existence of companies like IBM.
His goal was to create a “thunderclap” and show how they were a bunch of rebels. He wanted to be a pirate in the world of computers. This meant bringing in advertising agency Chiat Day who then recruited Ridley Scott to create a dystopian future similar to Blade Runner.
They wanted to get this in front of as many eyes as possible and thought that the Super Bowl would be the perfect time to launch it. Super Bowl advertising was not what it is today in 1984, so regular run-of-the-mill ads were usually shown.
In Super Bowl XVIII, The Oakland Raiders had just gone up 28-9 after scoring a touchdown early in the third quarter. The viewing audience, expecting a replay, had their screens go black. Then some ominous music started playing to reveal an army of marching drones to the ad you’ve no doubt seen countless times.
This commercial caused a cultural earthquake, and after the game, more people were talking about the commercial than the game itself. News stations later that night were carrying stories all about the ads. This thing went viral before going viral was even a thing.
It changed the way commercials were made. It began a movement that made the Super Bowl an advertising Mecca and helped launch Apple–and the Macintosh—into the stratosphere. It is the worthy #1 choice of best TV commercial of the 80s.
Wrapping It Up
So that’s the 10 best TV commercials of the 80s. It’s hard to narrow down ten, but I think I covered all my bases. These types of commercials were entertaining, groundbreaking, and above all—memorable.
Some of them became so big they surpassed the goal of selling the product and became significant cultural moments. I think that’s the goal of any advertising agency; you dream of having that ad that causes a cultural shift and embeds itself into the fabric of society.
It’s much harder today to do that, but in the 1980s, creating an advertising sensation was more possible. I think that’s why you saw so many iconic ads as agencies were firing on all cylinders to break through with an ad that could become “water cooler talk.”
It’s funny that when we were kids, we would avoid commercials like the plague. But today, I always find myself watching old 80s commercials on YouTube to return back to that golden age.