The mind wanders, especially when forced to look at the same walls all day. Enter YouTube. It’s the great playground for the bored and stultified. It beckons us with its search engine, and cheerily sucks us into rabbit holes of delight. Instead of being force-fed what some news group wants us to see (and believe), or as an alternative to getting hooked on a ten-episode series that may, after all is said and done, end with a thud, we get to choose according to our own particular interests and attention spans.
Which makes watching old commercials on YouTube the perfect pastime. For some odd reason which I am not privy to, my brain brought up an old memory the other day of a commercial I’d seen as a kid. It was for Alka-Seltzer, which back in the 1960s put out a string of hilarious ads that went “viral” (in those days, that meant talking about things at the office water cooler).
The commercial I recalled was a mini-story about a professional pie-eating team (already that’s funny). It had the trope of the wise old veteran taking the rookie under his wing, complete with an iconic last shot—the vet turning around as he leaves, giving the kid a last wave.
I searched for it on YouTube, and there it was. Other commercials came to mind, and I found each one of them. And it struck me that in addition to their entertainment value, they also offer lessons for writers.
Let’s take that pie-eating team. What it teaches us is the power of EMOTIONAL CONNECTION. Even as we smile at the obvious satire, we are pulled in because we have experienced the real thing before—that story, that warmth. Once enthralled, they sell the product (which is, of course, the whole point of advertising!) Here it is, from 1967:
From there I went to another classic Alka-Seltzer ad. This one shows us the power of CONFLICT. In this ad a man argues with his own stomach over eating habits and heartburn. The animation is terrific, and the dialogue hysterical. (NOTE: the voice of the stomach is a young actor named Gene Wilder):
One last Alka-Seltzer ad, which is probably the most famous of all. I remember being on the schoolyard mouthing, “Mama Mia, that’s a spicy meatball!” all the time. Here we see the storytelling principle of OBSTACLES. They’re shooting a commercial for spicy meatballs that come in a gigantic jar. The doting wife serves her husband a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs. The husband eats a bit of meatball and utters the phrase above. But things keep going wrong, and they have to retake and retake. Which means, of course, the man has has to keep eating spicy meat. For 59 takes! Then they sell the solution: Alka-Seltzer. The kicker at the end of this ad is perfect. Also kudos to the actress, who is hilarious putting on her loving expression each time. First aired in 1969:
“Spicy Meatball” was the brainchild of the legendary agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), which was also responsible for another popular ad, one that the famous advertising man David Ogilvy called the funniest commercial he ever saw. It was for Volkswagen, which issued a spate of hilarious ads in the 60s and 70s. In this one, we get the concept of the JUST ENDING where everyone gets what they deserve:
An ad whiz at DDB, Robert Gage, came up with another “viral” commercial, one of the longest running of all time. It features two boys unwilling to try the new “healthy” cereal their mom has put in front of them. So they decide to test it on their little brother, Mikey. I’d put this lesson under the power of CHARACTERIZATION. Little Mikey says not a word, but his face is so doggone cute it charmed the socks off the nation:
Happily, John Gilchrist, who played Mikey, did not go the way of so many child actors. He’s had a good life, and currently works at MSG Networks, where he is director of media sales doing guess what? Negotiating with advertisers on TV ads.
By the 1980s, the world had changed. It was the era of the fast-paced, make-money-now go-getter. Federal Express caught that vibe better than anyone, and put out a string of commercials that worked at breakneck speed. Let’s call this a lesson on PACE. Here’s the first and most famous ad in that campaign (featuring the actual Guinness World Record holder as World’s Fastest Talker, John Moschitta Jr.):
The year 1984 gave us two unforgettable commercials. The first may be the most famous ever made. Directed by Ridley Scott and shown only once, during the ’84 Super Bowl, it announced the arrival of the Apple Macintosh. The THEME is unmistakable—a lone hero against the large, impersonal “system.” I remember seeing it, and got my first Mac shortly thereafter. And that’s all I’ve ever used since. In those early years using a Mac made you feel like a rebel, and oh so cool. Just like the commercial promised!
The other notable ad from ’84 gave the nation a catch phrase that lasted for years. It was for Wendy’s, and it was a huge success revenue-wise (as the ad men used to say), boosting annual revenue by 31%. Here we have the staying power of one, perfectly placed line of DIALOGUE (as in, “Go ahead, make my day” and “Here’s looking at you, kid.”) The phrase “Where’s the beef?” became so ubiquitous it even made its way into the 1984 presidential race. Democrat Walter Mondale used it in a primary debate to question the substance of his opponent, Gary Hart. Ouch.
Since this is TKZ, I’d be remiss if I did not include a THRILLER. And what is a thriller about? Impending death…something terrible could happen at any time! And certainly that is true of those great unsung heroes, the driving instructors:
No look back at classic commercials would be complete without a nod to one of the true geniuses of the ad game, Stan Freberg. He, more than anyone else, perfected the use of humor in commercials. So let’s call this a lesson on VOICE. Freberg’s was unique—wry, dry, biting—so you could almost always tell a Freberg when it aired. Here’s one of his best, a takeoff on the stodgy old domestic commercial where, for instance, a man comes home after work and sits down for dinner. He takes a bite and his expression says the meal just doesn’t make it. The next day the anxious wife tells her neighbor about it, and the neighbor says something like, “Maybe it’s your cooking oil. Here, try my Crisco.” You get the idea. There were innumerable ads of this type in the 50s and 60s. Freberg turned that whole trope on its head with this Great American Soup commercial starring Ann Miller:
So what commercial made an impression on you when you were a kid, and why do you suppose it did? What storytelling lesson or technique can you find in it?
And a Happy Easter to all, no matter where you’re holed up!