A celebration of the TV advertisements from way back when that almost made us pee ourselves…
By: Jimbo X
By design, television commercials are meant to be appealing. They hit us with fantastic visuals, catchy jingles and a whole host of claims that are almost certainly bullshit -- regardless if the product is a routine household cleaning product or a luxury vehicle.
There is an entire sub-domain of psychology that focuses on the nuts and bolts of manipulative marketing, where things as seemingly insignificant as colors and selective use of articles like "a" and "the" are endlessly tweaked and refined so as to achieve maximum cognitive impact. Over time, the ad industry (the multi-billion dollar a year behemoth it is) seems to have transitioned from a philosophy of building brand recognition via commercials to a philosophy of garnering long-term association with commercial content, independent of the brand being promoted. In the day and age of Google and YouTube, the goal is to make the commercial memorable, to get it to stand out from the hundreds and hundreds of advertisements the average American views every 24 hours. You can always look up whatever the hell the thing being sold is later online, anyway -- the key first step, however, is getting that audiovisual content to resonate with the consumer, and keep it in his or head for more than a few minutes.
There’s a reason why we STILL know what Mentos and Ricola are today, despite having little-to-no culturally relevancy as brands anymore. The nonstop bombardment of their corporate iconography -- coupled with a deviously simplistic “dog whistle” auditory trademark -- was forever etched in our minds as youngsters, and their inescapable catchiness has remained locked inside our neurological cortical matter ever since. If I say “Skip-It,” odds are, you start hearing that goddamn commercial jingle automatically. THAT is the hallmark of an advertising job well done -- you retain an associative identifier connected to a brand, and that identifier STAYS tethered to said brand 20 freaking years later.
Which brings us to something called “negativity bias.” As a general rule, humans are primed to recall things that adversely impact them more than things that positively impact them -- if you want the hardcore, meat-and-potatoes neurological science on why that’s the case, here’s some homework for you. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, marketers actually have a pretty good incentive to make you form negative thoughts about a particular advertisement, as you are cognitively hard-wired to think about something you hate for longer periods of time than something you like. That in mind (literally), what better way could marketers make an impact on an impressionable, fledgling consumer audience than by scaring the wits out of them?
In honor of the Halloween season, I hit up the YouTubes for some of the most memorable, brain-scarring commercials from my youth (that’s everything from pre-school to eighth grade, in case you are keen on specifics.) Just to make things more diverse, I disqualified commercials for horror movies and TV tie-in content, and tried to bring you a broad range of material from the late 1980s all the way up the early ‘00s. All in all, it’s a pretty healthy mixture of things that scared the hell out of me as a kiddo -- and a damned fine way to get your All Hallow’s Eve season rolling on a terrifyingly nostalgic note.
If you drink and drive, you will literally turn into skeleton people
The Ad Council, 1983
You really can’t do a countdown of scary commercials without including at least one piss-inducing public service announcement, and no PSA has rattled me as much as this anti-drunk driving ad. It starts off like your basic 1980s beer commercial (complete with a Michael Jackson soundtrack), but as soon as the would-be intoxicated driver sticks his key in the ignition, KA-BLAMMO! Demonic lightning strikes, the environs turn pitch black and everybody in the fucking car has their skin, organs and muscle tissue removed from their bodies. It’s rather disturbing stuff, no doubt, especially since I didn’t know what “drinking and driving” entailed as a wee one. Completely missing out on the whole alcohol component, I thought the PSA was condemning drinking ANY liquid in a car -- needless to say, my mom was quite confused when she reached for a mid-drive Sprite after I first saw this commercial, and I started screaming like a madman that she was about to turn me into a sentient pile of bones.
The Orkin Man is real, he looks like an ED-209 from “Robocop” and he might just kill your entire family
Orkin Pest Control, 1990
As a kid, I loved stuff like “Aliens” and “Robocop,” so of course, I was going to have a fascination with any and all things cybernetic. Alas, that android fetish didn’t prevent me from being scared shitless by this old school Orkin ad, in which a half-man, half-robot cyborg breaks his way into a home and uses high-tech weaponry to target and eliminate cockroaches. Maybe it was the creepy lighting or the amalgamation of transhumanism with up-close photos of bug faces, but this thing really gave me the heebie-jeebies. I guess my big worry was that since robots can’t be reasoned with, what would stop the Orkin Man from confusing me for a termite and pumping my lungs full of poison, or possibly lasering off my face? There were no hard guarantees there, and you just knew those motherfucking robot exterminators took the company mantra, "One Call, That's All" very, VERY seriously.
With that sad piano music, you don’t even need proper context to realize Charter is fucking spooky
Charter Ridge Behavioral Health System, late ‘80s/early ‘90s?
For those not in the know, Charter was/is the name of a rehab facility chain, whose motto, “If you can’t get help at Charter, please get help somewhere,” was pretty damned inescapable during Bush the First’s presidency. I’m not sure how widespread the chain’s media presence is throughout the rest of the America, but in the early 1990s at least, they had quite the penetration in the southeastern United States. Whereas most commercials on this list use the fantastical to creep you out, this one instead nails you with raw human misery, as it features a strangely unemotional dad tending to a visibly frightened child while enigmatically discussing some debilitating illness that has taken over dear old mom. I had no idea what depression or addiction really was back then, so the “mysterious” ailment that afflicted the off-screen mom just confounded me to no end. Would that disease, whatever it is, infect my mom and make her act shitty and stuff, too? Growing up in a single-parent household, that thought was especially terrifying, as I had no weirdly unsympathetic father of my own to tell me things would be all right. Context-wise, I didn’t grasp a damn thing about the commercial, but with that music, I KNEW it had to have been talking about something mighty bad.
ITT Tech introduces elementary school America to technocratic horror
ITT Technical Institute, 1989
Even now, I really can’t put a finger on what it is that makes this ad so frightening -- it just is. Maybe it has something to do with the sharp metallic shrieks and the hyper-speed jump-cuts of robot arms, computer monitors and what appears to be a man holding a tampon wrapped around an ink pen. Or it could be that weird, almost-industrial cyber-gunk beat, which feels more at home in a bad “Galaga” ripoff than a for-profit education ad. And then, there’s the gravel-throated announcer, who sounds just like fucking Magneto when he utters “thousands of them.” Whenever this commercial interrupted my afternoon "Ninja Turtles" and "Tiny Toons" ritual (why the fuck would they be advertising technical schools during cartoons anyway?), it always made me a bit more apprehensive for the rest of the evening -- like, maybe all of the household electronics would go "Maximum Overdrive" all of a sudden and I'd have a toaster trying to strangle me and shit. Strangely, this commercial got play WELL into the late 1990s, as I vividly recall that damn introductory shriek piercing the 2 a.m. air during many a late night "Monstervision" commercial break.
Not grasping what Boys Town was supposed to be leads to some terrifying assumptions
Boys Town National Hotline, early to mid ‘90s?
I couldn’t find the exact commercial that messed me up so much as a kid, but I did find this ad, which is almost as good. Basically, the ad depicts a bunch of teenage actors and actresses who are really, really sad and upset about ... something. One girl talks about feeling lost all the time, while another talks about feeling as if she has nowhere to turn to for help. Another boy talks about feeling so damned angry all the time, he might just lose his mind, up in here, up in here, just as DMX prophesied. Of course, its all punctuated by the most 1990s visuals you can imagine, like really bad green screen close-up of eyeballs opening, before concluding with an image of a fiery orange sun and some mystical sounding music accompanied by an announcer promising redemption if you called a toll-free number. As a kid, no one really explained to me what the intent of Boys Town actually was, so throughout elementary school, I thought it was a physical no-man's land they sent disobedient children to a'la "No Escape." Of course, all of the kids in these ads HAD to have been so worried about all of the bad shit they were doing, because that meant a one way ticket to B-Town, which presumably, had to have been an adult-less hellhole ... which, as it turns out, wasn't terribly far from the hyper-troubling reality, unfortunately.
Man, this sure is a rousing episode of Tiny Toon Adventures and … oh shit, it’s Freddy Krueger!
1-900 Hot Line, early 1990s?
Now here's some shit that's going to be real hard to explain to all of you whippersnappers growing up with iPads and iPhones and iWatches. WAY back in the day -- before Xbox and Pokemon and the viability of a black man ever becoming President -- we had these things called "landlines." Basically, they were phones, except they didn't connect to the Internet. Oh, and you couldn't text on them, either. In fact, they didn't even have a touchscreen -- all they had were a couple of buttons you had to press in sequence to -- get this -- talk to other people, using your actual voice and stuff. Since there was somebody out there at the phone company who was manually connecting your line to another line, most phone calls out of your ZIP code cost extra. In the 1980s and early 1990s, some really nefarious business people got the great idea to open up these things called "hotlines" -- basically, these pre-recorded automated messages you could listen to on your phone, for some outlandish per-minute fee. For the most part, the biggest offenders here were psychics and sex lines, but there actually were a lot of lines targeting the young uns, like the official WCW pro wrestling news line and this one here that connected you to the, uh, Easter Bunny? Well, I had to tell you all that shit so I could tell you this shit. One of the hotline gimmicks that riled me up the most was this one, which gave you the black magic necessary to chit-chat with famed child-abusing mass killer Freddy Krueger, who most certainly would not sex crime you over the phone like he does most of his victims in the "Elm Street" movies. Obviously, the mere visage of Freddy K terrified me, so seeing this ad late at night would've made me poo buckets. Weirdly enough, I used to see this damn commercial ALL THE TIME during weekday afternoon cartoon blocks, which in hindsight, makes me wonder if the switchboard operator at WATL-36 during the early 1990s really, really hated children.
Kids ‘R Us forgets that not scaring the shit out your target audience is probably the smart thing to do, business-wise
To the untrained eye, this one seems like a much more innocuous ad than some of the others on the list. I mean, who would have expected Kids R' Us to bring the disturbing in spades -- shit, they have the word "kids" in their official D.B.A., it's pretty much against the law for 'em to run anything creepy, right? Well, think again, fellas, as this mid-to-late 1990s ad features a.) a very creepy Bela Lugosi imitator announcer, b.) a scene in which Satanic lightning transforms a happy family into glow-in-the-dark skeletons and c.) a concluding "Phantom of the Opera" organ tune that turns the upbeat Kids' R Us theme into something the sounds more at home in a "Castlevania" game. I guess its not as scary as it is mildly unexpected, but don't pretend you feel a little weirded out watching Kids R' Us transformed into a Transylvanian consumer utopia, either.
FUCK THOSE DURACELL ROBOT PEOPLE.
Thanks to both juice sucking devices such as the Sega Game Gear and the industry's unwillingness to adapt to lithium-ion technology, odds are, you went through a shit-ton of batteries in the 1990s. The two biggest players, of course, were Energizer and Duracell. When it came to mascots, Energizer had been set for quite a while, as their iconic "Bunny" was far and away one of the most popular commercial creations of the 1980s. Feeling that they, too, needed a recognizable consumer mascot, Duracell unveiled an entire family of rubber-skinned android people sometime in the mid 1990s, and they were unsettling as fuck. Really, you could pick any commercial featuring the characters and be royally creeped out, but this one -- featuring a super-charged granny robot who looks like something Charles Manson sees in his nightmares -- was especially disturbing. Coincidentally, I hear Energizer's market share inexplicably shot up sometime around 1996 ... I wonder why that was the case?
Snorting glue will result in a fantasy-horror death a million times worse than any Freddy Krueger nightmare
The Council for a Drug-Free America, 1995
I've both never really considered huffing -- the act of sucking on aerosol cans to get momentarily high -- to be that big of a social problem in these United States. Alas, I made damn sure I never, EVER paced my nostrils anywhere near a can of Carbona after watching this super spooky PSA, which equates snorting pressurized gasses to drowning to death in your bedroom. Since some sort of obscure FCC mandate requires TV stations to air a certain number of public service announcements per week, this ad seemed to ALWAYS get shown ad nausem on late weekend nights. Alas, it's hard to downplay its effectiveness -- as late as the mid 2000s, this thing was still getting regular play in my neck of the woods.
Nike produces the greatest “Friday the 13th” movie never made
Leave it to a shoe company to create arguably the greatest and most terrifying slasher movie parody ever. This early 2000s ad does such a great job of imitating the old Jason flicks that I originally mistook it for "Jason Goes to Hell" the first time I saw it. Of course, by the time the chainsaw-wielding Michael Myers wannabe shows up on camera, you know you're dealing with something else entirely. As an ad, its very effective, because up until the last few seconds, you don't even know what they're trying to hawk to you. When its revealed to be a commercial for sneakers, it's the cherry on top of a delicious, pop-cultural skewering mini-movie. Alas, the ad was a bit too much for pre 9/11 America, and before long, the commercial got yanked due to allegations of misogyny ... and, of course, the fact that it scared the living dog shit out of children across the country.