Eating it Up: Food ads from the 80s and 90s that I still can’t forget

When I was writing my piece for Table Matters about the Grey Poupon ad campaigns, I kept remembering how much my family got a kick out of imitating the accents in the 1980s commercial: Pardon me, but do you have any Grrrrey Pou-pon? It wasn’t just us: Wayne’s World poked fun at it too. Those accents, that ridiculous posh manner–just too much fun. (Which, of course, was the goal of the ad.)

When my mom read the article, she was reminded of a different commercial from the 80s that my brother and I parroted incessantly.  Whenever we recognized our neighborhood on the way back from a long car trip, we would intone “Almost Home Cookies. You can almost taste the recipe!”

I have no memory of that commercial, which is a run-of-the-mill husbands-are-from-Mars-wives-are-from-Venus dialogue, but I definitely remember the tagline. My brother and I are pretty good mimics and we had great fun trying on the confident and persuasive Grown Up Announcer voice.

Once reminded of this childhood tagline mimicry, I could recall a number of other jingles and taglines that had firmly embedded themselves in my childhood consciousness. Oddly, nearly all the examples I remember are commercials for food: in addition to Grey Poupon and Almost Home Cookies, I was also forever imitating–or even reenacting, with dolls or friends–the melodrama of my favorite Fig Newton commercial, which I cannot find anywhere on the internet. A man and a woman float on the sea (in a raft? a lifeboat? not sure); they have but a cookie and a Newton between them, and the man chivalrously offers to eat the cookie. The woman flings the cookie into the sea, saying “Not a bit of it Charles. We’ll share the Newton!” Share was a long drawl, a world of ahhhh in one syllable.

That ad had more appeal for me as a child than the other favorite Newton ad of the same period, also difficult to find online, in which a child crisply informs his mother that the snack he ate in bed was not a cookie but a “frrrruit Newton.” (Thus, he could not be chastised for eating cookies in bed.) Again with the posh accents–perhaps taking a cue from the Grey Poupon commercials?–but as a child, I was far less interested in other children than in dramatic, elegant scenes of adulthood. I also liked I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter for this reason: before the long-running series of Fabio commercials, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter staged romantic scenes of departing trains and ballrooms. In fact, I recall storyboarding one of these ads in one of my numerous grade school notebooks: as though I were going to include it in a movie script, I wrote down the setting (ballroom) and the scenery (chandeliers, fog) and sketched the dancers (although I drew them in the lift pose from Dirty Dancing). Why? I can’t remember. I can only conjecture.

When I’ve taught advertising analysis in college composition courses, we tend to examine ads in light of the consumer desire they are meant to invoke. But the consumer we had in mind was always an adult: we’d imagine I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter trying to seduce women by promising of a spread with the decadence taste of butter but fewer calories; we’d discuss the ways the British upper crust in Newton ads, as in the Grey Poupon ads, are meant to solicit our humor and envy at the same time. But I’m astonished to think of how deeply these ads deeply affected my childhood self, without having any of the pull they are intended to have for adults. Instead, they represented a glimpse into adulthood–a theatrical, appealing variety of adulthood–that were easily accessible (airtime during family television programming) and digestible (being short, and punchy). The memorable ones tend to have a story–in 30 seconds, they lay the scene and set the stakes–so for a child who loves stories, these commercials are candy, quick fixes. (The storyboarding incident suggests that I was learning a lot about narrative from television advertising, which is kind of neat but also kind of alarming.)

Those are my theories, anyhow. What commercials do you remember from your youth? What made them memorable? Or, from those of you that have children, I’d be very interested to know whether there are any television ads that your children repeat and reenact in this way.

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