Welcome to the first ever installment of what I hope becomes a regular feature on The Marketing Smart Aleck Blog: RetroAnalysis. The goal of RetroAnalysis is to look back at a piece of vintage marketing and use that as a jumping off point for some snarky commentary.
In this post, we are going to examine one of the most glorious achievements in unintentional advertising hilarity: an early ’80s TV spot for Ronco’s Mr. Microphone. Watch and enjoy.
I marvel at this commercial because it somehow manages to present a series of scenarios that seem utterly implausible in any era, yet collectively speak a deep truth about a very specific window of time in American culture.
We are introduced to the product by a sketchy, wide-lapel-clad guy, a platinum blonde party girl who looks like she’s fresh off getting turned away from the velvet rope at Studio 54 and a man who might have been the president of the National Helmet Hair Coalition. So, the tone is set right off the bat by three period archetypes who place us firmly in a time that will be remembered forever as the high water mark of American kitsch. Never mind the fact that, in real life, Mr. Lapels probably would have been more apt to try livening up the party by pulling out a baggie filled with cocaine instead of a clunky orange audio device. It doesn’t matter — we’re off to a rousing start.
The diverse collection of kids at the holiday gathering that follows hints that media representations of race in America were getting more enlightened by that point, but the scene that follows immediately afterward suggests maybe not so much. In all seriousness, I don’t know if the scene with the man dancing down the street with the microphone and the transistor radio is truly racist or offensive, but I do know that it is very much reminiscent of some common racial stereotypes in ’70s mainstream media that were criticized by African American commentators both at the time and since.
Such weighty and uncomfortable issues are quickly forgotten at the 0:27 mark, when the Willie Aames lookalike rolls past in a convertible and utters the immortal words, “Hey Good Lookin’, we’ll be back to pick you up later!” I only wish that I would have bought a Mr. Microphone back in high school and used that drive-by/loudspeaker pick-up approach on girls who struck my fancy. I’m certain the female population of my hometown would never have been able to resist the Marriner charm when amplified by the space age technology of Mr. Microphone.
Unfortunately, the spot more or less peaks there. Faux Willie Aames in a Mercedes convertible is a hard act to follow, even if you trot out “professional entertainers” in mid-rehearsal or the roller-disco-riffic parade of skaters proclaiming, “I got one!”
This Mr. Microphone commercial along with the Ronco brand in general, serve as a fascinating time capsule of late ’70s/early ’80s America — good, bad and ugly. It’s charming to think that there was a time when hearing our voices broadcast over our “FM radios” seemed enough of a novelty to liven up a dead party or inspire family bonding at Christmastime. In truth, most people who owned Mr. Microphone probably tired of it after one or two uses. But the beauty of Ronco was that as soon as one of their cheap, plastic gizmos stopped being fun, there was always another one waiting to capture your interest during the next commercial break.