The 1970s were an odd time in American cultural history. Nobody old enough to remember the decade would deny that. The high-profile weirdness of the Seventies is well-documented: pet rocks, leisure suits, CB radios, etc. But for every really famous artifact from the era, there are many forgotten fads that prove just as baffling to the modern observer who might stumble across them in the dusty corners of the family attic…or YouTube. One such specimen is the template of TV commercials that featured older authority figures barging into people’s homes and setting cranky and/or clueless folks straight about coffee.
As was the case with many Seventies phenomena, the Coffee Busybody trend was actually a holdover from the Sixties. In 1965, Folger’s began running commercials featuring a fictional character named Mrs. Olson. This matronly Swede was presumably a neighbor of the other characters in the commercials, but her exact relationship to them was usually left a mystery. Here’s a typical Mrs. Olson spot:
This is just one of many Folger’s commercials where the condescending husband would insult his wife’s coffee in a hey-I’m-just-kidding-but-not-really sort of way. That’s when Mrs. Olson would appear, can of Folger’s conveniently at hand, ready to expound on the virtues of “Mountain Grown” coffee. (My quickie Wikipedia research informs me that most coffee, Folger’s or otherwise, is grown at high elevations, but kudos to Folger’s for having the savvy to claim a common feature as a unique benefit.) As you can see here and here, the formula was fairly rigid.
Maybe it’s just me, but these commercials seem curiously bereft of likable characters. The husbands are all callous jerks, the wives are way too insecure, and despite the omnipresent smile on Mrs. Olson’s face, there’s something a little unsettling about someone with a Germanic accent marching into an American kitchen and annexing control of the percolator. When these commercial first aired, weren’t we just a few short decades removed from fighting a war to prevent that sort of thing?
As off-putting as Mrs. Olson’s smug sense of java superiority might seem to our 21st Century sensibilities, she was ultimately a recognizable type that made some sense in the context of the fictional scenarios as presented. I don’t believe the same can be said of the other famous Coffee Busybody of that era, one Mr. Robert Young.
Robert Young had enjoyed a long acting career in film and television before becoming the pitchman for Sanka decaffeinated coffee. He was well-known for playing the title role in the ABC medical drama Marcus Welby, M.D., a fact that cynics might surmise led to his casting in the Sanka commercials. Here is a prime example of the Sanka spots featuring Young:
As with Folger’s, the Sanka commercials adhered to a strict formula: A person is irritable because of too much caffeine — a fact that has been confirmed by a doctor. Young urges the person to calm down and tells them that Sanka will allow them to enjoy “real coffee” without turning into such a crankypants. That same pattern is on display here and in a not-so-festive Christmas version here.
Now, despite touching on the medical issues surrounding caffeine and Young’s dispensing of advice after hearing a physician’s diagnosis, the Sanka commercials never come out and establish that the Young character is supposed to be a doctor. In fact they never establish an identity for him at all. In these scenarios is he playing himself? A Mrs. Olson-like fictional character? They never say. He’s just an avuncular older guy with a lot of high-strung friends. Perhaps he is an anger management caseworker. That latter possibility would explain his habit of making follow-up visits to each person precisely three weeks following their initial episode. In any case, it seems likely that Sanka was engaging in an early version of the “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” gambit to establishing fake medical credibility that would become controversial later in the 1980s. For that reason, I have to say that Sanka’s interpretation of the Coffee Busybody trope leaves me with a worse taste in my mouth than Folger’s take (which is only fitting because the same is true of the respective coffees themselves).
As tempting as it is to use these commercials to point out some sort of larger cultural point unique to their era, the truth is that both campaigns were frequent satirical fodder for contemporary comedy shows like The Tonight Show and SNL. Even at the time, people thought these scenarios were laughable.
Still, both campaigns ran for quite a while. One wonders if they appealed to older consumers of the time who found themselves frustrated by the generation gap between them and their Baby Boomer children and relished the possibility of an elder authority being able to intervene and solve the problems of those erratic youngsters, even over something as minor as a proper cup of coffee. Or perhaps it was the Boomers themselves who longed to have a parental figure who could dole out practical domestic advice without it turning into an argument about Vietnam, Civil Rights or tongue-clicking disapproval of the younger generation’s sexual mores. Or maybe that’s just retroactively reading a lot of imaginary hooey into straightforward packaged good commercials. All I know for sure is that if I berated my wife’s coffee in front of company, she’d pour the remaining pot of it over my head.