If I told you that there was a publicity event in the 1980s that brought together musical acts like David Bowie, the Electric Light Orchestra and Heart, you’d probably assume that I was talking about Live Aid or USA for Africa, but that’s not the answer. Throw author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., actress Cicely Tyson, SNL Weekend Update anchor Jane Curtin, and middling NFL quarterback Ken Anderson in with those musicians and the common denominator between them becomes even harder to guess at…unless you’re old enough to remember that those people, and a few others, represented an elite cadre known as The Coffee Achievers.
Intrigued? Baffled? This video should begin to explain things.
As you can surmise from the video, The Coffee Achievers was an early ’80s advertising campaign from the National Coffee Association designed to make coffee seem more hip to a younger generation. There was concern during the 1980s and early ’90s that young adults weren’t adopting the coffee habit, and a belief that it was seen as an old person’s drink. In response, the NCA dipped into the MTV roster and put together some montages of youngish celebrities (save for Vonnegut, who was about 60 at the time, but enjoyed some cachet with the younger crowd) doing things that seemed exciting — mixing a record, acting, preparing to lose Super Bowl XVI to the 49ers…
Okay, the Super Bowl crack was a little harsh, but let’s face it — to the extent that Ken Anderson is remembered at all outside of Cincinnati, it’s for coming up a little short in the Super Bowl that launched the 49ers dynasty. And The Marketing Smart Aleck is convinced that the only reason Anderson wound up in these commercials is because Joe Montana wanted too much money. But we digress.
The Coffee Achievers campaign represented a reasonable underlying strategy, even if the execution now seems a little hokey and dated. Of course even back in the 1980s, social observers as varied as Weird Al Yankovic and the comic strip “Bloom County” were making fun of the spots and their “movers and shakers” rhetoric. It was as hard then as it is now to listen with a straight face to copy like:
“Coffee lets you calm yourself down, and it picks you up! Coffee gives you the serenity to dream it and the vitality to do it!”
So, basically, NCA was trying to sell caffeine as a mind-altering, performance-enhancing drug that combined all the most popular effects of marijuana, amphetamines, peyote and cocaine. An interesting approach indeed from the same decade that regularly implored us to “Just say no!”
Ultimately, the campaign faded away in the mid-’80s and didn’t seem to accomplish its objectives. A decade later, the coffee industry was still trying to figure out ways to convert young adults into java drinkers. Those efforts led to, among other things, an intriguing failed venture by Starbucks and Pepsi to produce a carbonated coffee soda. Blech!
Then a funny thing happened. At some point in the ’90s, Generation X, in their twenties at that time, finally started drinking coffee. In fact, coffee became cool. Maybe it was the cultural influence from Seattle during the Grunge Era. Perhaps it was because the hit TV sitcom and generational touchstone Friends was set in a coffee shop. It probably had something to do with a wider variety of gourmet flavors and coffee formats like espresso and cappuccino becoming mainstream during that period. But maybe, just maybe, the seed had been planted in those commercials back in the ’80s, and took a while to germinate. After all, one does not attain the lofty rank of Coffee Achiever overnight.