RetroAnalysis: The Coffee Achievers

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.



Odd Product Hall of Fame: The Tauntaun Sleeping Bag

To honor Star Wars Day 2014, the Odd Product Hall of Fame resolved to recognize a piece of Star Wars merchandise. Since the Star Wars movie franchise burst onto the scene in 1977, there have been untold numbers of merchandising tie-ins, many of which can certainly be described as odd products. Just a few examples include Kellogg’s C-3PO’s Cereal, the Darth Vader Toaster and Lightsaber Chopsticks. So, the challenge for the selection committee was not to find a suitably odd choice, but rather to select just one from the scads of potential honorees.

After poking around on Google for about 15 minutes a careful review of many such worthy candidates, we determined that the odd Star Wars product that stood head and shoulders above the others was ThinkGeek’s Tauntaun Sleeping Bag.

A few factors swayed the decision in favor of this sleeping bag. To our knowledge, this is the only product on the market that allows people to re-enact a movie scene that involves cutting open an animal and sleeping inside its stench-ridden carcass. So there’s that. We also like that this actually started out as an April Fool’s gag on the ThinkGeek website, which ultimately generated such public demand that it became a real product. That makes it the rare case where we know for sure that the producers of an odd product understood how weird their idea was from the very outset. Mostly, we voted for the sleeping bag because it’s just flat-out funny.

Be proud, Tauntaun Sleeping Bag. With almost forty years worth of merchandise to choose from, we selected you over all  your Star Wars-inspired brethren to be enshrined in the Odd Product Hall of Fame. Congratulations. And May the Fourth be with you.

Atari Archaeology

During my years in the newspaper industry, an embarrassing typo or omission in the paper would sometimes lead coworkers to invoke an old adage: “Doctors bury their mistakes. Newspapers print theirs.” I was reminded of that saying after reading in the news about the confirmation of the oft-repeated rumor that thousands of unsold “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” Atari video game cartridges had been dumped in a desert landfill. A documentary film crew has apparently unearthed several hundred of the cartridges. The E.T. game was widely considered one of the worst of all time and its failure is blamed for helping to kill Atari and seriously damaging the video game industry until Nintendo came along and rescued it a few years later. With that reputation, it’s no wonder someone was eager to literally bury that mistake.

This story begs two questions:

  1. If the cartridges had remained buried for hundreds or even thousands of years and were unearthed by a future civilization, would the future archaeologists infer, based on the sheer number of units, that the E.T. game was highly popular and culturally important to 20th Century Americans? That seems likely, and makes one wonder if the artifacts we have collected from the ancient world are really just so much unwanted merchandise that Sumerian, Egyptian, Roman, et. al. merchants weren’t able to unload on the consumers of their time.
  2. Is there a similar landfill out there containing all of the unused AOL Free Trial CDs from the 1990s? If so, the landfill would of course need to be many times larger than the entire state of New Mexico to hold them all.

The next big landfill discovery?

As a final personal aside, it should be noted that I owned an Atari 2600 back in the day and spent untold hours playing it. I never tried the E.T. game, but if it really was worse than other Atari games that were out at the time (e.g., Video Checkers, Tic Tac Toe, any number of ridiculously simplistic sports games) then the game designers deserved to have been buried along with the cartridges.

RetroAnalysis: Frozen Creamy Love

Are you stuck at the eleventh hour on Valentine’s Day, trying to find a last minute Valentine’s Gift for your sweetie? If so, what in the name of Hallmark are you doing reading this blog instead of  shopping for cards or flowers or Vermont Teddy Bears or something?

The Marketing Smart Aleck can’t help you with your needs now, but 30 years ago, your problem could have been solved with four simple words: Carvel Ice Cream Cake. Unconvinced? Just click on the video below,  let the music melt your heart and behold the quickest way to win a fair lady’s love back in the day…

But that was then and this is now. Tom Carvel isn’t around to save you. The “Ice Cream Bakery” he used to have in your town has probably gone out of business and been converted into a cell phone store. But while you’re sleeping on the couch tonight, still feeling the chill of the cold shoulder she gave you when you came home with the box of discount chocolates from the dollar store, you can at least dream about the special Valentine’s Day “Cookie Puss” cake (shown at 0:09 in the commercial) and know that you have gazed upon the face of Love itself.

RetroAnalysis: Freezy Freakies

Americans have a history of reacting oddly to cold weather. During the Revolutionary War, Washington’s army famously camped out throughout a brutal winter at Valley Forge with their feet wrapped in rags, which, in retrospect, seems like a pretty dubious body heat retention strategy. In this age of social media, when polar vortexes grip wide swaths of the continent, the default response seems to be posting a picture of ones single-digit car thermometer reading on Facebook. And then there was the short-lived winter wear fad from the 1980s known as Freezy Freakies.

After viewing the commercial for Freezy Freakies, one is tempted to chuckle at how easily-amused kids seem to have been thirty years ago, compared to now. Its hard to imagine the current generation of children who have grown up on X-Boxes and Playstations being terribly impressed with a glove that displays a cartoonish UFO when it gets cold. Of course, one would probably say the same thing of 21st Century adults, but that didn’t stop Coors Light from coming out with a Freezy Freaky-esque bottle label a few years back…

The Marketing Smart Aleck can’t help but wonder if Coors’ strategy was to subliminally appeal to the nostalgia of Gen X-ers who grew up wearing Freezy Freakies gloves. Or maybe it’s just proof that some gimmicks are cyclical and will resurface every few decades, even if they  fail to deliver any tangible value whatsoever (I’m looking at you, 3D movies). All I know for sure is that on the February night that I’m writing this post, it’s 18 degrees Fahrenheit outside. And regardless of whether my gloves or beer labels change color, 18 degrees is freakin’ freezing.

We Wish You a Retro Christmas: McDonald’s Gift Certificates

Between now until December 25th, The Marketing Smart Aleck will feature some of the best, worst and most ridiculous Christmas commercials of yesteryear.

Gift cards are commonplace now, but back in the old days, kids, you had to buy little pieces of paper called gift certificates. And it was rare to see a retailer aggressively promote such certificates as presents in their own right. The exception was McDonald’s which used to trot out commercials like this one every holiday season…

The interesting thing about these spots, from a marketing analysis standpoint, is the shotgun strategy McDonald’s used over the years. The commercial above seemed to be aimed at parents, encouraging them to give the certificates as stocking-stuffers. Other spots over the years targeted different segments, like extended family members…

…iron-fisted law enforcement officers attempting to soften their images…


…and those who exploit small humanoids as a low-cost labor source…

McDonald’s still offers gift cards, but they seem to have abandoned the strategy of featuring them as a lead holiday offering. That might be because, in some quarters, those old-style gift certificates became shorthand for “a chintzy gift given by thoughtless cheapskates.” Or it might be because the recent health-related backlash against fast food has made some consumers feel that giving it to a child for Christmas would be tantamount to slipping a vial of rat poison into their stocking. Whatever the reason for their disappearance, these commercials seem as quaint and old-fashioned now as the concept of being able to buy a meal or a significant portion thereof with $0.50.

We Wish You a Retro Christmas: Silent Night, Deadly Night

Between now until December 25th, The Marketing Smart Aleck will feature some of the best, worst and most ridiculous Christmas commercials* of yesteryear.

When discussions of beloved holiday movies come up, I always like to throw people a curve ball and tell them that my favorite Christmas movie of all time is “Die Hard.” (Try this sometime. It usually results in people initially arguing that “Die Hard” absolutely is not a Christmas movie, but after they think about the plot for a while, they will often grudgingly concede that it is. Sorta.) But sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly mischievous, and the person I’m talking to is about my age, and seems like they can appreciate a joke, I will put on my best deadpan expression and inform them that the greatest Christmas film of all-time is “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” This normally leads to immediate laughter or a very concerned look until the person realizes that I’m kidding. This trailer should explain why…

The Eighties were, of course, the Golden Age of slasher films. It was the decade that gave us Jason, Freddy Krueger and Chucky the killer doll. It was probably inevitable that some screenwriter would bring a homicidal department store Santa Claus into the mix. As inevitable as it might seem from the vantage point of 21st Century hindsight, the film was actually controversial when it was released in 1984. Concerned parents protested it, and well-known film critic Gene Siskel assailed the filmmakers as “sick, sleazy and mean-spirited” on his popular syndicated TV show “At the Movies.”

Of course, being “sick, sleazy and mean-spirited” was pretty much the whole point of the slasher flick craze. While I was never a fan of the genre or of this film in particular, it’s impossible to deny that, in the context of all the usual predictable, homogenized, warm and fuzzy mandatory joy that the media throws at us at Christmastime, there’s something a little bit refreshing — perhaps even liberating — about a movie where a crazed Santa wields an axe with bad intent. And if you doubt that the concept struck a chord with the public, consider that there were no fewer than four sequels, a 2012 remake and a planned 2013 re-release. That suggests that there may very well be people out there who proclaim that “Silent Night, Deadly Night” is the greatest Christmas film of all-time and aren’t kidding. Let’s just hope that none of them are employed as department store Santas.

*Okay, this installment doesn’t actually feature a TV commercial, but rather a theatrical trailer. But a truncated version of this trailer did run on the airwaves as a commercial back in 1984.