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.



RetroAnalysis: Coffee Busybodies

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.