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.



RetroAnalyslis: Bathroom Intruders

Paranoia is a persistent theme of 21st Century American life. We worry that cybercriminals, corporations, and our own government are spying on us via our computers, our phones, even our video games. By comparison, the 1970s seem like a simpler, more carefree time. Yet a review of some prominent ad campaigns of that decade suggest that personal privacy was under assault back then as well. That assault was happening in the nation’s bathrooms.

There were strange goings-on in the john four decades ago. Visitors from Madison Avenue kept showing up in the loo. Some of them were benevolent, like the mustachioed Dow scrubbing bubbles, who worked hard at cleaning tubs while the homeowner took it easy.

But even some ostensibly friendly bathroom helpers were undeniably creepy. For example, the miniature sailor living in the toilet, hawking Ty-D-Bol…

Could the presence of this uniformed man in the toilet tank have been what drove John Lennon, in 1980, to pen the curious lyric, “There’s Nazis in the bathroom just below the stairs”? If not, perhaps Lennon was reacting to the Big Brother-ish scenario in the series of Right Guard deodorant commercials in which men in adjoining apartments share a medicine cabinet, and thus a daily window into each others’ personal space.

In reviewing those last two spots, their tone is oddly lighthearted given the unsettling context of encountering uninvited interlopers in one’s bathroom. In that sense, it seems that the commercials weren’t actually reflections of paranoia on the part of consumers, but rather of a brazen disregard for personal boundaries on the part of marketers at the time.The 1970s were famously an era when many social taboos were thrown by the wayside and when, in the opinions of many, bad taste reigned. In 1957, the makers of an episode of Leave it to Beaver had to tread carefully around network censors when featuring in a scene where the boys in the show put a baby alligator in the toilet, reportedly not being allowed to even show the bowl. Less than two decades after that episode, standards had evolved to the point where Archie Bunker was routinely flushing the commode for laughs on All in the Family. For better or worse, bathrooms became fair game as TV settings in the ‘70s.

At the same time, the decade was a period when American big business  had developed a reputation for arrogance, complacency, and tone-deafness toward changing consumer tastes (exemplified by U.S. automakers failing to make the stylistic and fuel efficiency adjustments needed to keep pace with Japanese imports). Some corporations seemed to be operating under the belief that they could use the brute force of  the TV-Industrial Complex to make the public buy anything they had to sell, and that their messages need not be thoughtful or even persuasive, so long as they were relentless. In fact, the advertising of the time appeared to go out of its way to present intrusive scenarios.

It may very well be that these commercial bathroom intrusions were the result of TV finally being allowed to peer into the bathroom at precisely the moment when marketers were least sensitive to the notion that consumers might bristle at the idea of receiving a sales pitch during their most private moments. Or perhaps we are overthinking it and the commercials are nothing more than vintage 1970s pop-cultural loopiness. Either way, we agree with Mr. Lennon’s lyrical assessment of the era: Strange days indeed.

RetroAnalysis: Unlikely Celebrity Endorsements

It’s hard not to be cynical about celebrity endorsements. On a certain level, we know that the celebrity probably doesn’t use the product, or at least wouldn’t if they didn’t have the endorsement deal. And when it’s a very prominent celebrity, there is always the suspicion that they must be short on money. Why else would they risk damaging their image by being in a commercial?

The best celebrity endorsements overcome those hurdles by featuring a natural, credible match between personality and product, like Michael Jordan for Nike or Ed McMahon for Budweiser. But then there are those that make it impossible for us to suspend our disbelief; where it was clear that the strategy was simply to find a famous face to associate with the offering, no matter how ill-fitting or random the pairing. Here are a few examples of the most unlikely celebrity endorsements…

Muhammad Ali for d-Con Roach Traps

In the 1970s, Muhammad Ali had all the makings of a perfect celebrity pitchman. Along with being one of the most famous human beings on the planet and an athlete of the highest order, he was also charismatic, funny and mesmerizing on television.  Given all that, why couldn’t he land an endorsement deal for a better product than roach traps? “The Greatest” should have been endorsing high-end products like cars or premium beers instead of having his face stuck on the packaging of a bug killing gadget.

Milton Berle for Lum’s

Lum’s was a national restaurant chain that peaked in popularity in the 1970s. Milton Berle was a comedian who peaked in popularity in the 1950s. It’s not clear why Lum’s picked Berle to be the face of their franchise, aside from the fact that he was famous. Perhaps they saw all of the characters Berle portrayed in the spot as an articulation of the different demographic groups in their target markets. That said, if I walked into a restaurant and saw four patrons who looked like those incarnations of Milton Berle, I’d turn around and head to the Denny’s down the street.

Eleanor Roosevelt for Good Luck Margarine

Throughout her public life, Mrs. Roosevelt was a respected humanitarian and arguably the most highly-regarded First Lady in U.S. history. So, her hawking any product would seem a little tacky. Given that the product in question is an obscure brand of margarine makes it even worse. Granted, it’s not as bad as “Eleanor Roosevelt for d-Con Roach Traps” would have been, but it’s still a baffling, low-class move by an otherwise classy woman.

Those three examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the history of unlikely celebrity endorsements. The Marketing Smart Aleck might just be back with more of these in the future. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this…


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.

RetroAnalysis: Peter Puck

The town in upstate New York where I grew up is known for its long, snowy, icy winters. It’s also less than a two-hour drive from the Canadian border. In fact, our cable system used to carry several Canadian TV stations and it was rare to receive change anywhere in the area without someone passing you at least a few coins with a beaver, maple leaf, caribou and/or Queen Elizabeth II on them. When I was 11 years old, the U.S. Olympic hockey team defeated the Soviets in the famous “Miracle on Ice” game in Lake Placid, just three counties away from my home. Based on that information, one might surmise that I would have grown up as a hockey fan. But I didn’t. And neither did most of my childhood friends who liked sports.

I share these biographical notes because I believe my personal situation is very representative of a problem that has faced the National Hockey League for a long time. As wildly popular as hockey is in Canada, it is really just a niche sport in most of the United States, even in areas where climate and geography would seem to make it a natural fit. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the single biggest marketing challenge that the NHL has faced over the past four decades has been trying to create new fans in American markets. They’ve attacked that problem from a lot of angles over the years. In the 1970s, the NHL rested its hope for the future on an animated disk named Peter Puck.

The strategy behind Peter Puck is readily-evident after watching just one of the animated shorts. The character was designed to teach kids (and probably adults) the rules of hockey so they would understand what they were seeing on TV and hopefully become NHL fans forever after. In addition to the cartoons, the NHL also distributed Peter Puck toysPeter Puck books, and of course Peter Puck pucks.

It was a sound strategy on paper. Many businesses attempt to expose consumers to their offerings at an early age in order to create customers for life. It’s the same reason McDonald’s created Ronald McDonald and all of the associated McDonaldland characters. It’s the secret to Disney’s success across multiple generations. And it’s the reason that R.J. Reynolds ran into trouble with its Joe Camel ad campaign back in the 1990s.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to assess how successful Peter Puck was as a youth ambassador/entry point to NHL hockey. I’m sure there are adult hockey fans today who could and would credit the character with sparking their interest in the sport. Yet hockey’s continued lag in U.S. popularity behind football, baseball and basketball suggests that a major shift toward hockey did not take hold with the Gen Xers who were the target audience for the promotion. Of course, that kind transformation in a nation’s entrenched sports culture is a lot to ask of an animated character, or any single marketing campaign for that matter. After all, not even even Michael Jordan’s transcendent NBA career and ubiquitous marketing presence could make basketball more popular than football in America. What chance did a talking chunk of vulcanized rubber have in pushing hockey to the forefront of the crowded U.S. sports landscape? 

Regardless of Peter Puck’s strategic success in the 1970s, the character does appear to have genuine nostalgic appeal among hockey fans. In 2007, the NHL reintroduced the character and the animated shorts have been shown in Canada and made available on DVD in the 21st Century. If nothing else, Peter deserves credit for being nowhere near as annoying as Major League Baseball’s widely-maligned ripoff version of the same concept — Scooter the talking baseball. And don’t even get me started on that goddamned FOX football robot