Attention-grabbing, catchy, whacky – it must be 1980s advertising

The 1980s. Known for some of the best movies, music, TV shows and toys of our time (Rubik’s cube anyone!) and also some of the best ads. Who can forget Shake and Vac, BT’s  Ology (mentioned on Coronation Street just the other week!) or Just One Cornetto. Admittedly, not some of the greatest ads ever produced, but they are definitely some of the most memorable.

And one of the reasons why TV advertising in the 1980s was so great is due in part to the changing nature of TV. New channels, especially satellite TV meant advertisers had to be more creative if they wanted to grab and hold an audience’s attention. And they did it in style.

Welcome to the world of 1980s advertising.

A proliferation of advertising opportunities

Channel 4, Breakfast TV, MTV, CNN, satellite TV – all launched in the 1980s and not only gave  brands more choice about where to advertise, but also changed the very nature of TV.

CNN was the first television channel to provide 24 hour news coverage and allowed advertisers to reach a global audience. Meanwhile,  MTV proved the power of advertising once and for all. Launched to much scepticism and with everyone convinced it would fail, record labels were unwilling to give them any content and satellite TV companies refused to broadcast it. Then MTV launched this promo video starring David Bowie and Boy George encouraging consumers to demand satellite TV companies to carry MTV.  Consumers did, in their droves and advertisers started to sit up and take note.

But just as brands got more choice about where they could advertise and to whom, consumers also got more choice – with the remote control and VCR.  Remote controls meant they could change channels during the ad breaks, and the VCR, first introduced in 1979 and embraced by the mass market in the 1980s, gave people the chance to fast forward the adverts.

But this just resulted in brands getting creative. There was a rise in 15-second ads, which cost advertisers less to make, but could be shown more frequently; there was the launch of home shopping channels such as QVC which saw companies paying satellite TV operators a percentage of their profits rather than buying ad space; and infomercials which focused on a particular product became popular.  Although you have to question how desperate were Corey Feldman and Corey Haim in this infomercial where they offer to give out their own personal telephone numbers!

Breaking away from the old way of doing things

The proliferation of advertising opportunities along with consumers being able to avoid watching ads, saw brands start to get super creative in order to keep the audience’s attention.

Building on the creativity of the 1970s, brands stopped using descriptive approaches of selling products and opted for catchy jingles and whacky colours, such as these ads from Trio,  Um Bongo  and Kia Ora.

Advertisers also started to use celebrities to promote their products.  Fosters did a series of ads with Paul Hogan, Leslie Nielsen did an ad for Shell  and Pepsi went with Michael J. Fox, fresh from his iconic role in Back to the Future.

Holsten Pils went one step better and mixed original footage from different films, such as Some Like it Hot, with Griff Rhys Jones providing new humorous dialogue.

And then of course, there were these creative masterpieces from Yellow Pages, Levi’s 501 (sales went up by an amazing 800%)

and of course, the launch of Apple’s first Macintosh computer.

A clear dig at IBM’s domination of the computer industry, Apple’s ad was directed by Ridley Scott, cost $1 million to make and the full 60-second version was only aired once, during the Super Bowl. Viewers were divided over whether they loved or hated it, but this simply meant more media coverage for Apple with some estimates putting it at more than $150 million of free airtime. Perhaps, even more significantly, it was the first time an ad at Superbowl had generated so much interest, with the result advertisers started saving their best work to showcase during Super Bowl, in effect creating an event within an event.

New sectors start to use the power of advertising

Just as in the 1970s, the 80s saw different sectors start to take advantage of the advertising options available. Car manufacturers upped their advertising spend with Mazda the first company to explore interactive TV. They told viewers to record their ad and then play it back frame-by-frame to enter a competition to win a car.

Financial services, especially banks, also started to advertise, most memorably First Direct. To launch the UK’s first 24-hour telephone banking service, they seemingly hijacked an Audi ad to broadcast an advert from 2010 which was shown simultaneously on both ITV and Channel 4.

But one of the most significant sectors to get in on the act were retailers. Up until this point, brands simply gave retailers their products, expected them to put them in a prominent position in their stores, and then advertised them on TV. But retailers started to question why, if they offered the general public a range of other goods such as fresh fruit, veg, meat and fish, should brand owners hold all the power?  The result was the introduction of more high quality own label products and a reduction in the amount of brands they stocked.

But this also meant retailers needed to start to advertise to encourage customers to come to them and not their competitors. Sainsbury’s produced 10 commercials with Saatchi & Saatchi to promote their own label products while Tesco focused on price.  In fact, according to Marketing Week,  in 1987 10 of the 20 top advertisers were Asda, Tesco and Boots.

More stringent regulations

If the 1970s was about telling the public about their rights to complain about a misleading ad, then the 1980s took this a step further. In 1988, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received legal backing from the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) to refer advertisers who made persistent misleading claims to the OFT for legal action. And they didn’t have to wait long when in 1989 Speedslim had the dubious honour of being the first company to have an injunction made against it for making misleading slimming claims.

Rules also came in around ads for cosmetics, stating they couldn’t make claims about biological or physiological effects unless backed up by scientific evidence,  and a ban on tobacco advertising in cinemas was also introduced.

But it wasn’t all good news. The ASA carried out research into women’s attitudes to ads, which, unsurprisingly, found women most disliked images of sexual suggestiveness and stereotypes. Sadly, as none of the concerns were found to breach the British Code of Advertising Practice, no additional rules were felt necessary.

And over in the States, advertising was deregulated. Up until that point regulations had been in place around targeting children (and protecting parents from pester power!) following research by Action for Children’s Television (ACT) into the damaging impact advertising can have on children.

Reagan lifted all these restrictions, resulting in an onslaught of junk food, sweets, toys and a 300% increase in cartoons with licensed characters. And when even the Rubik’s Cube has its own show, you know it’s bad.

So while the 1980s was a beacon of creativity it also continued to raise important issues around the power of advertising and the detrimental impact it could have.

Next time, we’ll look at the 1990s, and we all know what that means  – internet advertising!