A well-edited trailer can make any movie look good, but Hollywood has several minutes to convince a movie theatre’s captive audience that a flick is worth seeing. Advertisers limited to just 30 seconds of broadcast TV, when viewers are eager to do anything but pay attention, have a much harder job. But that just encourages more creativity.
I don’t remember the last time I’ve voluntarily sat through an ad that wasn’t holding a longer video hostage, but commercials were a big part of my formative years before ad-free streaming services became an alternative to broadcast and cable TV. It’s a testament to the ad makers of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early aughts that many of the their frantic 30-second pitches still live in my head, particularly those that were trying to sell me the latest and greatest tech.
The Commodore 64 was first and foremost a home computer, with a grayish beige case that screamed, “who’s ready for some word processing?!” It played games too, however, which this ad that frequently manages to earworm its way into my brain heavily leans on. A quick call to my parents has confirmed that, no, my own friends never knocked down my door to gain access to our family’s Commodore 64, which was probably for the best.
Nintendo Super Mario Bros. 3
When this commercial first started airing ahead of Super Mario Bros. 3‘s release in October of 1988, a family member insisted the chants of “Mario!, Mario!” were straight out of a cult’s playbook, in what I now assume was another attempt to further the popular narrative of the time that video games were evil. The unsolicited opinion didn’t dissuade us from thinking it was cool that thousands of people across the country got together to form a giant version of Mario’s face across North America in support of a video game: a feat that seems less impressive now that we all know about visual effects.
Nintendo Game Boy
Looking back, I really don’t know how an alien robot materialising a boy holding a Game Boy with a blast from a fingertip ever made it past the pitch stage for this ad. There weren’t even any robot-themed games in the Game Boy’s limited launch lineup, but watching this kid defeat the alien (I’m assuming?) in a game of head-to-head Tetris and then vaporizing it made a device I was already obsessed with as a kid seem even more amazing.
Sony Bravia – Paint
In the days of CRTs, Sony’s Bravia TVs were the ones to lust over. But the only thing that overshadowed the company’s hardware was the incredible commercials Sony created for the Bravia line, two of which I will never forget. The first takes place in an abandoned housing development destined to be demolished, but before the wrecking balls and bulldozers rolled in, the row houses and apartment buildings were subjected to a daytime fireworks show with colourful paint that exploded out of windows, erupted from geysers on the ground, and rained down on playground equipment. I’m still not sure what that clown was doing, but this ad takes a very simple idea and executes it masterfully and completely practically on set. There was no CG used here.
Sony Bravia – Bouncy Balls
The other memorable Sony Bravia commercial that’s a joy to watch again and again featured an even simpler idea than bombarding abandoned buildings with explosive paint. Sony found a quiet and very steep street in San Francisco and released hundreds of thousands of brightly coloured balls that bounced their way down it while high-speed cameras captured all the action. To this day, I’m convinced that people who live on this street must still be finding bouncy balls in random places, as much as I want to believe that Sony cleaned all these up afterwards.
Apple iPod + iTunes
It didn’t take long for the iPod’s stark white earbuds to become a status symbol, nor did it take long for Apple to capitalise on that in its iPod advertising, the most memorable of which featured dancing characters silhouetted against brightly coloured backgrounds as they danced along to bouncy tracks that undoubtedly cost Apple a small fortune to licence. To this day, I can’t hear Jet’s Are you Gonna Be My Girl without picturing a pair of iPod earbuds wildly flailing about.
We’ve got a real soft spot for the Gizmondo here, given the failed handheld shares our name, more or less. Like a lot of tech advertising in the early aughts, the Gizmondo is nowhere to be seen through most of this ad from 2005. Instead, slick CG of a bumblebee in an aeronautical research lab joins a narrator explaining that bees shouldn’t actually be able to fly based on the size of their wings, but do anyways. But it wasn’t wing size that prevented the Gizmondo from soaring to success: a lack of games and loads of corporate drama did that.
Nintendo The Legend of Zelda
I had zero interest in The Legend of Zelda games as a kid until playing through Link’s Awakening on the Game Boy: my own awakening for the series. Why the apathy? It was 100% a result of this utterly bizarre commercial for the original NES game that intermixed video clips of the game with footage of a turtle-necked man ranting and raving about the game and the various baddies like a bad fringe festival production. (I guess the ‘bad’ is always implied there.) This one was definitely a big miss from Nintendo’s marketing team, even if it did manage to spark many confused playground discussions.
How do you sell a digital music player that can only actually play a 60-second, low fidelity, mono clip of a chart-topping song? You lean heavily on the cool factor with a spikey-haired spokesperson that looks like she might have been one of the founding members of the Danish-Norwegian Europop group, Aqua. The approach worked, as by June of 2002, two years after it launched, Tiger had sold over 20 million HitClips players and cartridges.
Nintendo Super Smash Bros.
Like many kids, I had to deal with parents who were concerned with my exposure to gratuitous violence in movies, on TV, and in video games. Just convincing them a video game console wouldn’t have a bad influence on me was a challenge, and one not made any easier with this infamous ad for the first Super Smash Bros. game on the N64 featuring beloved and once friendly Nintendo characters duking it out. It was a memorable ad, without a doubt, but also one that probably deterred many parents from getting the game for their kids.
It was a miracle that no one died when the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed in 1940 after 64 km/h winds caused uncontrollable oscillations that tore it apart, although a Cocker Spaniel named Tubby was believed to be the tragedy’s only fatality. That didn’t stop Pioneer from using the infamous black and white film footage from just before the bridge’s collapse in a clever commercial to sell sound systems, where the bridge’s violent oscillations are revealed to be instead caused by a driver with his music playing too loud.
Honda Accord – Cog
I would never really call myself a ‘car guy,’ and the usual approaches to selling vehicles mostly fall flat on me. But the one ad I’ve watched and re-watched more times than I can count is this brilliantly simple, yet incredibly complex, commercial for the Honda Accord featuring a Rube Goldberg machine made from actual Honda Accord parts. You learn nothing about the vehicle itself, but the tagline, “isn’t it nice, when things just…work?,” delivered after the chain reaction is over, leaves a lasting impression about the reliability of a Honda.