Growing up in the ’80s, television was a part of childhood, a way to unwind with the family after days filled with school and homework. We looked forward to watching our favorite sitcoms and the inevitable commercials that popped up alongside them. And, like the words to our favorite ’80s songs, commercial catchphrases often got stuck in our heads.
Advertisers from the ’70s and ’80s were experts at producing catchy tunes, memorable slogans, and powerful visual images. Many of these ads were so unforgettable that we still remember them 20-plus years later with a nostalgia and fondness that our own children, who can—and often do—fast-forward through commercials, will never understand.
Partnership for a Drug-Free America
Catchphrase: “This is your brain. This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?”
The free-love of the ’60s and the hedonism of the ’70s gave way to the anti-drug movement of the ’80s. Nancy Reagan warned us of the evils of drugs and advised us to just say no. The former first lady even got some of our favorite celebrities involved, but nothing scared our generation more than a grown man standing in a kitchen and frying an egg while comparing it to our brains. Any questions? Nope.
Catchphrase: “You sank my battleship!”
Battleship, around since the late ’60s, was a family favorite. Made by powerhouse board game manufacturer Milton Bradley back when board games were still a thing. Battleship was epic. It was always with a sense of mildly humiliating defeat that the loser would utter those famous words that became an indelible part of our childhood. In 1985, electronic Battleship came along with all its annoying sounds that still haunt ’80s kids today.
Catchphrase: “Clap on! Clap off! The Clapper.”
The Clapper was like a remote control for all the electronic devices in the house. For those too lazy to move, The Clapper was perfect. It also had an “away” function that was triggered by any outside noise. This function made it possible to simultaneously scare burglars, annoy neighbors, and drive up the cost of the electric bill with one single click of a switch.
The Original Chia Pet
Yes, Chia was awesome. Part amateur pottery and part houseplant, the Chia Pet was “fun to watch and easy to grow.” This kitschy product was made by the same company that made The Clapper, and if watched carefully, a Chia commercial can be seen in the background of a Clapper commercial. Very postmodern. The makers of both products were obviously way ahead of their time.
Catchphrase: “He likes it! Hey, Mikey!”
Two older boys convince their little brother, who likes nothing, to give the new cereal a try. If a picky kid like Mikey liked Life, then so could we. Eventually Mikey would become a legend, not for the commercials, but for his place in ’70s urban legend history. The rumor was that Mikey washed Pop Rocks down with soda which caused his insides to explode, killing him instantly. However, John Gilchrist, aka Mikey, is alive and well, working in media sales.
Catchphrase: “How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?”
A young boy asks several animals this question. They direct him to the wise owl who only makes it to three before biting the pop. There were actual experiments done by Purdue University, University of Michigan, and Swarthmore Junior High School. Purdue even used a licking machine modeled after the human tongue. The machine reported an average of 364 licks to get to the Tootsie Pop center.
Catchphrase: “Where’s the beef?”
Three elderly ladies star in these commercials that poke fun at fast-food chain competitors. In the ads, a fictional “Big Bun” is used, but the elderly trio drive through one golden arch—an obvious dig at fast-food leader of the pack, McDonald’s. Clara Peller, the octogenarian who uttered the line, had fun with her fame, granting numerous press interviews and making several guest TV appearances. Peller also took part in the low-budget 1985 comedy, Moving Violations.
Catchphrase: “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up.”
A man having chest pains, a woman who has fallen, and a group of operators who took their calls. This commercial was for a product that helped people, but many of us couldn’t get past the cheese factor. The poor woman crying while wedged between the tub and her walker should have evoked feelings of sympathy, but of course we couldn’t help but laugh. We were young, we were immortal (or so we thought), and we didn’t have a ton of compassion for old people. Little did we know that one day many of us would be caring for aging parents.
Catchphrase: “Time to make the donuts.”
The sweet, moustached man in the commercial was always making donuts. He didn’t sleep. He didn’t eat. He simply made donuts. He made them in snow, sleet, and rain, and as we watched his tireless commitment to apparently single-handedly make all the donuts for all the people, we felt his pain, we felt his exhaustion, and as much as we hated to admit it, we felt hungry.
Though they may seem irrelevant, commercials from our childhood were anything but. They remind us of the things we loved, the things we wanted, and the things we simply couldn’t get out of our heads. The jingles, the images, and the phrases were, and will always be, a part of our generation.