Here’s a theoretical question for you to roll around the old noodle: If you vividly remember a weird movie trailer, or a Simpsons joke, or a funny commercial from childhood, but are completely unable to find a trace of it on YouTube, did it ever truly air?
Perhaps not. Because YouTube will always be remembered for its comprehensive cataloging of the specific and irrelevant nonsense of every bygone era, no matter how many terrible-looking YouTube Red “Originals,” hypnotic ASMR Play-Doh unboxings, and music videos monetized beyond what the inventor of NASCAR ever thought possible it comes up with. For my generation, whatever YouTube does from here on out will inevitably be overshadowed by its promise to give us access to everything we have already seen in our lives. And while there are millions of fresh, new videos being uploaded to YouTube every nanosecond, I don’t care. I’m there for the old shit, the stuff that’s been locked away for me to find. I treat YouTube like a kind of a time capsule, because that’s what it is. If you stuffed a shitload of ads into your time capsule, I mean. Like a seriously huge amount of ads.
That fact makes purposefully searching out and viewing vintage advertisements on the service a bit surreal. Having to sit through, say, an ad for Pepsi’s newest extreme zero-calorie formulation before you can lay eyes on a 1992 spot for Crystal Pepsi is enough of a visual treadmill to make you question Tim Berners Lee’s ultimate motivations.
So, why? Why would anyone feel compelled to revisit or, God forbid, discover, these little pieces of televisual ephemera? What’s the point of subjecting yourself to even one anachronistic jingle or voiceover you could otherwise let fade into the memory hole? Aren’t we supposed to be cutting the damn cord anyway?
Well, look, I don’t make a habit of this. I’m watching actual shows, too. What’s that new one… Boss Baby? I’ve seen that. And many other things as well, of course. It’s not just a constant stream of 1980s commercials over here.
But look, if you’re young, or if you’re somewhat less young and have simply forgotten, 30-year-old ads are not the same as the ones we see today. A successful modern commercial is memorable in the exact same way that you can remember the place in the yard in which you were stung by a bee, and instinctively avoid it like a spurned mutt. Ads today are overly long, loud, confusing, and, worst of all, unfunny. To the extent that there is humor present in the ads of today, it is generally the type which you could accurately and consternatingly call “random.”
But that’s not how it used to be. In the old days, if a commercial got people to buy a thing, hell, that was great. But there wasn’t up-to-the-minute data on social media engagement in 1989, and the “24 to 28-year-old male-gamer-with-a- doctorate” demographic niche damn sure wasn’t micro-targeted. So if you worked for “Mad Men” with Big Shoulder Pads, you wrote a simple advertisement that could be filmed in a day and would look nice on 14-inch TVs, you smoked a very long cigarette, and you went home to your wallpapered bathroom. And that’s how we ended up with good beer commercials, like the one that goes like this:
“Are you drinking America’s best-brewed premium beer?” the soft baritone asks. “Once, all quality beers were brewed with only the purest water and an expensive ‘old world’ way of brewing called kräusening. But today, only one major premium beer is still brewed this way. Only one!” He exclaims/croons in that lost-to-history commercial voice. “Not Miller, not Stroh’s, not Coors, not even Budweiser; only Heileman’s Old Style is still brewed with pure artesian spring water and fully kräusened.”
The beer ads of yore truly are a lost art. Or take this one:
At one point in this ad, a man who doesn’t look totally unlike Bob Newhart stares at Michelob’s signature “teardrop”-shaped bottle like he would literally kill for it. The voiceover seems to be wholly improvised, and has a certain drunken Orson Welles quality. I love it.
Then you’ve got a gem like this one:
Old Milwaukee is an interesting case. The ads they ran from this era were considered — by Will Ferrell, no less — to be iconic enough that they called for an ironic reboot. Yet the beer itself has been reduced to novelty status, and is rarely served in volume outside its nominal home base. Actually, that’s not too interesting, but the conceit of this ad is. Were massive logs prevalent enough at one point in our nation’s history that simply failing at remaining upright on a spinning one would be considered an adequate punch line for a national ad campaign? I mean, you’d be tempted to say no, right? But here we are.
Then you’ve got the Colt 45 spots like this one:
There are more notable Billy Dee Williams/Colt 45 spots — they, too, have been reintroduced — but I prefer this one. The way Williams sprints through the dialogue like he’s making an announcement from the cockpit, the totally inscrutable narrative throughline (a fantastical dream triggered by haunted spectacles?), the glass bottle Colt 45 being half-poured into a highball glass. All of it is just… pure.
Next up is this Australian commercial from 1988:
It’s somehow more American than Hulk Hogan fondling a big, screeching turkey on a dirt bike. I want to aerosolize this ad and dump it out of a prop plane over Utah airspace. And then you get one like this:
Imagine being a person whose job it was to sell lots and lots of beer. For this campaign, you know your team wants a celebrity pitchman to really move that product. You decide on comedian David Brenner. Worth it, if only insofar as the continued production of Schmidt beer would make way for the best SNL commercial of all time (not safe for work unless you work in, like, a European bathhouse or something).
Finally, check out this Budweiser classic from the 1960s:
This may not have aired on public TV, but you have to love it all the same. Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble’s lackadaisical shilling for Busch beer didn’t begin to portend either Hanna-Barbera’s decades-long slide into mediocrity or the bizarre commodification of the rather charmless prehistoric proto-sitcom that continues even today. But the genuinely expressive moment this short is able to capture, sans the commercial artifice required of marketing ventures, is as refreshing as an ice-cold brew itself. Hey, beer tastes good, and it’ll make ya feel pretty good, too, if you don’t go crazy with it.
It would be cool to get back to that message from a more innocent time.