The very first television commercial on the air was a short spot for the Bulova Watch Company in 1941. It was on the air before Mount Rushmore was completed and before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. You can say that commercial advertising is as part of American culture as apple pie and baseball.
Hands down, some of the best are the 80s commercials and 90s commercials. These were times of greater peace than the country had seen in a long time. People wanted to laugh, smile, and sing along to the infectious jingles.
There are a lot of juicy apples in the bunch, but after sifting through terrible car commercials and anti-drug PSAs, these old school commercials were the top contenders.
It’s time for a retro flashback and a trip through the land of nostalgia! Here are the best commercials from the 1980s and 1990s.
Famous 1980s Commercials
Here are the famous 80s commercials that we still talk about today:
- Tootsie Pop – “Mr. Owl”
- Apple – “1984”
- Folgers – “Peter Comes Home”
- McDonald’s – “Piano Recital”
- Diet Pepsi & Michael J. Fox
- My Buddy & Kid Sister
- Nintendo Entertainment System (1985)
- Coors Light – “Silver Bullet Diner”
- Coca-Cola introducing new flavor
- Kool-Aid Surfin’ Berry
- Leggo My Eggo
- Dunkin’ Donuts – Baker
- Milk – Supermodel
- 7UP Gold
- New York Seltzer
- Sega Genesis
- Teddy Ruxpin
#1: Tootsie Pop
This classic ad is one of the most memorable commercials of all time. In many ways, it has taken on a life of its own, with the menagerie of characters gracing the front of t-shirts, lunch boxes, and many other products.
The young boy in the commercial is a curious traveler looking for the answers to the universe. The ever important: How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? Like all the best questions, there is no right answer. The only truth is that more than sixty million of these classic lollipops are produced every single day!
Before they took over the world, Apple blew everyone’s minds with their anti-conformist “1984,” one of the best 80s commercials of all time. The daring ad shows a bodacious woman fighting against a dystopian society’s “Unification of Thoughts.”
The commercial only aired one time before it was pulled, but it made an enormous impact. In fact, $155 million Macintosh computers were sold just three months after the commercial was released. Not to mention, Apple went on to become one of the most influential companies of all time. There are a ton of funny 80s commercials, but this one stands apart due to its serious conviction.
Heartstrings were tugged in the 1980s when Folgers unleashed Peter Comes Home for Christmas. The ad found enormous success and was on television for a remarkable 17 years before it got an upgrade.
In the commercial, Peter comes home from college and brews some coffee for his ecstatic family, including his kid brother. Fun fact: the adorable youngster from the original commercial, actor Matthew Alan, went on to star in another ad for Folgers in 2009.
An adorable little girl overcomes her stage fright at a piano recital in a classic McDonald’s commercial from 1986. With the promise of some delicious McNuggets, she goes on to play a Mickey D rendition of Für Elise. Beethoven would be proud.
Years later, Gen-Xers remember the tune from this commercial; advertising genius at its finest. Kids suddenly had an interest in learning piano and McDonald’s experienced its golden decade earning $727 million in 1989.
#5: Diet Pepsi
Michael J. Fox was in his prime in 1985. Back to the Future had made over $11 million in its opening weekend and “Family Ties” was pulling in record numbers. Diet Pepsi took advantage of his star power with a classic commercial from the same year.
The ad shows Fox in the library, breaking the quietness of the room to get a Diet Pepsi from a vending machine. In a weird twist of fate, the machine prints out a piece of paper that doubles as a beverage. This turned out to be a big year for PepsiCo. as they were the largest company in the industry with products in nearly 150 countries.
#6: My Buddy and Kid Sister
These dolls aren’t particularly memorable, especially since Cabbage Patch and American Girl dolls were all the rage during the 80s. Still, members of this generation get all warm and fuzzy for the song in the classic commercial. Not to mention, the trademark 80s commercial jingle that goes along with it.
The commercial features very wholesome blonde children playing with their My Buddy and Kid Sister. The reputation of this toy has been somewhat tarnished by horror movies featuring the wisecracking Chucky. Still, when the toys were first released by Hasbro in 1985 they were completely cute and innocent.
The Nintendo Entertainment System, known by NES by gamers and nerds, came out in 1985. This was when the world had its first encounter with Duck Hunt and other classics.
Nintendo advertised their revolutionary console with a commercial featuring R.O.B. the Robot, an iconic character in the Nintendo canon. Only about 50,000 systems sold when it was first released; however, by the end of the year people were starting to catch on to the hype. Much of this success is owed to Super Mario Bros. which to date has sold more than 40 million copies.
#8: Coors Light
We all have a favorite local hangout. For the buddies in Friends, it was Central Perk, the Gilmore Girls were huge fans of Luke’s Diner, and everyone in Seinfeld got their caffeine fix at Monk’s Café.
Coors Light focused on our affinity for a cozy regular place with their fictional Silver Bullet diner owner. Like any wise entrepreneur, he knows the way to every customer’s heart is through a nice cold brew. The commercial was one of their earliest advertising campaigns, coming out six short years after the domestic beer was released in 1979. Today, Coors sells about $117.48 million in cases of their beer alone.
In the 1980s, soft drink sales were beginning to go down the drain. Coca-Cola took action by reinventing the wheel and coming up with a new version of their classic flavor.
People still had their hearts set on the original, and in a weird moment of marketing, Coke’s customers actually started to feel nostalgic for the early version of the drink, increasing sales. Meanwhile, shortly after Footloose mania, Coca-Cola released a high-energy commercial of people dancing to the jingle, “You Can’t Beat the Feeling.” It seemed as though they got their groove back.
Oh, yeah! Who isn’t familiar with the vibrant red Kool-Aid guy? The first time he burst onto the scene was in 1954. Since then he has been in a number of ads, always maintaining the cool flavor that made him famous.
The commercial for Surfin’ Berry is what happens when you have way too much sugar in your Kool-Aid. It’s a hodgepodge of bright colors and noises that will make you wonder if your drink might have been spiked. Either way, the popular drink continues to experiment with new flavors and advertisements.
Much to the chagrin of English teachers everywhere, the slogan “Leggo My Eggo” became a popular catchphrase in 1972. It’s even used in our lexicon today, though the commercials aren’t nearly as popular.
One of Eggo’s most memorable commercials features a well-quaffed young boy who is presenting a toaster during Invention Day at school. He uses the power of physics to create a machine that will prevent his brother from stealing his frozen waffles. Ever since then, people have refused to leggo of eggos. In fact, the total sales provided a 2% profit increase to Kellogg in 2017. Sales were also bumped when Eggos had a starring role in the hit Netflix show, Stranger Things.
#12: Dunkin’ Donuts
America has run on Dunkin’ since the first restaurant opened in 1950 Massachusetts. In 1984, they released an ad featuring a lovable donut baker who leaves home a couple times a day to go make fresh donuts.
He braves thunderstorms, freezing snow, and even an evil clone to provide the most delicious baked goods. By 2012, over 10,500 Dunkin’ Donuts opened worldwide, meaning that baker was going to need a lot of evil clones to keep up with the demand.
“Got Milk?” had its heyday in the 90s, with famous figures like Vanna White, Billy Ray Cyrus, Dennis Rodman, and Britney Spears sporting the milk moustache in printed ads.
Back in the 80s, however, it was all about an awkward, gangly boy trying to woo a supermodel. He starts to mature into a handsome, well-toned man worthy of attention, all because of a cool glass of milk. The message “Milk Does a Body Good” is up for debate, but there’s no denying the impact of these commercials from the 80s.
#14: 7UP Gold
For a limited time, 7UP came up with an apple cinnamon variant on their popular beverage. The drink was a dud when it was first released, making up only .01% of the company’s market.
7UP Gold still found something worth celebrating in their commercials. To the tune of The Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” a man makes an upscale restaurant a little hipper with pizza and the tasty beverage. Never mind that the drink was only on shelves for a year, it’s still a nostalgic favorite among the few who gave it a sip.
#15: New York Seltzer
It’s difficult to make a boring product like Seltzer seem exciting. However, Randy Miller found a way to make that happen. The company’s president jumped 10 stories off the Mondrian Hotel in Hollywood to promote his drink in 1987.
Miller also kept the high energy alive in the ad with rock music, a leashed tiger, and an attractive blonde in a jean jacket. Unfortunately, these hijinks didn’t pay off as the original drink was discontinued in the early 90s, though it’s possible to find it in limited release today at select Targets, 7-11s, and World Markets.
#16: Sega Genesis
Following in the footsteps of Nintendo, Sega made its way into every gamer’s heart with the Genesis. Released in 1989, this console was meant to be the cure for terminal boredom.
The first commercial featured the Maker, a wise guru who cured boredom with pixelated power. The system featured popular games like Golden Axe, Mystic Defender, Tetris, and later Sonic the Hedgehog. Genesis was in direct competition with Nintendo and was seriously losing the battle, and by 1999 the console was completely discontinued. Still, it has a warm place in the heart of many video game collectors around the world.
#17: Teddy Ruxpin
Frankenstein has nothing on the slightly creepy commercial featuring Teddy Ruxpin. This stuffed bear is a modern alternative to your typical teddy. He comes with batteries, causing him to blink and ask about your day.
In addition, the bear came with storybook cassettes so he could read you a bedtime story. The 80s toy got a modern makeover in 2016 with LCD eyes capable of 40 animated expressions and an internal hard drive with 10 stories about his adventures. I’m sure a horror movie is in the works.
Famous 1990s Commercials
Here are some of the best and most popular 90s commercials of all time:
- Simpson’s Butterfinger
- Sock ‘Em Boppers
- Fruity Pebbles Commercials
- Bagel Bites – Pizza in the Morning, Pizza in the Evening
- Super Soaker – Blues Brothers
- Wonder Ball
- Pepsi & Michael Jackson
- Baby Bottle Pop
- Crystal Pepsi
- Nickelodeon Magazine
- Doodle Bear
- Survival Car Insurance
- Levi Jeans & Brad Pitt
From the oddly specific theme song to the very 90s wardrobe, this commercial highlights a product in its prime. Children at the playground who were tired of hopscotch and jump rope fell in love with this modern alternative.
The Skip-It was released by Tiger Toys in the 1980s, but got a modern upgrade a decade later. Since then it has made Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 Greatest Toys of All Time. Much of its success is attributed to the commercials that aired on children’s networks like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.
#2: Simpson’s Butterfinger
This could easily be one of the greatest examples of cross-promotion on the planet, but it might be one of those 90s commercials you forgot about. Bart Simpson, the nefarious rabble-rouser from the hit Fox show, is happily eating a Butterfingers instead of a healthy lunch in the cafeteria.
Kids idolized Bart for his wacky hijinks while plenty of adults tuned into “The Simpsons” each week. As such, this commercial hit close to home for a wide audience. The success of these commercials has even led Butterfingers to make a reported $123.9 million a year in sales.
#3: Sock ‘Em/Socker Boppers
More fun than a pillow fight, these giant boxing gloves are responsible for many black eyes and bruises. You couldn’t go into any 90s household without getting assaulted by Socker Boppers.
The wonderfully catchy commercials hit it on the nose (with a bopper) by literally explaining the process in song form as kids with mullets enthusiastically beat each other. It is a super simple product with no bells and whistles, yet you’ll still find them in stores across the country.
#4: Fruity Pebbles
The beloved Flintstones have served as the mascots for this classic cereal since it came out in 1971. Fruity Pebbles poured its way into all our hearts in the 1990s when Barney Rubble became a rapping Dick Tracy in one of their commercials.
Bet you didn’t think the Hanna-Barbera cartoon, iconic police detective, and spitting mad rhymes could all go together in one ad. Post Foods kept America’s love for the Flintstones alive with both Fruity and Cocoa Pebbles, and even today, it remains one of America’s most beloved breakfast items.
#5: Bagel Bites
Pizza in the morning, pizza in the evening, and pizza at super time? It’s a dream called true! Bagel Bites, a snack invented by tennis partners Bob Moshner and Stanley Garczynski in 1985, kept every 90s kid fueled after school.
The commercials model their trademark jingle after the song “Sugartime” by the McGuire Sisters and have contributed greatly to the snack’s popularity. Even today, 1.24% of American households eat 5 or more boxes per month!
If you’re in serious need of an operation, you definitely wouldn’t want kids performing the surgery. Still, aspiring medical professionals were able to get practice on Cavity Sam, the red-nosed patient of the board game Operation.
In a 1995 ad, a man is wheeled into the operation room on a gurney and meets a bunch of kids in scrubs on the other side. His diagnosis is either a Charlie horse or a broken heart. Sounds like someone was doing jumping jacks to try and impress their true love.
#7: Super Soaker
When the sun is shining, there is no better way to spend the time than in a water gun battle. In the early 80s, Dr. Lonnie Johnson, a nuclear engineer, spent his off-hours at NASA developing a passion project: the Super Soaker.
The first model hit the shelves in 1990 and took off like a rocket, with 27 million sold in the first year. One of the Super Soaker’s most memorable commercials pays homage to the Blues Brothers. Two kids make a splash at a neighborhood pool party by soaking Buffy and her khaki-wearing guests.
#8: Wonder Ball
Do you remember when cereal contained little prizes inside? Nestlé’s Wonder Balls were the sweet alternative, featuring mini hard candies and stickers in the middle of each sphere.
The candy was pulled from shelves in 2004 since it posed a severe choking hazard. For a brief moment, however, we were able to enjoy the catchy Wonder Ball song in the popular commercials. Rest assured, if you have a sweet tooth you can always enjoy other Nestlé favorites like SweeTarts, Nerds, or Crunch bars.
The King of Pop rocked bedazzled socks and his own brand of cool in a classic 90s commercial. The “new generation” of Pepsi drinkers listened to an updated rendition of “Billy Jean” and danced their little hearts out in the street.
Needless to say, moonwalking and pop locking most definitely occurred. Through the years Pepsi has had other notable spokespeople, including Ray Charles, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, and New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.
#10: Baby Bottle Pop
We were on the verge of a new millennium when Baby Bottle Pops came out in 1998. The candy was shaped like mini baby bottles and was marketed to older kids trying to grow up too fast.
In fact, the commercial featured preteen children enjoying the treat as they were at school. The song from the ad is super catchy and was even covered by the Jonas Brothers and turned into a music video in the late-2000s.
#11: Crystal Pepsi
For some strange reason (maybe feeling left out by 7UP), Crystal Pepsi came out in 1992 to test markets in Denver, Sacramento, Dallas, and Providence. To advertise the launch, PepsiCo. released a minute-long ad featuring Van Halen’s “Right Now.”
The commercial goes through a series of unrelated scenes including a random rhino, an astronaut floating in orbit, and a rodent on a hamster wheel. The message is that we’re thirsty for something new and bold. Apparently, something that would only see the light of day for less than a year.
#12: Nickelodeon Magazine
Children of the 90s have a warm place in their hearts for Nickelodeon. It goes right up there with slap bracelets and The Backstreet Boys as far as the obsessions of the time. Nickelodeon Magazine appeared at the beginning of the decade and was released every quarter.
From slime time to “Rocko’s Modern Life,” this publication captured the times in one printed package. The commercial shows kids reading celebrity interviews and comics with their favorite characters and trying to find creative ways to ask their parents for a subscription.
#13: Doodle Bear
Squirrely kids love writing on everything other than paper. Whether it’s the wall or refrigerator, they keep Mr. Clean’s Magic Erasers in business. The Doodle Bear gave these children an outlet for their creativity.
In the commercial, young girls in 90s hats draw tic-tac-toe boards and hearts on their stuffed animals. Meanwhile, a song plays in the background describing the toy’s function. Each bear was machine-washable and came with temporary tattoos. Today, there is a modern version of the Doodle Bear in toy stores across the country.
#14: Survival Car Insurance
Most people are familiar with the Nationwide, Allstate, and Geico commercials. Back in the 90s, it was all about the cheesy, slightly slimy Survival Car Insurance ads.
In 1983, a Scientologist named Richie Acunto started the insurance company as a way for other members of his religion to get protection on their vehicles. His company became successful, leading to a wider target audience and trashy ads on television. Unfortunately, the company later tanked when their licensing was called into question.
#15: Levi Jeans
The 90s was the era of head-to-toe denim ensembles. Girls were also obsessed with pretty bad boys like Johnny Depp and Heath Ledger. All in all, it made sense to combine the two into a commercial.
In 1990, Levi’s released a minute-long ad starring the then up-and-coming Brad Pitt. The A-lister is released from jail and greeted by a beautiful woman in a convertible. The first thing she does, naturally, is toss him a pair of Levi Jeans as the prison warden jealously watches. Maybe he’s just jealous of Pitt’s future career and the fact that Levi’s makes a reported $5 billion every year.
The Freshmaker had a fun run of commercials in the 90s, all featuring their trademark, upbeat jingle. Bad breath has never been so catchy! In one of their commercials, a surfer dude gives Spicoli a run for his money by getting into a random car at a traffic light as his friends cheer him on.
There’s no clear connection between this act and mints, but either way, the hard candies found massive success. In fact, the masterminds behind Mentos, brothers Augusto and Giorgio Perfetti, are ranked as one of the world’s top candy billionaires.
Advertising has always been an essential part of every big brand. Today, many companies are turning to other forms of marketing, like business promotional items, social media ads, and email blasts. Back in the day, power players like McDonald’s and Coca-Cold had it in the budget for years to come through with some interesting campaigns and commercials.
It used to be that commercial advertising generated billions of dollars every year since that first Bulova Watch Company ad came out nearly 80 years ago. Now it’s up to each new decade to create their own marketing marvels. People may have Netflix and Hulu, but if the Super Bowl proves anything it’s that there’s still room in our hearts for good, old-fashioned commercials.
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