Iconic Ads of the 80s

Pull up your leg warmers, plug in your Walkmen and dust off your Rubik’s Cubes. It’s time for the first in our new blog series that looks at iconic ads from decades gone by. This time, we’ve travelled back to the 1980s – a decade when a Hollywood cowboy actor became president, Michael Jackson made zombies cool, and Band Aid taught us all the true meaning of Christmas. So let’s head to the roller disco and skate through some iconic ads from the ’80s.

Calvin Klein Jeans (1980)

The advert: At the very start of the decade, the Calvin Klein marketing team had a revelation: ‘jeans’ sounds like ‘genes’. Mind blowing!

After the team sat around patting themselves on the back for hours (we assume) they came up with a way of using this intellectual wordplay in an ad campaign. They produced a simple video of model Brooke Shields educating viewers on the science of genes. The twist: she does this whilst pulling herself into a pair of jeans that quite frankly are too small for her.

Getting these jeans on causes Shields considerable effort, and she finishes her science lesson totally out of breath. In a final moment of genius, Shields reveals that ‘Calvins’ are an ‘entirely new species’ of jeans, thanks to their superior genes. They somehow evolved from other jeans, you see.

The legacy: Shortly before launching this campaign, Calvin Klein himself declared: “Jeans are sex. The tighter they are, the better they sell.” And sell they did. In the space of one year, Calvin Klein sold $70 million worth of jeans.

The company continued to release suggestive adverts starring the teenage Shields throughout the ’80s, with her eventually uttering the infamous line: “Want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” You don’t have to be a fashionista to know that tight jeans have been extremely popular ever since.

Milky Way (1989)

The advert: There have been many legendary races in our time: Usain Bolt vs Tyson Gay, Michael Phelps vs some other swimmer, Hoof Hearted vs Shakalakaboomboom. But none of these races have anything on the eternal struggle between The Red Car and The Blue Car. Beginning in 1989, these anthropomorphic vehicles tore through a cartoon caricature of the American South while a faux-country singer narrated their competition.

Naturally the cars grew hungry during their race, and Red, fool that he was, decided to eat everything in sight. This included ‘prickly trees’ – by all accounts a terrible snack. Blue, on the other hand, snacked purely on Milky Way bars, giving him the ability to fly over a broken bridge.

The legacy: Twenty years later, this advert returned to our screens with nearly no changes at all. And Red, once again, made the stupid decision of choosing trees over Milky Ways. When will he ever learn?

The logic behind bringing this advert back was that it would prove to young chocolate fans that Milky Way was a long-loved, established brand. The logic behind the decision to show Milky Way bars as healthier than trucks and trees remains unknown. The number of forests saved after hungry viewers made the switch from snack trees to Milky Ways is also unknwon.

Levis (1985)

The advert: This is the one you’ve been waiting for. As we know from the mouth of Calvin Klein himself, jeans are sex. But it was still a surprise when Levis advertised their trousers by having model Nick Kamen take his off…

In the ad, Kamen enters a laundrette and fellow patrons can somehow sense something is going to happen. As he stands in front of a washing machine, a mother pulls away her two boys, as if she knows what Kamen is about to do. Maybe he’s a regular there. He fills the machine with stones (to ‘stonewash’ the jeans), then he takes off his shirt and puts it in the machine. Behind him (in perhaps the most ’80s moment of any advertisement) a woman removes the blue and red 3D glasses she was using to read a magazine and ogles Kamen’s loose-fitting white boxers.

The graphic ‘The Original Shrink to Fit Jeans’ comes up at the end. A clear dig at Calvins.

The legacy: The advert commonly reaches the top of the Best Advert of All Time polls. People enjoyed singing ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ every time they took off their jeans for a while. Levis continued to charge a ridiculous amount for their clothing.

1980s ads in a nutshell

As we’ve seen, adverts from the 1980s fall into one of two camps: super-sexualized clips for adults or animated fun for kids. Cartoon or carnal – adverts were eye candy, whether or not they were actually advertising sugary snacks.