TV Commercials From Your Youth

Tonight my roommate and I were trying to remember what commercial had the “Now that’s a spicy meatball” tagline. (It’s alka-seltzer).  It made me think about how often people in my house reference commercials from the 1970s.

When the dog gets picky about his food we call him “Mikey”.  If someone asks what I’m doing on Wednesday I’ll remind them that it’s Prince Spaghetti Day.  If you start singing “5-8-8” the rest of us will join  in with “2-300, Empire” like it’s a call-and-response at church.  If we can’t think of a toast we say, “here’s to good friends, tonight is kinda special”.   When someone says they have a headache, we might respond, “does it have exedrin written all over it?” and when someone gets close to us we might say, “gee, your hair smells terrific.”  And every single time I have a short connection,  I’ll say, “I had to OJ across the airport.”

For a lot of people in my age group, tag lines from commercials are interspersed in our language:  “silly rabbit”, “you can’t fool mother nature”, “my bologna has a first name”, “the friendly skies”, “you deserve a break today”, “I am stuck on band-aid”, “I’m a pepper”, “the quicker picker upper”.

It made me wonder, are these commercials just a part of the culture of my childhood, or is there a reason they stick with us some 40 years later?

Although commercials, like TV shows, music and movies, do become part of our shared cultural experience and memory,  the real reason I remember pondering how many licks it takes to get to the tootsie roll center of the tootsie pop is related to the neuroscience of commercials.

Advertising became increasingly sophisticated in the 1960s and 1970s as television became ubiquitous. More and more kids, like me, were parked in front of the TV for long periods of time and kids became a prime target for commercials.  Advertisers picked up quickly that kids could influence their parents and their purchases.

Regular TV watchers can see thousands of commercials a year. Although watching a commercial seems passive in that most people don’t pay too much attention,  their brains are still hearing the message and internalizing it, almost on a subconscious level.  EEGs show that our brains light up when we see a commercial we recognize, the same way they do when we see a friend or a pet.  And when faced with choices, people are more likely to try a product they’ve seen a commercial for.

Certain commercials stimulate neural pathways more than others.  In general, commercials that have a simple story line and include humor, catchy music, conversation (rather than a voice over), and relatable or iconic characters are most likely to be remembered. And the more you see them, the more likely you are to remember them, even years later.

Kids are particularly vulnerable to this effect since their little undeveloped brains can’t differentiate ads from any other kind of TV, and often believe that TV reflects reality.  This is why when I was a little girl I insisted that we had to put Vaseline Intensive Care lotion on dead leaves — and was super sad when the lotion didn’t bring them back to life, the way it worked in the commercial.

Ads that are multimedia and include color, movement, music and conversation are particularly effective at worming their way into the brains of kids.

Of course commercials can be used for good too.  I’ll always remember that we should keep America beautiful, that only I can prevent forest fires and, in related news, children should never be left alone in a fire (and by the way, I just re-watched that PSA and it’s terrifying, no wonder I remember it).

Although I know that these commercials were designed to make me remember them, I can’t help but feel nostalgic.  I think I’ll grab a Coke and teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.

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