Television and radio commercials occupy a strange netherworld in popular culture — and in our memories. Designed to be catchy but short of shelf-life, advertisements often worm their ways into our memory banks, where they continue to occupy little nooks long after their relevance has waned. They’re both disposable and highly memorable.
I grew up in the New York City metropolitan area, the nation’s largest television market, then and now. The regional TV commercials that I saw during my younger years were, like every U.S. region’s TV commercials, hokey and low-budget, but they were also of a marginally higher caliber than those of other cities. A larger potential viewership translates, in most cases, into a higher advertising budget. We New Yorkers are sophisticates, you know; we demand that our viewings of the nightly news be interrupted only by the finest in abrasive, haranguing advertising.
While, on the whole, NYC metro commercials might have been slightly more slickly produced, plenty of 'em looked like they were made by a somnolent rhesus monkey afflicted with an eye disorder. The two best-known such advertisement series were those of Carvel, the regional ice cream chain, and Crazy Eddie, the electronics retailer whose “prices are so low, he's practically giving it all away! Crazy Eddie — his prices are insane!”
Sorry, couldn’t help myself. But watch a few Crazy Eddie commercials, and you can see why they’ve been burned into the brains of millions of residents, past and present, of the “tristate area.” (That’s New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to you.)
I make a point of visiting a Carvel store at least once whenever I visit my family, who still live in the NY metro area. The voiceovers for most of the chain’s commercials were read by the company’s founder, the gravel-voiced Tom Carvel. This was a man who was famously bad at locution but managed to turn that shortcoming into a sound wave that lives forever in the memories of many millions of people. If you’re not from the area but have heard of Carvel, it’s probably because you know about the legendary Cookie Puss, one of Carvel’s signature ice-cream cakes — as well as the namesake of an early Beastie Boys song.
I just lost an afternoon to YouTube, clicking around from one “vintage” regional commercial to another. A few of those are linked below, though I encourage readers to seek out the ads that were produced where they grew up. Each one of these clips produced incredible waves of unfocused nostalgia. By which I mean that these ads don’t specifically remind me of being young, or of the companies advertised in them. The commercials are at once so memorable and so disposable that they tend merely to remind me of the experience of watching them on television in the 1970s and 1980s — that’s it. They don’t create a sense of nostalgia so much as they serve as reminders: Here’s an ad that I used to see with some regularity. Oh, right, that's what the spokesman for Apex Tech looked like! I remember his bald head and short sleeves!
I can’t say that I miss seeing these ads (though I will admit to being somewhat charmed by how low-budget and uncomplicated they are), nor can I say that they make me long for my childhood or for those long-lost, “simpler” televisual times. To me, they’re more like curious little museum pieces to which somewhat undifferentiated memories are attached .
And the term “museum piece” is not far off; it’s just that they now live in the virtual museum that is YouTube. At one point in the mid-1980s, one of my high school classes took a field trip to what was then called the Museum of Broadcasting (now it's the Paley Center for Media). Each of my classmates and I were permitted to request two items from the museum’s extensive visual vaults. One of the two that I selected was “Sammy’s Visit,” the legendary second-season episode of “All in the Family” in which Sammy Davis Jr. shows up at Archie and Edith’s home. I’d seen this hilarious and controversial episode some years earlier, and it surely showed up in reruns, but there was no way to predict when I might catch it again. Now, if I want to see it again, it’s about two clicks away.
An acquaintance once told me that he was overjoyed to be living in the era of YouTube, when so much of our visual history is so readily accessible. And it truly is a small miracle to be able to summon up so much of the history of moving images at the literal touch of a button. The unsung heroes here, though, are the people who take the time to upload these fragments of our shared visual past. I’m not necessarily referring to those who quasi-legally upload episodes of “All in the Family,” or even to those tireless, wonderful folks who curate such incredible sites as archive.org and ubu.com, the premier online repositories of public-domain and avant-garde moving images, respectively.
Rather, I’m referring to people such as YouTube user trainluvr, who has uploaded several hundred videos, including many NYC-area commercials from my youth. Or the user jondonrock, whose collection of uploaded videos is the very definition of “hodgepodge” yet includes the all-important “Dick Lewis Is Watching” ad from the mid-to-late 1980s. That commercial, which I’d totally forgotten about, came back in an instantaneous rush as soon as I saw its first few seconds.
That catchy jingle, those weird dancers, that humorously creepy “Big Brother” vibe. Why did the high sheriffs of Newmark & Lewis, a now-defunct regional chain of electronics retailers, think that the promise of constant surveillance by one of its founders was a good way to attract customers? The answer: It doesn’t matter, but this damn commercial still occupies a good chunk of my memory banks. (I’m both pleased and somewhat concerned by this realization.) Users such as jondonrock and trainluvr provide a valuable public service, and should rightly be considered media archivists and preservationists.
Their work is all the more remarkable because they have evidently taken the time and effort to digitize the contents of off-air videotaped recordings before uploading them; I can’t imagine any other provenance for these clips. No one asked them to do it, but these users presumably felt these bits of cultural detritus, corny though many of them are, were worth sharing with the world. And I must say that I agree.