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Captive Audiences: 1981 Television Commercials

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With TiVo, DVR, Instant Streaming, etc. who watches commercials anymore?  Once upon a time, suffering through the advertising was a non-negotiable part of watching television.  Sure, you could get up and refill your bowl of Frankenberrry, but for the most part you were a captive audience.   Here’s what played during the commercial breaks in the Grand Old Year of Nineteen-Hundred and Eighty-One.  Enjoy.


Diet 7-Up – Loni Anderson and Arnold Schwarzenegger 

At this time Loni was on top of the world – married to Burt Reynolds and the “IT girl” on a hit TV show (WKRP in Cincinnati).  And no one would have guessed this bodybuilder would become the governor of California (and, don’t lie, I know you read that in Arnold’s voice “Cah-lee-foh-nee-ah”).


The Future Looks Bright, Thanks to Wang

Clearly, Wang is going to change the world.  In the 1980s it was worth billions and among the leaders of the Computer Age.  Unfortunately, they would file for bankruptcy 11 years after this commercial aired.

Before Nightmare on Elm Street, There Was Deadly Blessing

Wes Craven already had a couple modest hits under his belt with The Hills Have Eyes and Last House on the Left.  But it was Nightmare on Elm Street that put him in the pantheon of great horror directors – but that wouldn’t come out until ’84.  Deadly Blessing was pretty lame, but it did star a young Sharon Stone.


Ramblin’ Root Beer

Ramblin’ was Coca-Cola’s root beer offering.  Sadly, it died a horrible death once Coke purchased Barg’s in the mid-1990s.


Burger King Stamp Savers

Note to Burger King: Start doing this again.  I wonder why fast food companies (other than Subway and a few others) don’t implement the stamp incentives anymore.


James Bond Plays Atari

It’s easy to forget what a revolution this was – to have an arcade game in your living room was a godsend.   Yes, the commercial is fairly cheesy, but young viewers in 1981 were salivating and chomping at the bit.


Eating Disorder TV Movie Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh

Jennifer Jason Leigh would be starring in Fast Times at Ridgemont High the very next year.


Stop Thief!  Board Game

Right after the Norelco shaver commercial is an advert for a game most 80s kids will remember.  While many will disagree, I thought it looked a lot funner than actual gameplay; lots of electronic whistles and bells, but it got old quick.


When Photographs Needed Developing: Fotomat

It’s hard to imagine that, not that long ago, we had to take our rolls of film to these little huts for developing.  For an extra fee, we might get them the same day; otherwise, you had to come back days later – and it wasn’t cheap.  We took these places for granted that they’d always be there.  Who would have guessed that the digital revolution would wipe them off the face of the earth!


Get Into Fitness Now!

In 1981 the country was going apeshit over physical fitness.  The Baby Boomers were hitting their 30s and their metabolism was starting to slow.  For the Me Generation, this meant drastic action and gyms and aerobic centers were popping everywhere.


Caligula Trailer

Caligula was basically a softcore porno.  A collaboration between the publisher of Penthouse (Bob Guccione) and director Tinto Brass (Salon Kitty).  It’s amazing that this thing got a widespread theatrical release, and perhaps more amazing that it had regular TV spots.  It was a different time.


ABC in ’81

A promo for the 1981 ABC TV lineup – can you name all the famous faces and their corresponding shows?  A few of the answers below:

Cathy Lee Crosby (That’s Incredible!), Connie Sellecca (Hotel), Lydia Cornell and Ted Knight (Too Close for Comfort), Henry Winkler (Happy Days),  Scott Baio (Joanie Loves Chachi), Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers (Hart to Hart), and William Katt (Greatest American Hero).


Brylcream – A Little Dab’ll Do Ya

Commercials are so much slicker and polished now; this may as well be hundred years ago.  I miss the low budget, not-so-well-thought-out commercials of yore.

Lip Gloss Lockets

Back when shiny lips were in.


Metric System Fail

The metric system never was accepted in the US, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.  The media and schools pushed it, but it just never stuck.  Why the metric system and the US didn’t get along is a subject for another time.  Until then, signing off!


  • Burn_the_Witch

    The stamps for fast food joints tend not to work because – believe it or not – they’re fairly easy to counterfeit.

  • Namnoot

    Odd that you’d flag that Caligula ad, considering it’s not uncommon to see promos for Netflix and HBO shows on mainstream TV, and a lot of them are actually just as explicit as Caligula was!

  • mournblade1066

    Man, I loved Stop Thief. I still have it, and the electronic gadget still works.