Watch: The 20 Greatest TV Adverts Of The 80s
In the 80s, with the changing nature of television (here was the decade of cable TV and an explosion of new channels), the visual mediums (the fast-cutting MTV style changed everything) and business, TV advertising flourished to give us some of the most memorable and attention-grabbing commercials ever produced.
As the world, in particular the media world, was changing, so too did the adverts. It was an era of experimentation in advertising, that saw commercials break from antiquated, descriptive approaches of selling products to vie for eyeballs in increasingly interesting, narrative-driven fashion.
Without further ado, here are some of the greatest TV adverts you’ll remember from the 80s.
20. ‘I’ve Got It Covered’ – Heinz Tomato Ketchup
In the United Kingdom in the 80s, the Heinz brand was still synonymous with the old cutesy jingle which brashly informed us, ‘Beanz Meanz Heinz.’
However, in 1987 the company got a new, iconic TV ad that gave their famed tomato ketchup a hip and sexy twist.
And, just to give the whole thing that bit more historical value, the ad features an actor who would go on to huge fame in the 90s: Friends star Matt LeBlanc.
The ad’s improbable set-up shows the future Joey Tribbiani actor standing on the roof of a city tower block, setting a bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup on its side with a brick.
He then casually takes his time getting down to street level, orders a hot dog from a street vendor, but passes on mustard – remarking, “I’ve got it covered.”
LeBlanc then holds his hotdog behind him and catches the flow of the ketchup, as the voiceover tells us, ‘the best things come to those who wait.’
That’s all well and good, but we can’t be the only ones who wondered what happened afterwards when the ketchup continued to pour into the street from on high…
19. “They Drink It in the Congo” – Um Bongo
All the best advertising jingles have an uncanny knack for embedding themselves in your brain and refusing to leave, no matter how hard you try to get them out of your head.
This was most emphatically the case for the memorable jingle which accompanies the animated TV ad for Libby’s fruit juice drink Um Bongo.
Launched in 1985, the ad was animated by animation house Klacto, with a song composed by Andy Blackford and sung by Tony Jackson.
To a stereotypical tribal rhythm, the song tells a sadly apocryphal tale of how Um Bongo was created by jungle animals, with helpful subtitles so viewers can keep up with the speedy delivery.
While we’re assured that Um Bongo is what they drink in the Congo, in fact it was made and sold in the UK, with its only other market being Portugal.
Nonetheless, the song remains synonymous with the drink, which to this day carries the same basic branding as when it was introduced.
This wasn’t the first iconic TV ad produced in the 80s by Klacto Animation, as we’ll see later in the list…
18. ‘We want to be Jackets’ – Smiths Jackets Crisps
As we’ve seen already (and will again before this list is done), animation and a catchy song make for a potent advertising combination.
The advertising team behind Smiths Crisps understood this too, creating a memorable series of ads starring singing anthropomorphic potatoes.
By the time the Smiths Jackets campaign launched in 1987, Smiths Crisps had already had a successful ad featuring musical potatoes.
In the original, the singing spuds merrily sang “we want to be Smith’s Crisps” to the tune of 60s pop song Bobby’s Girl by Susan Maugan.
This follow-up ad puts a spin on it by having a freshly peeled potato learn that he won’t be allowed in a packet of Smiths Jackets, which use whole potatoes in their jackets.
This prompts the peeled potato to dash off, and come back in wearing a human jacket – to which the other potato amusingly says, “nice try, son.”
As popular as this ad was, the Smiths Jackets line didn’t last long, ceasing production before the 80s were over.
17. ‘Catch the Wave’ – Coca-Cola
Coca-Cola has been responsible for a great many iconic TV ads over the years.
Think the ‘Holidays Are Coming’ commercial that to so many signals the beginning of the holiday season, or the 1971 ‘Hilltop’ ad that served as the coda for the season finale of Mad Men.
In the 80s, however, the beverage giant dialled down the nostalgia and went…a little weird with it.
In 1985, Coca-Cola made bad marketing history by replacing its original recipe with ‘New Coke.’
While it was hoped this bold new approach would help boost their sales, New Coke proved so unpopular that the old flavour was back on shelves in just three months.
However, while the product itself was a bomb, the marketing campaign for the new product was an all-timer: a series of ads starring subversive, stuttering AI character Max Headroom.
The 80s icon, portrayed by actor Matt Frewer, belittles main cola competitor Pepsi while singing Coke’s praises in his inimitable style.
16. ‘New Neighbour’ – Diet Pepsi
Some dubbed the 1980s the era of The Cola Wars. As long-standing champions Coca-Cola floundered, Pepsi was suddenly flying high in the soft drink popularity stakes.
Part of the reason for this was the effectiveness of some popular Pepsi TV ad campaigns.
One of these, in a real coup for the soft drinks company, starred one of the biggest actors of the 1980s: Michael J Fox.
Thanks to both the Back to the Future movies and TV sitcom Family Ties, Fox was one of the most recognised actors around.
The 1989 ‘New Neighbour’ ad for Diet Pepsi puts Fox’s dogged likability as a romantic leading man to good use.
The trials Fox goes through, to get his hands on a can of Diet Pepsi for an attractive woman in his apartment block, are the basis of a mini rom-com classic.
The fact that the ad hit screens in the same year that Fox appeared in Back to the Future Part II probably didn’t hurt – and we can’t fail to remember we often see Fox’s Marty McFly drinking Pepsi in the Back to the Future movies.
15. Paul Hogan series – Foster’s Lager
Developed no doubt by ad men who felt contemporary commercials had become bogged down in airless imagery and meaningless slogans, Foster’s lager’s series of ads starring Paul Hogan cut right through the bull.
The ad campaign cast Hogan as a worldly, no-nonsense Aussie – essentially, himself, or his public persona at least.
The actor and comedian had become an unlikely star thanks to the success of 1986’s Crocodile Dundee and its 1988 sequel.
The Crocodile Dundee movies took most of their humour from the contrast between Hogan’s Dundee and the fancy metropolitan world of New York,
Similarly, the Fosters ads had that same salt of the earth appeal, hinging on old-fashioned masculinity and simplicity.
Hogan plays a bloke who just likes a pint down the pub without any of the fuss of modern life encroaching on it, the ads find Hogan selling that most Australian of beers like a Foster’s-loving mate who’s just happened to walk into frame.
Above is the best example of the ads, with Hogan disparaging wine as “about as popular as a rattlesnake in a lucky dip”.
14. ‘The Muncher Menace’ – Chewits
The Chewits ‘Monster Muncher’ made his first appearance in the 70s, but by the 80s the ads had settled into a familiar, crowd-pleasing style.
A Hollywood monster movie pastiche a la King Kong or Godzilla crossed with stiff upper lip British wartime propaganda, the ads featured a giant claymation beastie who never failed to bring a smile to the faces of children.
The recurring theme of the ads was simple: the big green monster is always hungry, and eats his way through the most famous buildings in the world.
However, nothing comes close to satisfying his urge to chew until he gets some Chewits between his jaws.
For anyone who grew up whilst the campaign was on TV, the ad conjures up feelings of nostalgia of its own.
But what’s most impressive about the ‘Muncher Menace’ ads is how effectively they convey a nostalgia for another time in their realistic portrayal of popular cinema of the 40s and 50s.
That the creators managed to so accurately recreate that old movie style is what makes the ads timeless.
13. ‘Just One Cornetto’ – Cornetto
The jingle has been done to death by Cornetto in subsequent ads, but the original iteration of the ‘Just One Cornetto’ ad is a work of genius comedic set-up and pay-off.
Featuring a sharply-dressed young man in a gondola singing the praises of Cornetto to the tune of O Sole Mio, and a woman in another gondola we assume he’s trying to impress.
The twist is, it’s not actually the woman that he’s interested in at all.
As they sail past one another, the man rather than romantically sweeping the woman off her feet instead opts to snatch the Cornetto from her hand.
Such was its popularity and ubiquity of the ad campaign, many remember it like it was yesterday.
70% of respondents in a recent survey of 1,000 people recognised the 1982 Cornetto ad and even remembered its first broadcast.
And there are a great many of us who grew up watching the ad who will immediately sing “just one Cornetto” whenever we hear O Sole Mio.
12. ‘Mr Soft’ – Trebor Softmints
One of the most unforgettably weird TV ads of the 80s was made in promotion of Trebor Softmints.
As is so often the case with great commercials, it was the combination of striking visuals and catchy music which made the whole thing so memorable.
Launched in 1986, the ad brought us into the strange world of Mr Soft, in which everything is as white and soft (and presumably as minty) as a Trebor Softmint.
The ad proved successful enough to get a sequel of sorts in 1987, this time for Trebor’s Soft Fruits.
The memorable ditty Mr Soft was originally recorded in 1975 by British rock band Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel, although new lyrics were recorded for the ads.
Harley was approached about singing on these ads, but was uncomfortable with the idea, so a ‘sound-alike’ vocalist was used.
In 1995, another Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel song – Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) – became a chart hit after being used in a Carlsberg ad.
11. ‘Follow the Bear’ – Hofmeister
Hofmeister Lager has always been synonymous with the German company’s crest, featuring a bear holding a foamy pint of beer.
However, it wasn’t until the 80s that some bright spark decided to bring that bear to life – and give him a bit of a makeover.
So it was that the 80s brought us a series of Hofmeister commercials featuring the slogan ‘For Great Lager, Follow the Bear.’
The bear in question was dressed up as every inch the 80s pub-going geezer, in a yellow bomber jacket and pork pie hat.
The ads delighted viewers young and old alike, thanks to their cartoonish aesthetic.
In so doing, these ads did little to quell fears from parents’ groups that advertisers were frequently marketing alcohol towards children.
It has been rumoured that these Hoffmeister ads were the last directorial work of film legend Orson Welles, but we very strongly suspect that’s a complete lie.
10. ‘Launderette’ – Levi’s 501
Catchy tunes and laughs are all well and good, but few things really nail an ad campaign like sex appeal.
Levi’s Jeans understand that very well – and they proved just how much sex sells by giving us one of the most memorable ads of the 80s.
The notorious Launderette commercial was first transmitted in 1985, and centred on model Nick Kamen as a customer with only two items to wash.
Those items are his plain black T-shirt, and his Levi’s 501s – both of which he happens to be wearing when he walks in.
And so, the ad focuses on the handsome young man stripping down to his white boxers, throwing his clothes in the machine, and casually sitting back amongst the other gawking patrons.
It might not have been the most eco-conscious message (save water by only washing full loads of laundry, folks!), but it certainly helped sell a lot of jeans; Levi’s 501 sales went up an astonishing 800%.
The ad also resulted in a resurgence of popularity for Marvin Gaye’s soul classic Heard it Through the Grapevine – although the ad doesn’t actually use Gaye’s original recording.
9. ‘Take it Easy’ – Cadbury’s Caramel
Another popular 80s ad campaign utilised sex appeal in a… how should we put this… less conventional manner.
This was the series of animated ads for Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Caramel, featuring the infamous Cadbury’s Caramel Bunny.
Introduced in 1980, the Caramel Bunny was a rather laid-back woodland creature, trying to persuade her friends in the forest to “take it easy.”
However, the other animals seemed less interested in what she was saying than they were in simply eyeing up the long-legged lepus.
A great many of us who grew up in the 80s were left very confused by the strange feelings evoked by this animated rabbit.
It may come as a surprise, however, that the voice of this cartoon seductress was provided by prolific character actress Miriam Margolyes.
A 2009 poll saw the Caramel Bunny named the third sexiest cartoon character ever, behind Betty Boop and Jessica Rabbit.
8. ‘Dancing Woman’ – Glade Shake n’ Vac
Depending on your taste, you may not actually consider it to be one of the ‘greatest’ ads of all time – this one undeniably began to grate after a couple of watches.
However, the advertising industry has shown time and again that one of the best ways to embed an ad in the mind of viewers is to annoy them senseless.
With this in mind, Glade’s Shake n’ Vac ad was certainly one of the most memorable of the decade.
This was largely thanks to an earworm of a jingle that 80s TV viewers found just wouldn’t wriggle out of their brain.
Featuring British actress Jenny Logan in unapologetically gleeful form, the ads finds Logan cleaning her home in suspiciously joyful fashion.
She dances enthusiastically, sprinkling the deodorising powder and dragging along her vacuum cleaner whilst singing that unforgettable ditty.
In an amusing footnote, Logan revealed years later that she “felt quite ill on the day [of filming] and had to keeping running off to the loo,” which casts a different light on her rather manic movements.
7. ‘My Christmas’ – Oxo
British TV viewers lived with the Oxo family for a total of 16 years, making the long-running gravy ad series more or less a soap opera for viewers at the time.
Starting in 1983, ad fans watched everyone in the unnamed family grow older and ultimately leave the home for new pastures in 1999.
The high watermark of the series, however, arrived early, with 1984’s ‘My Christmas’ ad.
Starring Lynda Bellingham as family matriarch, the ad sells the simplicity of a good English Christmas.
As tends to be the case at that time of year, the kids are running wild as Mum prepares dinner – including gravy, the meal’s piece de resistance.
The Oxo family grew so close to the heart of British viewers that much of the nation went into mourning when Bellingham died in 2014.
To honour the actress after her passing, the ad was re-played on British televisions for Christmas, during an episode of Coronation Street.
6. ‘Magical Place’ – Toys R Us
The sadly missed Toys R Us chain first arrived in the UK from the US in the 80s, and almost immediately hit its commercial stride in 1989 with an ad that played like an ode to childhood imagination.
Many of us have never looked at toy stores – or giraffes, for that matter – in quite the same way since.
As much as it may be in essence a cynical grab at the cash of young families, ‘Magical Place’ is also a cartoon short of unbridled joy and wonder.
The memorable jingle promised children, and their parents, that they’d find every toy they’d ever dreamed of “all under one roof.”
The ad worked its magic well, as it left thousands of children begging their parents to take them to Toys R Us every weekend.
The ad aired for the last time in 2009, with the company celebrating its quarter-century in the UK by ‘re-releasing’ it in time for Christmas.
Sadly, having an unforgettable ad campaign wasn’t enough to save the Toys R Us brand, which went bankrupt in 2017 and now has only a handful of stores still open worldwide.
5. ‘Dambusters’ – Carling Black Label
Carling Black Label was responsible for some of the best spoof adverts of the 1980s – including ‘Laundrette’, itself a spoof of another iconic ad by Levi’s – that proved so successful they drove up sales in the UK.
But the best of the ‘I bet he drinks Carling Black Label’ campaign has to be the company’s Dambusters parody.
Like most of the ads in the series, it stars British comedy duo Stephen Frost and Mark Arden, also known for their appearances on The Young Ones and Blackadder.
Regularly voted one of the funniest ads ever made, the Dambusters spoof features two WWII pilots attempting to blow a dam using Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bombs.
However, they find themselves thwarted by a German soldier guarding the dam and ‘saving’ every ball from hitting the target as if he were a goalkeeper.
This prompts the memorable punchline, “I bet he drinks Carling Black Label.”
Frost and Arden have long remained closely associated with the ads, and reunited for another Carling campaign in 2013.
4. ‘Douglas’ – Lurpak
Prior to Lurpak’s 1986 ad, butter ads tended to be pedestrian affairs routinely displaying the product and its rudimentary uses.
In 1986, however, Lurpak changed up its strategy and decided to hire claymation animation house Aardman to launch a new, more endearing approach to selling butter.
At the time, Aardman’s best-known creation was Morph, the claymation character featured on artist Tony Hart’s children’s programmes.
Not long thereafter the animation house would become world famous as the home of Wallace and Gromit.
For the Lurpak’s campaign, Aardman created a trombone-playing animated character made from butter named Douglas.
The ad was so successful that Douglas reigned for 20 years as Lurpak’s sponsor.
Nor was Douglas the only iconic TV ad creation that Aardman gave us; the famous ‘Creature Comforts’ ads for the UK Electricity Board followed in 1990.
3. ‘I’ll be your dog’ – Kia-Ora
The year before they created the famed ad for Um Bongo, UK animation house Klacto helped make another fruit drink irresistible to kids.
However, the ad in question has been widely criticised in the years since due to possible overtones of racism.
The 1982 ad sees a young, completely black-skinned boy declare that his Kia-Ora is “too orangey for crows – it’s just for me and my dog!”
This doesn’t deter the crows in question, who one by one declare, “I’ll be your dog!” and follow the boy in the hopes of seeing for themselves whether or not the drink is too orangey.
While Kia-Ora had originally been introduced in 1903, it only really gained popularity in the UK in the 70s, and the popular ad helped boost its sales in the 80s.
Still, it’s not hard to see why charges of cultural insensitivity were made in later years due to the character designs, with the child featured in classic Kia-Ora adverts closely resembling a character in blackface.
While Kia-Ora attempted to rebrand in 1987, its sales gradually declined, and as of 2019 it has ceased production in the UK.
2. ‘Gold Blend couple’ – Nescafé Gold Blend
The Oxo family weren’t the only example of an ongoing ad series that felt more like a drama than a commercial.
There was also the long-running series of Nescafe Gold Blend commercials, which seemed to suggest that the popular instant coffee is also the world’s most potent aphrodisiac.
Actors Anthony Stewart Head and Sharon Maughan starred in the ads as attractive neighbours with a habit of bonding over a nice cuppa.
Launched in 1987, the Gold Blend ad series hinged on a ‘will-they, won’t-they’ romantic tension between the good-looking duo.
The campaign proved so successful that new ‘episodes’ were produced all the way up until 1993, seeing the ‘Gold Blend couple’ progress from a tentative romance to a fully-fledged relationship.
The popularity of the ads helped propel Head to fame (he landed TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer a few years later), and even resulted in a spin-off novel, Love Over Gold.
And of course it all paid off for Nescafe, as the ads saw sales of Gold Blend increase by a massive 50% in the UK alone.
1. ‘1984’ – Apple
Hiring Hollywood filmmaker Ridley Scott to direct Apple’s George Orwell-inspired ‘1984’ ad proved to make perfect sense.
In the year in question, Scott was hot off two dystopian sci-fi classics in Alien and Blade Runner. In addition, the British director had a wealth of past experience working in advertising before moving into features.
Scott combined with his new filmmaking nous with his old advertising savvy to make a breathtaking commercial, the best one of the 80s and one of the greatest ever.
The fact that it was an ad for a product that would go on to have monumental impact worldwide – the Apple Macintosh – is just the icing on the cake.
To coincide with Steve Jobs unveiling the first Macintosh computer, Apple’s 1984 ad was a declaration of Apple’s intention to be rebellious and groundbreaking, shot in epic style by Scott.
The memorable imagery includes a woman smashing the image of a Big Brother-type with a hammer in a future totalitarian state.