I’ll argue that 1984 was one of the best, if not the best, year for TV commercials. There were several factors that meant that commercials got better quality, better production value, and were simply more memorable than practically any other time.
Animation got more affordable
In 1984, computer animation wasn’t really a thing, but systems like Paintbox were available at a relatively low price to production houses. This meant that even smaller markets could afford to have fairly flashy graphics. These new systems produced effects right on video tape, eliminating film transfers. This saved time and also made things more affordable.
Interestingly enough, film-based animation was also a lot more affordable at the time. In the late 1970s, the rise of special-effects laden movies created an entire industry around creating animated special effects. At the same time, Disney’s traditional stranglehold on animation was being challenged by upstarts like the Don Bluth studio. All of a sudden there were a lot more animators looking for work. And that meant a lot more animations could be produced quickly.
Budgets hit all-time highs
1984 was a big growth year for cable television and that meant people were watching more TV than ever. However, most cable systems lacked the technology to substitute commercials in shows on the fly. That technology, called local insertion, would blossom in the coming decades, but in 1984 an advertiser would know that if they bought time, their commercial would be seen.
VCRs were big in 1984, and they did let you skip ads, but this simply contributed to the idea that ads should look so good that you wouldn’t want to skip them.
So, the stage was set for commercials to feature big budgets and the best production value possible.
Here’s the evidence
These two commercials are still quoted today. One was recently parodied by Fortnite in a shot-for-shot recreation. The other steered a whole presidential campaign.
Most people don’t know that Apple’s memorable 1984 commercial aired nationally only once. That’s how powerful it was. And as for “where’s the beef,” chances are you’ve heard someone say it pretty recently. It’s just part of the national conversation, all because of this commercial.
The best of 1984
Here’s a collection, from YouTuber “Daves Archives,” that shows even more of the greats from ’84. You’ll see animation, special effects work, and top-quality talent.
With the exception of events like the Super Bowl, today’s commercials just aren’t that interesting. Sure there are a few that stand out, but mostly for being annoying. Commercial-skipping and local insertion has decimated ad budgets. Even though ad-supported streaming is on the rise, the TV commercial industry still hasn’t bounced back to the prominence it enjoyed two generations ago. I can’t think of one commercial that’s as memorable as these, and I wonder if I’ll ever see one again. Probably not, because the media landscape is so different. There are memorable YouTubes now, and that’s a good thing, but perhaps commercials won’t ever quite get so good as they were, back in 1984.