Sunday, January 6, 2013

Spanking the Reese’s Monkey: Sexual Subtext in 1980s Commercials

This thing weighed a fucking ton

When I was a kid, my dad bought one of the earliest VHS recorders, a groovy new toy for a young lawyer and his new family. In a short period of time, we had accumulated an extensive collection of tapes. As this was around the late seventies to the early eighties, the market for home video purchasing was not yet being exploited, so most of our collection had been taped off of television. My parents would tape movies and mini-series for themselves (anyone remember The Thornbirds?) and animated specials for me and my brother.

There were a few classics like It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown and The Bugs Bunny Road-Runner Movie, but there were also some others such as The Berenstain Bears Christmas Tree, and the ponderously assembled Bugs Bunny Howl-Oween Special, that did not become perennial favorites. Still, I held on to some of these, not because Raggedy Ann and Andy's Halloween special aged particularly well, but because of the commercials.

More often than not, my dad would avoid taping the commercials, but he couldn’t always be bothered to hang around and watch the Cat in the Hat with his finger hovering over the pause button just so we would not have to later be subjected to the worst that Madison Avenue had to offer. Consequently, though I could give two shits less about the specials, I held on to these tapes because of the hilariously dated ads for candies and kids’ cereals, board games that no one remembers, and with a political ad for Joe Lieberman’s failed 1980 congressional run thrown in as a bonus.

Emmanuel Lewis will kick your ass
Some of these commercials featured child actors at the beginnings of their careers: a Honey Nut Cheerios commercial featuring a pre-Webster Emmanuel Lewis, a Jell-O commercial with a young Corey Feldman, for example. Some were just amusing for their production values or their ludicrous conceits, like the McDonalds ad which tried to pass off the Big Mac as a seven course meal just because it had two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese… well you know how it goes. Another thing I get from watching these is it makes me marvel at the disappearance of the jingle (for those too young to remember, it used to be the norm that trained musicians and composers would write songs for commercials which were designed to get stuck in your head).

My favorite of all time was the ad for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. It featured a young blonde man eating an over sized piece of chocolate, strutting down the street to the tunes of the day as played on that brand-spankin’ new invention, the Walkman. Coming in the opposite direction is a girl, also wearing headphones, who is inexplicably eating peanut butter out of the jar. The pair collide and, in a moment that would make Freud blush, the young man’s chocolate plunges into the young woman’s peanut butter. They bicker for a bit before discovering how pleasing the combination is, as a strange old man appears and hovers behind them holding up a packet of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, the mass-produced version of the fruits of their tryst.

Am I insane for thinking that the sexual subtext was probably deliberate? After all, it is not as though the young woman plunged her chocolate into his peanut butter. I imagine that the agency involved would try to maintain the innocuousness of their campaign. However, I don’t think it takes a person with a particularly dirty mind (though, yes, I am one) to see right through that. It’s just so blatant. It’s almost as if they are saying “You got your penis in my vagina!” “You got your vagina all over my penis!”

A few years ago, I stumbled upon this earlier version of the ad, apparently broadcast in the 1970s. I could riff on this, but I won’t. With the subtext of the 1980s version pretty much well established, this iteration makes me throw up a bit in my mouth.

I guess I have nothing more to say on this… Oh, my lost innocence…