1981. By the time Santa came, the world had been through the ringer. Bob Marley died, Reagan was shot, Walter Cronkite left our televisions, the first AIDS cases were officially recognized, Muhammed Ali lost his last ever fight, the Cold War raged on, and the Iran Contra scandal caught its spark.
But! Also in 1981, the US freed 52 hostages from Iranian captivity, the Space Shuttle program started, Luke and Laura got married, Metallica formed, MTV was created, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female Supreme Court justice, Ric Flair won his first wrestling championship, and Simon and Garfunkel performed in Central Park for half a million people.
So, yeah, ups and downs.
Here’s what TV looked like in 1981, starting with an epic two-minute ad from across the pond that’s everything a Christmas commercial should be. It’s sassy and brassy, with unrefined talent but a lot of gusto. Have a cracking Christmas with Woolworth’s.
For an unfair comparison, here’s a bland and straightforward US ad from Payless drugs. That intro graphic is great! The rest, though….
Video games were super hot and super crude in 1981, and Crazy Eddie wanted to sell ALL OF THEM to you. I’d like those neon lights on the back wall in my office, please.
Atari took a different angle, assuming they were already in your house and thanking you for putting them there. This is a very confident spot.
Michael Landon’s got that swagger that says he doesn’t really have time for you but at the same time of course he has time for you. He’s definitely got time to sell you this Kodak camera as a great gift for Grandma.
Toys ‘R’ Us was a Mecca for children in the 1980s, and they knew it. Here’s a beautitul fully animated spot touting their then-status at the top of the toy pyramid.
For the grownups, Bell telephone makes a practical appeal to buy a phone that will last after the other, better gifts have lost their luster. Bold move, Bell!
Disney does us the favor of collecting a bunch of holiday standards onto one record. It’s weird, but, fine, whatever. THEN, they intentionally play a song by the (Alvin) Chipmunks on top of footage of Chip n’ Dale, and all of a sudden this ad becomes a flagrant offense to society.
McDonaldland’s all tucked in on Christmas Eve, as Ronald tiptoes into their houses and gives them gift certificates to the only restaurant in existence, further demonstrating that there is some money-based economy to McDonaldland that all of these characters are getting a break from with the gifted certificates.
For the grown-ups, Radio Shack offers stereo system solutions for your fantastically-eighties-living-room…
…and for the kids, an awesome-but-probably-poorly-received science fair kit.
Maybe the weirdest of the batch, Donnie and Marie Osmond hang out with a human-sized Punchy in this Hawaiian Punch commercial.
Mattel rips off the “Georgie Girl” riff in this otherwise unremarkable but very long Barbie commercial.
And the top toy of 1981, He-Man, enters the scene. I wasn’t lucky enough to have Castle Grayskull, but I did have Snake Mountain which featured a voice-changing microphone and was obviously amazing.
It would be a crime to feature holiday gift ideas for 1981 and not include Mr Microphone, arguably the first real marine on the as-seen-on-TV beach. This spot builds on the existing ad campaign with a Christmas-y component but rest assured, the dancing beatbox guy and the ‘We’ll be back to pick you up later’ creep are still there. Why mess with the classics?
What did I miss? What do you remember from Christmas 1981?