YouTube HOF: Olympic Endorsements
The London Games kick off this week, and we here at the Hollywood Prospectus blog thought we’d take a break from not talking about sports to fully indulging in OLYMPIC FEVER!, particularly the part where corporations make money off of OLYMPIC FEVER! Here are a few of the often strange, frequently cynical, and occasionally amazing Olympic endorsements from the YouTube vaults.
Ben Johnson for Valio Milk (1988)
Sean Fennessey: Here’s an important commercial for Valio, a Finnish milk producer (?) that enlisted soon-to-be disgraced track-and-field star Ben Johnson for this 1988 creep-fest. Things to observe: evil Scandinavian devil child; that hat; Johnson’s insinuating smile; pouring, rippling waves of Kubrickian milk; authentic twangy guitar; demon child’s graceless sprinting form; one of the five most important sweatshirts of the ’80s. Don’t forget, y’all: MIILK ENERGY.
Mike Lookinland for Coca-Cola (1979)
Mark Lisanti: What you don’t see in this touching 1979 commercial starring Mike “Bobby Brady” Lookinland as a young athlete preparing to leave his loving, supportive family to chase his Olympic dreams is his immediate return trip on the train: “President Carter’s boycotting the Olympics, Pop,” he pantomimes with a shrug and a slash of a finger across his throat. “Because of the Commies.” As his understanding father envelops him in a warm hug, we can read our disappointed, but resolutely patriotic, Olympian’s lips. “Also, you can’t take a train to Moscow from Akron. Lesson learned.”
Nancy Kerrigan for Disneyland — Behind the Scenes! (1994)
Emily Yoshida: The Nancy Kerrigan–Tonya Harding scandal was the first tabloid story I remember following as a child, and every color story, evening magazine report, and National Enquirer cover is still seared in my memory. But the most discomforting aspect for 9-year-old figure-skating-obsessed me wasn’t the part where a skater hired someone to bash her rival’s kneecap — it was the aftermath, when universally sympathetic victim Kerrigan started acting like a petulant brat and, without missing a beat, America turned on her. (Kerrigan was 25 in 1994 — you’d never know it from her behavior here and during the awards ceremony in Lillehammer.) It was Baby’s First Morally Ambiguous Narrative, the first time that I, and I imagine a generation of kids, learned that just because someone does a bad thing to someone else doesn’t make the other person automatically good. Also: Mickey Mouse doesn’t make the best confidant while you’re having your post-Olympic diva meltdown.
Joe Piscopo for Miller Lite (1988)
Alex Pappademas: Joe Piscopo left Saturday Night Live in 1984, and has spent the ensuing years sculpting his body into the most powerful machine ever to sit at home and wait by a phone that never rings. So why, in 1988, did the Miller Brewing Company decide to build its Olympic-themed Miller Lite campaign around a television personality who — with the exception of his star turn earlier that year in Dead Heat, arguably the Magnificent Ambersons of “zombie Treat Williams” movies — had basically boarded a one-way rocket sled pointed away from stardom a whole Summer Olympics ago? Simple: The ads depicted a wide variety of eccentric amateur athletes consoling themselves with America’s greatest-tasting and least-filling pale lager after being passed over for Olympic glory. It was a job for a master impressionist, a chameleon, a man of a thousand voices, a wildly diverse and protean human United Nations of snowflake-unique characters, each with their own distinct mannerisms. I know what you’re thinking — “There’s no way the constipated-sounding redneck bear wrestler in the first spot is played by the same guy as the constipated-sounding redneck truck puller in the second one. It’s some kind of a trick. You’re trying to trick me, the way you trick a child, or the police. You’re a terrible, terrible person.” But go back. Look closer. That’s right. It’s one guy. One magnificent guy, touched by God with the gift of tongues. It’s a good thing Peter Sellers died in 1980, because if not he would have died in 1988, of bowing-down-to-Joe-Piscopo-related injury.
The USA Men’s Basketball Team and Marvin Gaye for Nike (2008)
Rembert Browne: I love America so much. This commercial is one of the reasons why.
Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson for Reebok (1992)
Katie Baker: In anticipation of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Reebok embarked on a nearly eight-month campaign featuring decathletes Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson in a battle for the gold medal and the honor of being “the world’s greatest athlete.” The spots began at the Super Bowl, cost Reebok more than a fifth of its $100 million annual advertising budget … and totally backfired when O’Brien finished with a “no height” on the pole vault at trials and failed to so much as qualify for the ’92 Games. (Johnson, who injured his foot on the first day of events, managed only a bronze.) Reebok quickly shut down the campaign — “You’ve got to know when to fold ’em,” said one spokeswoman — but didn’t consider it entirely a bust, at least in terms of footwear. “Consumers asked for the ‘Dan and Dave shoes,'” she said. And ultimately there was a redemption story: O’Brien qualified for the Olympic decathlon in 1996, and this time he won gold.
Dan Jansen for Visa (2010)
Sarah Larimer: This is the worst. Then it’s the best. This Visa commercial, featuring gold medalist Dan Jansen, has everything I could possibly want from an Olympic ad — including an adorable baby wearing her casual sweats. Also, Morgan Freeman. I don’t really know what using a Visa card has to do with being an Olympic champion, but honestly, I do not care.
Olympic Gymnast Barbie (1996)
Mark Titus: Shortly before the ’96 Olympics, my parents bought Olympic Gymnast Barbie for my little sister. By the time the Magnificent Seven won the gold and Dominique Dawes stole my heart, I was playing with the Barbie more than she was and I had honest-to-God made my mom sign me up for gymnastics classes. This commercial takes me back to those couple of weeks in 1996 when 9-year-old me had a serious identity crisis all because I had the hots for Dominique D. It’s not a time that I’m particularly proud of, but I still regret nothing.