It's an accepted trope these days that an ad campaign intended for the Olympics has to be of the touchy-feely, inspirational variety. Every ad break, you usuallty get a lot of sweaty athletes running in slow-motion, hugging their relatives and pumping their fists in the air, while an announcer says "Being the best takes courage. Will. And determination. And a specific brand of stain remover."
There are exceptions, however. For some reason, the Olympics of 1996 brought with it a temporary shift in strategy among those sponsoring it. Plenty of ads in 1994 and 1998 were traditional feel-good material. Here, however, something unexplainable took place. No one quite understands what happened. Was it a psychological side effect from the hype of getting the Games in America? Was it a scenario where they looked at the blobby mascot Atlanta had waiting (whose original name was literally "Whatizit") and figured "we'd better go with the flow"? I don't know, but I don't care. One of the many reasons the Atlanta games are my favorite is because the ads were SO WEIRD.
These 17 days, to me, are when the 1990's hit their apex; the culture of the decade reached its crescendo during the summer of '96. And if you want to debate about that, it was only two weeks earlier that the Democratic Convention took place and the main centerpiece was a simultaneous Macarena dance-off. Video of the incriminating evidence circulated wildly around the Internet recently, and the only one who wasn't dancing was Hillary Clinton, as if she was thinking "I better not do this, it could come back to bite me in twenty years." Of course, she knew as much about E-mailing back then as she does now.
I have always loved the Olympics as long as I've been old enough to appreciate them, to the point that starting with Atlanta I began making my own mock coverage. The practice survives to this day in comic form (check the Miscellaneous section of this site), but I started with the TV, my Video Painter and a VCR. This Atlanta ad collection is mostly pulled from that coverage, plus the VERY scant YouTube offerings in existence. The entire shebang is still up on my original Youtube channel that I can't get into anymore, but I have to warn you that without the haze of nostalgia influencing your opinion, you won't get as much out of that nigh-incomprehensible mess as I do.
This collection is not complete, but it was as close as I could get, given that I taped them one at a time. First I had to wait for a good ad to come on, and then due to being stuck with 90's technology there was about a second's worth of delay between the time I pressed the Record button and when the tape actually began recording. Factor in the reaction time between when my brain said "hey whoa, GET this one!" and the time that button was pressed, and the end results are that some of these are missing as many as five seconds off their front end. But unless someone comes forward with a massive VHS archive of the Atlanta games (and it could still happen) this is all we've got.
Let's start with the most frequently-played commercial of the entire 17 days. If you were watching the Olympics in 1996, you saw this ad. It first appeared a mere 17 minutes after the Games themselves began, during the second break. It ran CONSTANTLY during the legendary Magnificent Seven gymnastics match. They drilled it so far into my head that when I think of Georgia period, this is one of the thoughts, besides The Walking Dead, that comes to mind. (And it took place in New York City.)
At least I think it takes place there. Does it still count if it's an NYC from another dimension?
What is even going on? Why are the streets flooded? Why does this car float on water like it's freshly poured pavement? What was entering BMW's head that they felt they had to promote their new auto this way?
It's a funny thing though....no matter how many times they repeated it, I never got tired of seeing....whatever this was. It's kind of fascinating, honestly. Normally I can't stand the repeat offenders. These days the Olympics have a total variety of fifteen different ads that repeat endlessly, half of which are for Comcast products. Rio was especially nauseating, with one constant ad serving no purpose but to preach about how great this odiously evil conglomerate is ("We're so wonderful! We made Secret Life of Pets!")
A lot of Atlanta ads came off as confusing, but that wasn't a bad thing. In fact, for some of these, being confusing was the whole intentional POINT.
These two baffling spots were sprinkled throughout the 17 days of the Games, with no explanation. We were seeing teasers for Nissan's new mascot, a Japanese man officially referred to as Mr. K and his dog. The truth about Mr. K wouldn't be revealed until a 2-minute ad appeared the night of the Closing Ceremonies. I don't have it, so I'll have to describe it: Some kids were playing baseball; one of them knocked a home run so far that it landed in a barn. One of the kids ran inside the barn and discovered the secret headquarters of Mr. K and his collection of shiny Nissans, all of which he described in detail. After the sales pitch, the kid eventually did get his ball back and, incredibly, he had made it in time to tag the runner out.
For years Nissan ads had been rather dull and bland, and they were about to launch a hugely expensive, artsy campaign to change that. It would consist of the most entertaining spots possible, the kind guaranteed to grab attention, and the tagline would be "ENJOY THE RIDE!" That was how it was supposed to work in theory.
"Enjoy The Ride" had a hit right out of the gate with its first ad, a stop-motion Ken doll picking up Barbie in his plastic Nissan while "You Really Got Me" played as soundtrack. Apparently the entire campaign was sold on the anticipation of running that ad because Nissan was never able to top it; each subsequent "Enjoy the Ride" ad carried diminishing returns. Their Super Bowl spot was a flock of pigeon puppets trying to catch a Nissan so they could poop all over it -- it got mixed opinions. Eventually Mr. K's dog took over the campaign and the slogan sort of changed to "Dogs Love Trucks." And from there it withered and died.
Despite all the money and effort, the campaign never caught on the way Nissan wanted. The only reference to it I ever saw outside of a Nissan ad was a religious T-shirt that said "RAPTURE: ENJOY THE RIDE!" Mr. K had zoomed out of the frame, leaving only his shoes and his bewildered (and apparently sinful) dog.
This man is Nigel Havers, best known from the movie "Chariots of Fire." He was hired by Delta to serve as pitchman in a series of TEN interconnected ads (I've got five), where he traveled around the world explaining the virtues of the company he represented. It's not as interesting as some of the others, but it's a doozy of an effort, the kind they don't make anymore.
Rold Gold was able to capture attention with two ads better than Delta was able to with ten. This is one of the best examples I have for why no other Olympic year has been able to touch Atlanta, because this is George Costanza performing inhuman, gravity-defying leaps on a basketball court like his shoes are made of Flubber. If they made this today it'd be a slow-motion sapfest about how George's mother inspires him.
Mr. Alexander is able to do this, naturally, because he eats Rold Gold pretzels -- the same pretzels that allowed him to parachute into the Super Bowl one year before. Not every ad agency knew what to do with Michael Jordan, but Rold Gold sure knew how to use this guy.
The Atlanta Olympics were a HUGE deal for the Coca-Cola company. Coke had been the Olympic sponsor for many years, but this time the whole show was taking place in their backyard. The company went berserk with their advertising and created a record number of spots, some of which referenced events that happened the day before (easy to do when you're right there). I vaguely remember a contest being associated with this, where Coke ran each ad only once and you were supposed to write down what the spots were about on a card and send it in. However, I own THREE copies of the Atlanta Olympics issue of TV Guide and such a card is not found inside any of them. It might've come from the newspaper instead, but..I don't know.
If you're still not convinced 1996 was the peak year for Olympics advertising (come on, STILL?), check out what Kodak was doing. During the '96 Games they ran two 60-second spots that would start out like normal sales pitches, but then get stranger....and stranger....and STRANGER STILL. They would go off on tangents completely unrelated to Kodak or photography or anything. As always the first few seconds are cut off from this one, so it starts out this way: a Hip Teen Dude takes a picture of his dad in the backyard, but when he gets it developed there's some black smudge in the corner. So he goes to the High-Tech Kodak Digital Photo Retouching Booth to have the negatives looked at and cleaned up. I can remember when photo retouching was such a huge feat of witchcraft that it could only be accomplished in places like this.
He has the photo resized and blown up, and......
Modern audiences may look at this and only think how ass-backwards it is to take a picture on film and have it converted to a CD-R, instead of just taking the picture digitally to begin with. But we weren't there quite yet, so roundabout solutions like this were the only way. You might also be saying "Could they not tell this tech was eventually going to eat them alive?" No, they couldn't.
The second ad has no aliens, only endless jokes about a specific brand of clunky 70's car. It's wacky enough, but possibly for the wrong reasons. Whoever put together the effects for the "Internet" scenes in these ads barely knew what the Internet was -- I can tell you in 1996, it looked nowhere near this good, and if there was anything that DID look that good it would have taken six months to load on a phone line! And you definitely could not conference-chat with a supermodel from Finland who owned a Gremlin, because nothing about this sentence has ever happened.
Case closed with this one -- Atlanta was the best year. I really wish I had this ad complete, but whatyagonnado. Thanks to recent acts of shame, Volkswagen barely has any presence in the current Games ads, but here is a time far removed from that scandal. At the time, Speed Racer was enjoying a bit of a popularity resurgence thanks to reruns of his show airing on ESPN (that's right, ESPN). This ad is so good. The animation is 100% authentic, and it's Speed Racer driving a VW. Why was it only Atlanta that got ads like this?
This is one of Sprite's many 90's "anti-ads" telling you not to listen to ads and also to drink Sprite. I put it here because it mentions the Dream Team. The 1992 Dream Team was exactly that; the greatest basketball team ever assembled. The 1996 Dream Team was also good, but it had the downside of everybody being four years older. As the years went on the Dream fell out of the Team and by 2004 the American basketball Olympians were a disgrace. If you weren't around in 1992, you need to find some footage of the Dream Team, because you missed a lot.
After Jordan came about ten thousand other basketball stars with their own ad campaigns. Visa nabbed Hakeem Olajuwon, and this is technically another Dream Team spot yet he's the only star. There's a reason the Sprite ad cast the team in shadow. Getting these faces on camera had become expensive!
IBM also launched a new ad campaign during the Atlanta Olympics, and it lasted longer than Nissan's did. All of them were along the lines of this one: people talking in another language, with subtitles about IBM products. More interestingly, this part contains one of the only snips I captured from NBC's fall promo campaign, which they ALWAYS go overboard with. I think I just got this one because the title was literally "Men Behaving Badly." It's been a long time, but NBC would put this on today.
Finally there's this, which I never taped myself and don't remember airing. There is, in fact, a good reason I didn't save it and blocked it out of my memory. It's...horrifying. It fits the Atlanta "wacky" theme, so I threw it into the mix, but fair warning: the effects of 90's computer technology on human faces is not a pretty sight.
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