The best television ads of 1990 — those brief encounters brilliant enough to keep our restless fingers off the remote buttons — seemed more intimate and emotionally appealing than they have in years. It’s a sign of the times, perhaps, that this year’s most memorable messages were smart but unspectacular, relying more on good ideas and impeccable execution that gee-whiz stunts and blatant seduction. All right, the very best ad does depend for its charm on an adorable baby. But at least this shameless creature isn’t paired with a pup — a sure sign of a new restraint.
1. Refined Oil
In a charming half minute, subtle for all its seeming simplicity, Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Oil take on the allure of expensive perfume. Starting with a knockout grown-up beauty and a voice singing ”Make Me Your Baby,” director John Swannell uses computer imagery to visually flip back in time until we’re face-to-face with a sensational tot, who — in the dramatic coup of the year — raises one eyebrow and breaks a million hearts.
2. Mazdapiece Theatre
In a time of the rock-video jitters, when incessant jump cuts give Americans the concentration span of a hyperactive gnat, director Dennis Manarchy’s 30-second meditation on the retro-dramatic Miata sports car is a blessed relief. In a single lingering shot, the camera pans slowly back from a showroom window in a town Edward Hopper might have painted. Manarchy is known as a still photographer, and in this moody sequence very little moves: A ceiling fan slowly turns, a flag catches the breeze, a motorcycle passes, and a kid on a bike rolls by. He could have been any of us once upon a time.
3. Rabbit Redux
That Eveready bunny stays in the pink no matter how many commercials he’s called upon to interrupt. The best things about this harebrained series, besides the unstoppable charismatic drummer himself, are the setups, which are so real you start expecting every tedious spot to be invaded by the cheeky critter. Let’s hope the beat goes on for years.
4. Pump & Circumstance
Take a shapeless bag lying on a dry lake bed, add the rhythmic sound of inflation (at the pump, get it?), and before you can say ”Fill ‘er up” the bag has become an unguzzling Honda CRX. In a visual punch line worthy of Penn and Teller, the ”balloon” changes from software to hardware and heads economically for the hills.
5. Sonny’s Share
One Bo Jackson sells lots of Nikes, so maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised when what to our wondering eyes should appear but the Renaissance jock as his own entourage, a veritable Vienna Bo’s Choir, wearing almost every conceivable sports outfit (including an Indy racer). When Sonny Bono wanders in, punning that he thought this was ”another Bono’s commercial,” he seems a promise of even more antic ideas to come.
7. That’s a Rap
The undisputed winner of the In Your Face Coca-to-Cola Confrontation Award is the Pepsi spot in which M.C. Hammer, midway though a frenetic concert rap, is slipped a Coke and lapses into a semicomatose version of ”Feelings”…a ballad! Someone in the stunned audience offers the hamming Hammer a hit of Pepsi regeneration, which breaks the spell, and he raps again.