Sorted into subject-specific categories like “appearance,” “military,” and “transportation,” the TV ephemera curated by Matt McCormic and Morgan Currie for this radically but aptly titled The 70s Dimension DVD illustrates the “awkward growing pains” of advertising and electronic media from the 1970s. Presented under a section called “What the 70s Really Looked Like,” these media-archeological discoveries indicate a level of aesthetic, political, and social consciousness far removed from the commercials of our time, and save for the iconic Iron Eyes Cody “Keep America Beautiful” spot, every ad is a rarity and offers a glimpse at a time when cigarette commercials were still legal, John Tesh didn’t make music, churches could afford to hawk their faith on mainstream airwaves (two of the most powerful clips included here are an anti-“credit card marriage license” ad by the Christian Reformed Church and a Lost Horizon-meets-Waco vision of peace by the Bahá’í faith), and Henry Fonda was further black-sheeping one of his children (in this case Peter) by making an anti-marijuana PSA.
“What were they thinking?” was the reaction of Russ Roster of 8-Track Mind to this compilation, and the answer may be nothing at all, because in commercial after commercial you get a sense that every ad campaign from this time period was the product of irony-free committee-think. The kitschy production values bring to mind the films of Roger Vadim, Radley Metzger, and Mario Bava, which is not to say that their politics are at all transgressive: Even the products that aren’t targeted directly to women seem to hinge entirely on their approval (“Girls like it. Is there a better reason to wear Old Spice?”) and the modes of attack are so single-minded you may wonder if the feminist movement had even transpired by the end of the ‘70s. Tab alleges that its diet soda will help women stay in their man’s mind (the “Mind-Sticker” song is unbelievable), and an ad for the U.S. Air Force uses cosmetic products and foxy men in uniform to recruit the ladies. Sometimes “What were they thinking?” could just as easily apply to our current commercials, because the former, ostensibly Vietnam-era ad isn’t too far removed from the college-degrees-for-the-black-brown-and-poor and red-white-and-blue patriotism that color today’s military ads in that its appeal is equally and remarkably crude.
Other highlights include an ad for the Afterschool Special My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel, the meat commercials that scream “public relations damage control,” the VD PSA for Operation Venus (“No, I can’t have it,” says the downtrodden girl in the clip, which may prompt you to respond, “Tell me what you have, God dammit!”), and a Manocherian-Robbins Foundation clip about a little kid who takes control of a car while his mother drops a letter in a mailbox. Horror is the underlying sensation of many of these ads, sometimes for the most everyday, totally unfrightening products (Michael Moore might say that our culture of fear hasn’t changed very much in the last 30 years): a misguided, black-and-white commercial begins with an old man frightening a woman and taking her inside a closed supermarket before introducing her to a display of Folgers coffee containers and, my favorite, a Wisk commercial turns a woman on to the detergent after she’s tormented by a perpetually opening suitcase and an unseen group of children screaming “ring around the collar!”
For the hipsters who came of age during the ‘70s, the six shorts compiled in the “70s Remix” section by curators Craig Baldwin and Noel Lawrence aren’t to be missed. These recombinant montages of industrial and educational films study the peculiar relationship between audiences and commercials. The most successful ones are Thad Povey’s “Thine Inward-Looking Eyes,” which is constructed entirely out of the silent pauses of interview footage and represents “an empty cup—you fill it up” and Tony Gault’s remarkable “Not Too Much Remember,” an assemblage of more than 30 educational films from the ‘40s to the ‘70s intermittingly set to audio of Robert Stack from Unsolved Mysterious. (Think of the clip as a cousin to Robert Smigel’s brilliant “Fun With Real Audio” short featured on SNL that slammed Access Hollywood‘s Pat O’Brien.) At once sublime and frightening, this found footage masterpiece not only illustrates the perverse means by which narrative shapes our consciousness but also the way the films of this time period seemingly heralded a form of paranoia as a normal if not higher state of being.
Every commercial looks and sounds its age and that's the way it should be.
Previews for two more Other Cinema titles: The Subject is Sex and Tribulation 99.
The must-own DVD of the year for pop-culture junkies and nostalgia wankers.