Our Favorite Retro Food Commercials

Staff Picks

The SE staffers weigh in on their favorites.

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

There are few joys greater than that of a long, rambling Slack thread with your coworkers about your favorite food-related television commercials from childhood. Old classics come out of the woodwork, new obsessions are introduced, jingles resound across the office and get stuck in your head, everyone dates themselves, and it's hilarious.

So hilarious, in fact, that we feel compelled to share our picks with you. Join us on an oh-so-catchy trip down memory lane.

Cool Whip: The One

Old-school Cool Whip commercials give me life! They're such an unabashedly joyful celebration of dessert, childhood, and Americana. They're so pure. No trashing their competitors, no hollow boasting. Just a highlight reel of classic desserts, dolloped with big, luscious swirls of Cool Whip. Shameless plug: If the frozen stuff doesn't do it for you, why not make your own? —Stella Parks, pastry wizard

Amul: Wonderful Doodh

We didn't watch much TV as kids, mostly because there weren't many English-language options on Indian television in the 1980s and early '90s, so I have few memories of advertisements, let alone ads for food. But the first thing I thought of was this Amul ad for milk. Anyone who lived in India in the '90s will remember it clearly. At least, I and all of my friends from that time do—everything from the "doodh, doodh, doodh" that undergirds the whole thing (doodh means "milk" in Hindi) to the shouted "Give me more!" at the end.

Everything about it screams '90s New Delhi to me, from the faux Jamaican accent over the vaguely reggae jingle to the body builder that's held out as the embodiment of health. I suppose it was remarkably effective: Not only do I remember it as if I saw it yesterday, but it was also part of a nationwide initiative to boost milk consumption, which in turn led India to become the largest milk producer in the world. And, if that isn't enough, here I am, decades later, halfway across the world, with a rather large tin of Amul ghee in my refrigerator. —Sho Spaeth, associate editor

Peter Pan Peanut Butter: I'm a Peter Pan Nut

When I was little, I used to sit in my basement at least once a month and watch Peter Pan (the one with Cathy Rigby). It was a recording...you know, like DVR, but on a tape that goes into this machine called a VHS. Anyway, I loved the movie, but I also loved the Peter Pan peanut butter commercial that aired with Mark Linn-Baker. In it, he's wearing Peter Pan peanut butter pajamas and making a peanut butter sandwich. The way he slathers the peanut butter on the white bread always really captivated me. What kind of knife was he using? I always tried, unsuccessfully, to peanut-butter my bread like that, but it never looked that luxurious.

After he eats his sandwich, Mark gets into bed and pulls up the covers. As one might expect, his bed is shaped like a piece of toast, and his comforter is a blanket version of the jar's label. These days, I really eat only bougie almond butter; peanut butter doesn't interest me as much anymore. But if someone has Peter Pan peanut butter on hand, I will always partake. —Ariel Kanter, marketing director

Pringles: The Fever Reliever (With a Side of Brad Pitt)

The year: 1989. The product: Pringles. The star: Brad Pitt. At roughly two years old, I wasn't sentient enough to appreciate Brad's presence on the small screen. Today, though, the marriage of the soon-to-be heartthrob/Hollywood icon and one of my go-to childhood snacks is almost too good to be true. Add the fluorescent typeface, those highly saturated and DayGlo-like filters, and a strangely satisfying (if somewhat phallic) shot of an entire can of Pringles being unsheathed, and you have a highly re-watchable time capsule of days gone by. —Marissa Chen, office manager

Gatorade: I Want to Be Like Mike

I've never worshipped at the altar of Michael Jordan, and I am not a Gatorade drinker, but I have a soft spot in my heart for the original "I Want to Be Like Mike" Gatorade commercial. It's a genuinely inspirational, feel-good spot at a moment when the country could really use one. And the jingle is damn catchy: Anyone who's seen the commercial even once could sing it. Plus, I could easily imagine myself in the commercial, utilizing my old-school basketball skills to be like Mike. —Ed Levine, founder

Milk: Let's Go Out to the Kitchen

Though it's only 15 seconds long, and spun off from an even more adorable ad for movie snacks that aired decades before my birth, this sweet spot promoting the American dairy industry stole my teenage heart when it popped up in the mid-'90s or so. Led by a carton of prominently labeled milk, brandishing a sloshing glass of...milk, a troupe of anthropomorphic snacks bop across a kitchen counter and, in the fine tradition of anthropomorphic foods everywhere, musically entreat you to partake of...themselves, I guess. No need to overthink it; just resign yourself to singing that little earworm every time you approach the refrigerator door for at least the next few days. I'm not even going to apologize for getting it in your head. Sing it, dance to it, enjoy snacks. Live in this song's world for a bit.

Judging from my own memory and descriptions of this commercial by other fans on the internet (there are quite a few of us!), the milk lobby here commits the classic advertising error of creating a conceit so endearing that no one remembers what the ad was originally for. It's an ad for nostalgia, of course, whatever else it was intended to sell. Nostalgia, and snacks. —Miranda Kaplan, editor

Hershey's: Chocolate World

Mine is probably not the type of commercial you're thinking of, but it's been stuck in my head for more decades than it hasn't, and the urge to inflict it on share it with others is too strong for me to deny. I grew up a stone's throw from Hershey, Pennsylvania, and over the years Hershey's Chocolate World became my family's default tourist destination. If we had guests from out of town, we were taking them to Chocolate World. It ticked a lot of important boxes—the price was right (it's free), the air-conditioning was impressive (it's cold), and, hey, everyone loves chocolate (it's true...mostly).

The highlight of a trip to Chocolate World was a semi-educational, It's a Small World–style ride that followed the journey of a cocoa bean from harvest to Hershey bar. I can remember most of the process, but the part that really stuck with me was the (incredible) song that plays as the ride comes to an end—"Hershey's Chocolate, Hershey's Chocolate, it's a Hershey's Chocolate world"—there's no doubt in my mind that my entire family could recite the song today.

Both Chocolate World and the ride are still there, and, although they've been modernized, the place is still a perfectly great tourist spot. Thanks to the magic of YouTube, you can relive the ride as it was in its early-'90s glory days, and you should. (Do it!) —Paul Cline, developer

Big Red: Kiss a Little Longer

The Big Red chewing gum commercials from the '80s, back when commercials were all about the theme song and the jingle, were catchy as heck. To this day, my wife finds me singing the Big Red theme to myself on at least a monthly basis. It'll probably be the first song my daughter learns how to sing. The other memorable part is that the commercial is all...people KISSING! I must have been nine or 10 years old when it came out, and at that point, I was still in the phase of uncomfortably looking at my parents if there were people kissing in a movie we watched together. And this commercial was kiss after kiss after kiss, on network television! The scandal!

Because of that, I always saw Big Red as the "adult" chewing gum, and I'd find myself too embarrassed to buy it. I'd stick with Juicy Fruit or Doublemint. Bad move, because, as teenage me found out, Big Red really is the best chewing gum out there. It's like Hot Tamales that Last a Little Longer. —J. Kenji López-Alt, managing culinary director

Taco Bell: The "Yo Quiero" Chihuahua

Who wouldn't be captivated by a talking chihuahua? Only those of us who watched TV in the '90s would associate Taco Bell with a talking dog (RIP Gidget)—and remember that two tacos went for just 99 cents back then. Taco Bell was the closest my Asian immigrant parents had come to Mexican food, so the fast food chain gave me my first exposure to tacos. Locations were (and still are) hard to find in NYC. But when the opportunity strikes, I go all out on trashy quesadillas and Doritos Locos Tacos. What can I say? Yo quiero Taco Bell. —Vivian Kong, designer

McDonald's: The Menu Song

I'm a walking iPod of food-commercial jingles. Clearly, I watched too much TV as a kid. But when it comes to the greatest food commercial ever, for me, there's absolutely no contest. It's the McDonald's menu song, circa 1988. Not because it's a good commercial, because it really isn't. A chipper McDonald's employee asks a customer what he'd like to order, and he breaks into a song that is nothing more than the entire McDonald's menu, set to a hypnotically droning tune. There's nothing particularly funny or cute or impressive about it.

But what was genius, and the reason this one sticks with me more vividly than any other, is that McDonald's ran a concurrent contest: They put disposable floppy 33 LP records into magazines and newspapers as inserts, each stamped with a version of the song that taught it to listeners. The promise was that some lucky folks would get a version in which the people in the recording don't mess up the song, which would win those folks a million bucks. How many times did my friends and I listen to those LPs? How studiously did we practice the song on the school bus each morning and afternoon, hoping to get it right ourselves? Too many times, that's how many, because I can still sing that damned song today, nearly 30 years later. Any company that can trick the masses into learning its menu verbatim...yeah, that's a feat worth memorializing. The bastards. —Daniel Gritzer, culinary director

Whatchamacallit: Chewy, Chocolaty, Crunchy, Hershey's

If you've never seen a Whatchamacallit bar, it's important to know that it comes encased in predominantly beige packaging, accented with muted shades of brown, yellow, and red. It's a far cry from the splashy color schemes and bright, fun graphics sported by many of its competitors. It does not scream "cool" or "delicious," and I'm frankly pretty surprised that they're still available today, since I don't think I've ever seen another human being buy or eat one.

But I like to think that the Whatchamacallit's ho-hum exterior is precisely what gave birth to what I can only describe as the most mesmerizing commercial I've ever witnessed. There's just so much to love—a mystery is presented (and solved!); surreal animations dance and tumble across the screen; the song sears itself into your brain FOREVER; that sad, sad, late-'70s color scheme turns out to be the smoothest, soothing-est sight for eyes. I've never been certain who the Whatchamacallit's target audience was, but I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be 25-year-old women—precisely what I was when I first witnessed the commercial and fell in love with the candy bar.

Is it cheating that my favorite old-school commercial actually predates me? The answer's probably yes, but I can't quite bring myself to care—sharing this gem is entirely worth it. —Niki Achitoff-Gray, managing editor

Tootsie Roll Pop: How Many Licks

"One...taHOOOO...thrrrreee. CRUNCH. Three." Usually it's the catchier, jingle-heavy commercials that get stuck in your head for decades, but for me, it's the intonation of the wise owl in the Tootsie Roll Pop commercial. This is one of the longest-running commercials in history, so even though it debuted in 1969, it made regular appearances during my late-1980s TV mornings. Who hasn't tried to re-create that crunch themselves? —Vicky Wasik, visual director

Old El Paso: Nacho Man

Picture elegance. Picture grace and class. Now picture elegance, grace, and class sporting a Hawaiian shirt and dancing like the most average of American men, and you've basically seen this commercial. I watch it once every year or two, and that's not because of the catchy song, the entertaining dance routine, or the ever-so-subtle dichotomy between the "nacho man" and the original song's titular "macho man."

The reason is almost always because I'm telling someone, "I know that guy." That guy is Mark Davenport, affectionately known as "Davo" at Camp Dudley on Lake Champlain in upstate New York, where I spent seven summers growing up. Davo is the arts director there, and just about the nicest guy you can imagine. It was a great source of pride for me, at age 10, knowing a bona fide celebrity, and I still brag about knowing him to this day. I'm fortunate to be reminded of Davo and Dudley, via this commercial, every time I hear the Village People or dig into a pile of nachos. —Tim Aikens, front-end developer

Pop-Tarts: Mouths Are People, Too

Who wasn't haunted by these upside-down troll mouths, eagerly chomping down toaster pastries and slurping OJ? Upon closer inspection, this Pop-Tarts commercial is so, so much more. It's got all the hallmarks of successful commercial appeals to '90s kids—jump cuts, a fish-eye lens, a blustery kid "crew," and, oh yeah, a musical and visual aesthetic borrowed directly from popular rap and hip-hop culture of the time! Which I find pretty problematic in 2017! (#appropriation) But, those weird chin faces. Sigh.

Also, watch till the very end for an adorable Mischa Barton cameo. —Natalie Holt, producer