By James Robert Shaw (The Wind up Geek)
Whether it’s the commercial of a Second City alumni pushing cameras or a Canadian national treasure singing the praises of a bank, chances are these commercials have been imprinted into the minds of the masses. In some cases commercials with 30 seconds of air time can produce more comedy, drama or music then a half hour TV episode. With a good ad writer, a caring director, and the right film crew, a commercial can sometimes impress more than it’s television show counterpart.
But even with the right ingredients it’s still the spokesmodel who can make or break a commercial. A good face will warm your heart, make you laugh and earn your trust.
So without further ado, here is part 1 of what I consider some of the best Canadian commercials and ad campaigns then and now:
Labatt’s Blue – “Call for the Blue” (1985)
Labatt‘s “I am Canadian” ad campaign has stirred patriotic feelings in recent years, but in the 80’s no beer commercial could match Labatt’s “Call for the Blue” when it came to displaying Canadian pride. Here we are treated to a montage of some familiar places from this once great country of ours. From the Squamish logger to the Montreal DJ (played by Polka Dot Door‘s Dennis Simpson), even one who preferred a good chardonnay couldn’t help but be moved by the commercial’s song performed by Paul Langille.
Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale – “Berating Scotsman”
Whether he was accusing pub patrons of being a “spilly talker” or a “label peeler”, the berating Scotsman’s love of Alexander Keith’s was as strong as his Scottish accent. God help the person who drops a glass of “the pride of Nova Scotia” on the floor.
Second City alumnus Robert Norman Smith’s Scotsman portrayal made for some of the funniest beer commercials I have ever seen. But Keith’s ad campaign was short-lived, Smith was charged with several counts of possession of child pornography. Labatt’s (who owned Alexander Keith’s) was soon to distance themselves from both the actor and the commercials.
Kokanee – “Sasquatch” (first aired 1985)
The former elusive Sasquatch was found in B.C. and like many British Columbians he loves his Canadian beer. Which begs the question, why does he make trips to south of the border?
Bill Reiter of children’s series Zig Zag played the Sasquatch from 1985 – 1989. The “guy with the camera” the Sasquatch would converse with was voiced by west coast radio personality Fred Latremouille. Kokanee‘s ad success was not repeated until the Kokanee Ranger almost two decades later.
Hochtaler Wine (1980’s – 90’s)
Genie award-winning Toronto actress (and playwright) Karrie Keane was the sensuous songstress who danced and warbled her way through Andres Wines‘ original batch of commercials (Tanya Grout took over after Keane moved to Los Angeles). In an homage to Marlene Dietrich‘s cabaret act from The Blue Angel (1930), Keane and Grout brought sophistication and a touch of class to an inexpensive house wine.
Neilson – Sweet Marie “Really Got Me” (1986)
It was a winning combination of everything 80’s. Take some heavy MuchMusic (now called Much) rotation, a take on Van Halen‘s hit song “Really Got Me” and a nod to the film the Revenge of the Nerds (1984) and you’ll only scratch the surface of what made this commercial such a success. The clincher for many pubescent boys was an attractive blonde haired schoolgirl. They didn’t let the private school uniform fool them, it was her attitude in front of the camera that made one think she was rebellious. Tossing that Sweet Marie candy wrapper wasn’t just littering in the school hallway, oh no no no. To any boy old enough to date she was tossing that Sweet Marie package at them because that is the only time she’ll acknowledge that they even existed. But did that make her cool? Why yes, yes it did.
Smarties – “Smarties Duets” (circa 2007)
This commercial was part of Smarties‘ vote for your colour ad campaign. The Most effective commercial was the “Vote Blue”. There was no trick photography and no computer graphics It was just a pair of talented kids performing in a church hall. Callandra Dendias sings a version of Sly & the Family Stone‘s “Everyday People” a capella while Matt Rose provided beatbox accompaniment.
Red Rose Tea – ‘Pity’ ad campaign (circa 1989)
British stereotypes are at the center of this successful ad campaign and what stereotypes they are, bad teeth, cockney slang, and drippy aristocrats make up a menagerie of dedicated tea sippers. And they don’t even have a single decent cup of tea between them to forget their troubles over. There’s plenty of Johnny Vegas and PG Tips to go round but it appears none of this equals to a cup of Rosey (Red Rose).
Oh Henry – “It’s That Big chunk of Fuuudge” (1984)
Many is the time my friends and I fell about in merriment at the playground after uttering the line “It’s That Big chunk of Fuuudge”. The line is famously repeated by wrestler Jos LeDuc. LeDuc played one of three strong men raised up on a see-saw under a circus bigtop with one solid chocolate bar on the other end. The other two strong men are former Canadian twin tag-team wrestlers Pat & Mike Kelly from Kirkland Lake, Ontario. Pat Kelly would die almost four years after this commercial aired in an auto accident involving his brother and two other wrestlers. As individuals, Canadians will remember their wrestling careers but together they will be remembered most fondly for this classic Canadian commercial.
Heinz – “You’re the Top” (1985)
This was a memorable ad that featured a 1940’s juke box performing a record of Cole Porter‘s tune “You’re the Top” (performed by Cal Dodd co-host of the TV series Circus). That same year Heinz produced a different commercial that was visually influenced by The Parachute Club’s music video “Rise Up.”
Shake & Bake – “Mrs. B’s Birthday” (1985)
One remembers the boys who roomed and boarded at Mrs. Bingham’s home, played by one-half of The Frantics comedy group Rick Green and Dan Redican and the late Wayne Robson (Mike Hamar of The Red Green Show). Dan Redican’s line of “Rice is nice” quickly became a catchphrase.
In this installment, the boys are preparing dinner for their beloved Mrs. B by following the simple instructions on the back of a Shake & Bake box. Simple? Have you ever seen a man read instructions?
Kraft Peanut Butter – “The Way We Want It” (1986)
Who doesn’t remember Alyson Court who co-starred with Sunny Besen Thrasher in My Pet Monster and with Stephen Ouimette in the animated TV series, Beetlejuice. The younger generation will know her best from Big Comfy Couch. From her appearance on an episode of The Edison Twins to co-hosting Kids’ CBC, Court has grown up on Canadian television. And here she is appearing in one of the coolest commercials of the 1980’s. But wait, isn’t that Michael Fantini of The Edison Twins at 0:17? If you’re a fan of Michael’s or you’re Michael himself, let us know.
Captain Highliner (1979 – 87)
Bob Warner who portrayed Captain Highliner created a level of trust amongst the Canadian public that has rarely been equalled. Not only were the Highliner fish sticks popular in my household but for me I couldn’t help but be drawn into watching this old sea salt. Because of Bob’s talent I thought of Highliner as a character who had lived a life of adventure on the seven seas. Highliner could’ve released a VHS video called “Fireside Stories with…” and I’m sure I would’ve raced to get the first copiy. But one has to ask himself, which sea salt came first, Captain Peter & Timothy T or Captain Highliner? Bob Warner or Peter Mannering?
One of the last commercials with Warner as Highliner was around 1987. National Sea Products, the company that owned Captain Highliner, reported net losses for two years after Warner disappeared from our television screens.
So popular was Captain Highliner as a national character that in 1980, when volleyball defenseman Jim Vnuk of the Red River Community College Rebels was asked if they could beat their Alberta competition, Vnuk said “Can we beat them? Does Captain Highliner eat halibut?”