The Prince of Beverages: Time the Avenger

@@img1By Greg W. Prince

Springsteen, Madonna
Way before Nirvana
There was U2 and Blondie
And music still on MTV
Her two kids in high school
They tell her that she’s uncool
‘Cause she still preoccupied
With 19, 19, 1985

–From Bowling For Soup’s new single, “1985”

“Outside it may be the 1990s, but in this house it’s 1954.”
–Tony Soprano to daughter Meadow, first season

Last week I recounted ESPN’s 25 greatest sports commercials of the past 25 years, with an emphasis, obviously, on the beverage advertising involved. One of the things that struck me was how over 25 years the gentle tone of the Mean Joe Greene Coke and Sugar Ray Leonard 7 UP commercials had been supplanted, for better or worse, by generally snarkier fare.

I bring this up because I wanted to share with you a sentiment I typed but then blanched at and deleted. It went something like this.

“How could things be so different? This was only 1980!”

Then I did the math. 1980 is 24 years ago. It’s not recent. It hasn’t taken place for more than two decades. If this were 1980, the equivalent of 1980 now would be 1956. And when it was 1980, 1956 (particularly to somebody who wasn’t born yet) sounded absolutely ancient.

If I may share a bit of family lore, my dad had a long-running business in executive recruiting. In 1980, he moved his office from Manhattan to Long Island. To announce the new address and, at the same time, remind potential clientele that he had been in his field since 1954, he ran a newspaper ad headlined, “26 Years Is A Long Time.”

Whether it was the statement of the mathematically obvious or a hint at my dad’s longing for the Eisenhower administration, “26 years is a long time” became a running joke in the family that summer. Dad laughed, too, but he was right. That’s a long time.

Funny how time slips away. “1980” to my ears sounds so, you know, New Wave. Blondie. Devo. How could something so cutting-edge be almost a quarter-century old? Maybe it’s because 26 years is a long time, but 24 years is, like, yesterday?

Or maybe it’s because that’s the way it goes when you’re getting old. Readers out there with no memory of 1980 may be rolling on the floor at this point. Like Debbie, the “her” in Bowling For Soup’s “1985,” it’s easy enough to get caught up in all your comfortable touchstones (particularly when VH-1 Classic makes them all so accessible). Time, the avenger, marches on. The beverage and media businesses understand that. The “Thanks Mean Joe” commercial may give viewers a warm-and-fuzzy when they see it on one of those retrospectives, but that type of pitch would probably seem laughable if launched today.

Because 24 years is a long time. Fifty years is even longer; no kidding. A friend of mine recently brought that measurement into focus by thoughtfully passing along to me a program from the 1954 World Series. How long ago was that? Well, the cover price is 50 cents and one of the teams, the New York Giants (a bit of a historical obsession of mine) no longer exists. Four years after sweeping the Cleveland Indians in that Fall Classic, the Giants, like the Brooklyn Dodgers, were packed off to California in the name of progress (to say nothing of profit).

The baseball content is, if you’re into it, wonderful, but it’s instructive in the context of this discussion to flip through the 1954 program and read the ads. Ten of them are for beverages. All are intriguing, though none is as jarring as the back page, which features “baseball’s fabulous Ted WilliamsSan expert fisherman and an enthusiastic Lucky Smoker.” Based on his stated enthusiasm for this “light, mild, good-tasting toasted tobacco,” The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived was truly lucky to make it all the way to 2002.

Likewise, with other ads for Camel, Chesterfield, Old Gold and L&M cigarettes in the program, it’s a wonder fans made it out of the Polo Grounds alive.

Anyway, here’s how the 1954 beverage lineup went:

Schenley Reserve Whiskey
Knickerbocker Beer
Old Charter Bourbon
Park & Tilford Reserve Whiskey
Canada Dry Mixers
Ballantine Beer
Piel’s Light Beer
Gallagher and Burton’s Blended Whiskey
Seagram’s 7 Blended Whiskey

So whaddaya notice? Lotta drinking going on, huh? Lotta hard drinking. Five whiskeys, including the bourbon. A bunch of brands that haven’t been heard from lately. The appeal in those days was completely male, incredibly clubby, everybody in ties or bowties. Not a dame or a metrosexual in sight.

The World Series beer menu ain’t what it used to be either. Piel’s Light seems to refer to drinkability, but Knickerbocker<"No other beer is so low in calories, yet tastes so good!"Greg W. Prince ( has covered the beverage business as a reporter and editor for more than 15 years.