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Perfect pitches: TV Guide salutes 50 best commercials

Wednesday, June 30, 1999

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The original line was: "Where is all the beef?" But Clara Peller had emphysema and repeatedly ran out of breath before finishing the question. So director Joe Sedelmaier shortened the line to "Where's the beef?" A catch phrase, a campaign and an unlikely star were born.

Fifteen years later, the Wendy's commercial remains one of the best -- ninth best, in fact, according to a list compiled by TV Guide for its July 3 issue. The roster is the focus of "TV Land Presents the Greatest Commercials of All Time" at 8 tonight on cable's TV Land. It repeats at 8 p.m. July 6.

This marks a foray into original programming for TV Land, which usually depends on such comic chestnuts as "Family Affair" and "All in the Family" to attract viewers.

  Steeler "Mean" Joe Greene's Coke and a smile made it to No. 7 on TV Guide's list of the 50 best commercials.

The half-hour special examines the elements of a good commercial, interviews award-winning creators and builds to a countdown of the top five commercials. It brackets all the interviews with fast-talker John Moschitta Jr., of Federal Express fame, and David Leisure, the lying car salesman from the Isuzu spots and onetime "Empty Nest" regular.

A little of Leisure goes a long way, and he could have been edited down to allow for more commercials or chats with their creators. The special, while entertaining, at times seems like the equivalent of light beer.

  For a listing of winners:

And now, just pause for the best words from the sponsors

Still, it taps into a vein of national nostalgia, if not for the commercials, then for the era in which we watched them. Life was simpler in 1962, for instance, when the Marlboro Man simply sold cigarettes and cowboys -- not a habit that was addictive and cancer-causing. The Marlboro Man rides in at No. 32.

TV Guide, in addition to providing snapshots of the 50 spots, also singles out a handful of actors and the 10 catchiest ad lines. The top three: "Where's the beef?" followed by "Please, don't squeeze the Charmin" and "I can't believe I ate the whole thing."

The commercial crown, as you can see from the accompanying list, belongs to Apple Computer for its "1984" spot, which aired a single time during Super Bowl XVIII and revolutionized the ad industry.

Directed by Ridley Scott (whose credits include "Alien" and "Thelma & Louise"), it cost $400,000 to produce and $500,000 to air but garnered millions more in free publicity, which continues to this day. Not only did "1984" introduce a new product -- the Macintosh computer -- but it was made like a miniature movie, with stunning visuals and top-notch production values.

  Apple Computer's "1984" spot, which is No. 1 on the list of best commercials, ran only once, during the 1984 Super Bowl. (Courtesy of Apple Computer)

eated by Roy Grace, chairman of Grace & Rothschild, who also was responsible for the American Tourister's "Gorilla" spot and the Volkswagen "Funeral" commercial. The luggage idea came to Grace in the shower, while a real funeral cortege prompted him to cook up the VW spot.

"The challenge is stopping somebody in their tracks the first second," says Grace, who clearly has accomplished that goal, judging by his credits and the row of golden statuettes behind him. The "Gorilla" spot ran for 15 years, which is an eternity in commercial life, while the VW spot is dated and yet timeless.

The TV special also celebrates Michael Jordan's perfect pitch as pitchman, the value of humor and heart, and the ability of the right spokesman or spokesdog, in the case of Taco Bell, to boost a company's fortunes. As a Post-Gazette story detailed a few weeks ago, a McMurray resident named Michael Killen makes the dog's mouth open and close in sync with the words and adds gestures.

That might have fulfilled the requirement that all lists have a Pittsburgh connection, were it not for "Mean" Joe Greene and his Coke commercial, which lands at No. 7. In that 1979 spot, a boy approaches the Steeler as he's hobbling to the locker room. He tells the defensive tackle "I think you're the best ever. Want my Coke? Really, you can have it."

As the music celebrates "a Coke and a smile," Greene downs the sugary libation and then, in a surprise move, tosses the boy a souvenir jersey. How sweet it was.

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