Tuesday, September 15, 2009

90s Gap Commercials

If you're seeking evidence that times were simpler in the 90s, look no further than the then-mega brand GAP. While the store has done a fair bit of backsliding over the past decade, it enjoyed some serious popularity back in the 90s. I'm not completely certain that our 2000s-era brains can even wrap themselves around the notion of a prehipster era, but there really was a time before ironic poseur stylings a la American Apparel ruled the roost. Once upon a time, simplicity was cool. They didn't try to sell us a mindset or mentality or lifestyle: they just tried to sell us some khakis and corduroys.

In the 90s, Gap developed a well-conceived strategy for convincing young people everywhere to go out and buy whatever marginally overpriced plain-as-white-bread product they were hawking that week. They were wise in realizing that if their product itself was less than revolutionary, they may as well go out and create some highly calculated ads intended to suggest themselves as edgy and representative of youth culture. They recognized that cool in itself was a relatively poorly defined product, so they might as well just swoop in and claim their unwarranted share of it.

They were keen on the suggestibility of young people, so they unleashed a slew of commercials whose end tagline claimed "everyone" to be in some particular item of clothing. The commercials themselves were clean and simple and appropriately over-serious in a way that suggests they were so cool the actors couldn't be bothered to crack a smile. Each of these ads featured the same well-groomed crowd of ethnically diverse young adults all sporting minor variations of the same Gap item. Someone who obviously had experience staging high school plays blocked the cast into well-maintained formations from which they could stare blankly and nonchalantly at the audience.

Each of these commercials featured a single song, but rather than utilizing the convenient ready-made version of the song they offered each semi-surly young person the star-making opportunity to sing a single line of each. I'm not quite sure if these commercials were supposed to be based on any sort of actual real-life organic situation, but my instinct tells me the answer is probably no. My friends and I wanted to be cool, sure, but we never got together in matching outfits to stare pensively into the expansive abyss in well-organized groupings and come in just on cue for our turn to belt out a fragment of our favorite song.

In this spot, "Everybody in Leather", Gap launched the first portion of its 90s trademark ad campaign:

The synthesizers! The bouncing camera changes! The stone-faced expressions of our attractive stars! I don't know about you, but I just can't get enough. The ad had all the critical ingredients for successfully breaking through the cool barrier. If you're thinking you see a few familiar faces, you may be right. The outstandingly attractive Twilight-hairstyled fellow who gets a lot of face time in these slots is none other than Phantom Planet frontman Alex Greenwald. You know, of the OC theme song? And a bunch of other stuff I would have heard of if I either knew anything about the band or was more diligent in my research?

There's another little lady in the crowd who some of us may know, but she wasn't featured so prominently in the leather spot. Once everybody gets to wear cords and sing "Mellow Yellow" she gets a prime spot in the front right.

Rashida Jones! What on earth are you doing in my 90s Gap ads before I knew who you were and you awkwardly interfered with the heavenly alignment of fated Office romances? Who knew?

There was another in this series in which everyone wore cords and got dressed up in love, Madonna style. Rashida even gets her own line at :16, so play careful attention if you're into that sort of thing:

This ad was the be-all-end-all declaration of a generation's brief but torrid love affair with wholly unattractive fleece vests. I mean, you saw the kids in the commercial. Don't you want to be like them? Not necessarily standing staggered with windows to see the people behind you like in a dance recital, but more just hanging out with your ultra-sleek multicultural gang of unsmiling pals? I was pretty convinced. The fleece vest wasn't necessarily functional clothing (what of my cold arms?) but it was certainly popular.

Aside from this campaign, Gap had a concurrent khaki campaign that differed slightly while similarly emphasizing coolness in the simplicity of Gap clothing. They also subtly suggest that wearing Gap khakis inevitably leads to impromptu well-choreographed dance-offs, which certainly never happened to me when I wore mine. I guess I was just never in the right place at the right time. I could have swing danced* my little heart out.

The khaki ads didn't feature as much singing, but there was a lot more dancing to all types of khaki-lovin' music. We had our country:

I mean, honestly. They don't even fit those models that well, nor they seem especially flattering. Regardless, the commercials had us hooked. We were under the Gap spell and no one could shake it off. We needed these khakis.

The khakis demonstrated their dancing versatility a-go-go:

They rocked:

They souled:

They hip hopped:

But most of all, they swung:

That's right, the Gap actually paid a significant contribution to the swing revival movement of the late 90s. Well played, Gap. Retro purists hated this garbage, of course. If you've ever seen the Daria episode "Life in the Past Lane", Jane actually meets a retro-centric guy who asserts, "I was pre-khakis commercial and don't you forget it!" Sorry, retro fiends. Gap mainstreamed it.

So there you have it. The Gap may be struggling to define itself now, but back in the 90s it had a well-established reputation for coolness largely based on the simplicity of its ad campaign. If any of you with a business plan are taking notes, though, forget it. This would never work today. After all, nowadays we all fast forward through commercials. In the 90s, however, we watched TV to see our favorite commercials. Yes, it was a simpler time. When we could all just sit on in a blank white space and express ourselves through the non-smiling art of song.

*Swung dance? Swung danced? Someone please past tense-icize this phrase for me.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Popular Young Adult Books Series of the 90s

Image via fantasticfiction.co.uk

What's that old saying? Why write one good book when you can milk a hundred mediocre attempts on the same premise? Something like that. So maybe it doesn't have such resonating wisdom to it, but hey, I don't have a whole team of ghostwriter underlings to do my bidding and come up with something a bit more inspired like the evil geniuses behind franchises like Sweet Valley High.

Admittedly many of our favorite series did indeed come from a single author source, though some of them pulled it off more cunningly than others. I like farfetched plot twists as much as the next person, but things sometimes had a tendency to get out of hands when authors were given the gift of infinite access to the same characters in an unlimited combination of variable situations.

Though the topics and literary value of these series varied significantly from one to the other, they were all legitimate enterprises. Publishers love series for their reliability rather than their quality, and they can certainly get away with a great deal more when dealing with younger and less discerning readers. While some of these series were well-written and twisty plot-filled, others were embarrassingly more juvenile than their intended target audience. Wherever they happen to fall on the quality spectrum, one thing was for sure: book-hungry kids ate this stuff up. Without further ado, a smattering of our most beloved and sometimes inexplicably bestselling young adult series:


Children's horror series were a lucrative niche genre in the 90s. If you were so imaginatively inclined to be able to think up ridiculous tongue-in-cheek plots that wouldn't stand a chance at being made into a C movie, then you were pretty much golden. Kids went crazy for this stuff. It was sort of scary in an innocent, comical way that kept us coming back for more. Sometimes the concepts were a tad frightening, but the plots were so absurd and twist-filled that it tended to give us more head bumps than goosebumps. From all the facepalming, that is. I do distinctly remember finding the mask and that camp jellyblob thing to be a bit on the nightmare-inducing side, but then again Men in Black gave me nightmares as a kid so maybe you shouldn't take my word for it.

They also had a fair run in television form, featuring this jazzy intro with creepy glowing-eye dog:

Babysitters' Club

Tween girls were a highly desirable reader demographic in the 90s, particularly as it seemed we were pretty much willing to read anything and everything. I had a rather undying love for the girls of the babysitters' club, remaining fiercely loyal to them even in the face of their complete and total stereotypical ridiculousness. These girls were not exactly three dimensional. They essentially taught me that I could be one of a few character molds: the brassy tomboy, the diabetic fashion model, the California hippie, the shy one, the defiant artistic anti-intellectual Asian one, the nerd, or the black ballerina. I was pretty sure these were my only viable life choice paths once I hit middle school.

The BSC was franchising at its finest, featuring all sorts of additional merchandise, a feature film, and a television series with a theme song that my college friends may or may not have included on a road trip mix. I'll give you a hint: they did.

I owned all of these individual episodes on VHS ordered through the magic of Scholastic book orders. I'll give you a moment to calm your jealousy.


Under closer inspection, it seems that 80s and 90s teen series fell into one of two categories: bitchy preteen girls with growing-up type problems or over-the-top science fiction/horror. That is to say, either incredibly girly or with gory details to appeal to a male demographic. Animorphs fell more into the latter category with its characterization of a group of preteens who had the ability to change into animals in their efforts to quash a secret alien rebel force. Yep, these disgusting outer-space slugs would shimmy into your ear canal and turn you into an alien zombie, but luckily we've got a couple of kids on our side who can morph into housecats.

Animorphs was also granted a short run as a Nickelodeon series:

Fear Street

What happens to kids when they graduate from Goosebumps? They move on to Fear Street, of course. Goosebumps author RL Stine aged his characters a couple of years, threw in some particularly gory scenes, and made brutal murder an inevitable and unavoidable aspect of any plot. Sounds fun, right? The series is loosely tied together in the same way Goosebumps books were, rarely featuring the same characters but rehashing the same themes book after book. It's tough to say whether these would hold tight with today's kids--if anything, they'd have to suffice as the poor man's Twilight. I'm not too ashamed to admit I had RL Stine sign my well-thumbed copy of Fear Street: The New Girl at a Mall of America booksigning. I did, however, soon thereafter realize I have no patience for mysteries. Sorry, RL.

Sweet Valley High

These were pretty much my bible growing up, so you can only imagine how shocked I was to find out as an adult just how god-awful they really are. I mean honestly. Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield were nothing short of my idols as a kid, and now I hear that they're actually insufferable? Who was I to know? I was so entranced and drawn in by the ghostwriters' incredibly repetitive rehashing of their blonde hair, blue-green eyes, California good looks, and perfect size-six figures that I was blinded to the ridiculousness that was their overblown stereotypes of personalities. Jessica (also known as the cool one) was essentially the worst person in the world and Elizabeth (the smart one) made Pollyanna look like Al Capone. And I also learned a valuable lesson: you can tell popular people from nerdy brainiacs by the way they wear their hair. A ponytail is a dead giveaway for being the nerdy twin.

Though these books veered into some pretty outlandish directions (vampires, werewolves, viscount boyfriends), they did manage to keep it toned down for the brief run of the TV-series, which focused mainly on their regular Sweet Valley lives.

I always thought the twins who played the girls on TV were way too slutty-looking to be Jess and Liz. Either way, I totally owned a Sweet Valley High board game and had full collections of Sweet Valley Kids, Sweet Valley Twins, Sweet Valley High, and Sweet Valley University. I imagine that my family singlehandedly supported Francise Pascal's enterprise.

Harry Potter

I will no doubt have to better explore Harry Potter in its own full post as it's a legitimate phenomenon in a way few of these others are. I'm also willing to give credit where credit is due and concede the books are far better written and well-conceived than any of the others on this list. In short, Harry Potter made being nerdy cool in its own way. The content was undeniably fantastical and imaginative in a manner compatible with extreme geekiness, yet everyone seemed enthralled by them. Perhaps in the way media like Star Wars gave geeks an outlet of kind of cool make-believe people to admire, Harry Potter managed to simulataneously win readers with nerds and well, everyone else. You'd be pretty hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't at least read one of these books.

Harry Potter is the ultimate money-making franchise, far outliving its rival book series peers. The big-budget fantasy adventure film adaptations don't fare too poorly, either:

Help! I'm Trapped...

Did you know that you can write 16, count 'em, 16 books that have titles beginning with "Help! I'm Trapped in (insert entrapment device or body here)"? Because you totally can. Todd Strasser made a healthy living off of doing just that, trapping our pals in everything from their teachers' bodies to the first day of doggie obedience school. Actually, we got to go to obedience school twice, so I'm somewhat suspicious that he just ran out of ideas.

By the by, it wouldn't hurt to check out some of these young adult book blogs if the YA series dosage in this post didn't quell your 90s YA book withdrawal. Enjoy!

Dibbly Fresh
Shannon's Sweet Valley Blog
Are You There Youth? It's Me, Nikki

Friday, September 11, 2009

Is It Fall Yet?

Let me apologize for not having your daily dose of 90s in order per usual this morning. You see, in some sort of unforeseen* meteorological turn of events, my internet connection experienced some severe disturbances during peak blogging time. After my ever-helpful boyfriend spent extensive time proxy online live-chatting with the none-so-helpful Alvaro of Time Warner Cable, it was clear that you were just not going to get the incredibly outstanding post I'd originally planned on researching for lack of sufficient connectivity.

That is to say, I was this close to promising to name my firstborn Alvaro if only he would have reinstated my beloved interweb. Unfortunately, Alvaro did no such thing in saving me from certain cable outage. I was forced to shake my fist despairingly heavenward and intone "ALVARO!" Alvin and the Chipmunks style. My boyfriend (again, very helpfully) proceeded to play me the Alvin and the Chipmunks Christmas song over the phone while I waited for the reports back on Alvaro's snail-like progress, but that's really here nor there.

Where was I? Oh yes, excuses. So, that fabulously insightful post will have to wait, and I will leave you will a solid dose of 90s to get you through your weekend. This was what I'd brilliantly thought to post on Labor Day, only to spend the whole day being neglectful and vacation-prone and sending myself into successive barbecue food comas. Hence, you lucky so-and-sos get a shot at it today. I know, I know. You're welcome.

Via the magic of embeddable playlists, here is the full Daria inter-season movie Is It Fall Yet**? It seems very appropriate as we bid our summers adieu, plus it's one of my favorites here at Children of the 90s. Ask anyone who's been reading a few months and they'll assure you that it's in my secret plan to faithfully spread the gospel of Daria to all those who know not her truth and wisdom. Let me speak to you seriously here for a moment: it's one of the smartest shows to ever air, period, not to mention the most sage teen or cartoon series. Please, proceed with caution, as your watching this will hopefully lead to a lifelong relationship soon to be satiated by the supposedly impending DVD release.

Have a great weekend, 90s kids!

*Unforeseen by me, not by actual meteorologists. No, I'm sure those green-screen facing smug bastards knew all along.

**In this case, the unfortunately correct answer is yes, yes it is

Digg This!