How the 80s shaped influencer marketing


Teaming up high-profile creators and influencers to promote products has worked for a long time. And it’s a strategy that has built some of today’s most famous brands.

The 1980s was a special time for creator marketing. 

By then, brands like Coca-Cola had proven the effectiveness of teaming with high-profile celebrities with its infamous Mean Joe Greene TV spot. And brands that had been playing second fiddle to more popular brands (including Nike and Hershey) were more than happy to invest in big names. 

In the 1980s, we saw the power of popular culture and its effect on brands’ bottom lines as it dominated American consciousness.

The 1980s in Culture

There was nothing like social media as we know it today in the 1980s, but there was plenty of national media. Television spots, magazines, newspaper ads, billboards, radio advertising, Hollywood films, and even live events played a significant role in determining which brands earned the most attention. 

In the 1980s, Americans still paid attention to just a few things at a time without constant distraction—like a few key television networks, hit TV shows, and a select few films playing in theatres every weekend. There was no YouTube, no Instagram, and no widely accessible Internet.

At the same time, developments in the 1980s presaged what we see today. Christie Brinkley’s morning-TV beauty tips helped launch a new era in creator marketing that we’re still experiencing in the 2020s. Successful product placements in movies helped pave the way for product placements all over TV and film. 

So let’s look at some of the most noteworthy marketing campaigns that joined high-impact 1980s celebrities with creative marketing campaigns, shall we?

1982: E.T. and Reese’s Pieces

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was one of the decade’s box office hits, racking up hundreds of millions of dollars from 1982 through 1983. Any company betting on E.T. would have gained massive exposure. One key scene saw the main character, Elliott, guiding E.T. around his home by laying pieces of candy on the floor.

M&Ms, Reese’s Pieces—any small candy would have worked. But for unknown reasons, Mars—the manufacturer behind M&M’s—passed on the opportunity. Hershey, their chief competitor, offered $1 million to the filmmakers and launched a promotional campaign. 

Within a few weeks, their sales had jumped 65%. To this day, it’s not unusual to hear people say “Reese’s Pieces” in their best E.T. voice simply because of the psychological connection between the hit movie and one smartly-positioned product.

1983: Risky Business Brings Back the Wayfarer

Ray-Ban did significant business with Tom Cruise throughout the 1980s, especially with their aviators seeing plenty of use in the 1986 hit Top Gun

But it was the 1983 film Risky Business that helped rescue Ray-Ban in the first place. According to the Los Angeles Times, parent company Bausch & Lomb in 1981 was ready to discontinue Wayfarers altogether. The sunglasses first came out in 1952, and just a few decades later, they were more a relic than a popular throwback. Then, in 1981, GQ featured the sunglasses in their magazine. Sales increased nearly ten-fold by the next year.

That was the first shot in the arm. The second came when Tom Cruise wore Wayfarer sunglasses in the now-iconic “Old Time Rock and Roll” scene in Risky Business. The same year the movie came out, sales of Wayfarers had increased to 360,000.

1983: Christie Brinkley Puts CoverGirl on the Map

1983 was a hallmark year for supermodel Christie Brinkley. She had a brief-but-memorable appearance in National Lampoon’s Vacation as “The woman in the red Ferrari.” The cameo was memorable enough to reprise it in 1997’s Vegas Vacation and even DirecTV ads throughout the 2000s. Proving that cameo’s staying power, she rounded it off with a similar Infiniti ad in 2015. 

Brinkley was also making the rounds in the media. That same year, Brinkley appeared on the Today show on four separate occasions, offering beauty tips. It was the same year as a Cover Girl television spot that helped make Brinkley a household name. 

This would prove to be an early example of creator marketing. In offering these beauty tips, Brinkley raised her profile while promoting CoverGirl products. It was a win-win relationship as both Brinkley and CoverGirl extended their influence through the campaign.

1984: Michael Jackson Sets Pepsi on Fire

In 1984, Michael Jackson may have been the most famous person on the planet. Any sponsorship deal with Jackson would come at a premium. It might also prove well worth the investment. After Coca-Cola offered a paltry $1 million, Pepsi came in with a $5 million offer that secured their brand’s marketing dominance for a decade.

Michael Jackson’s relationship with Pepsi was a complicated one. Jackson reportedly got too close to a pyrotechnics display during one commercial shoot, causing his hair to catch fire. The accident was enough to leave him with second-degree burns.

Yet both Pepsi and Jackson still had big things in mind. Pepsi made Jackson the centrepiece of its “new generation” campaign. It wasn’t just a brief commercial spot. The company and Jackson reworked the lyrics to his classic “Billie Jean.” Dancers recreated some of the iconic Michael Jackson looks. 

The pairing was so successful that Jackson could get over the accident—which included an out-of-court settlement with the company—and it was lucrative enough for Pepsi that his next contract with them would cost the company $10 million. 

“The goal was to make Pepsi look young, and Coke look old,” said entertainment broker Jay Coleman, who helped negotiate the deals. 

It worked. How much did the campaign resonate? The slogan was still going strong eight years later when the comedy Wayne’s World--poking fun at product placement--included Pepsi’s “choice of a new generation” motto in their spoofs.

1985: A DeLorean Speeds into “Back to the Future”

The time-travelling DeLorean with the flux capacitor in Back to the Future is iconic. It’s so iconic; it’s hard to imagine any other car fitting the role. But that was always a possibility. In fact, in the film’s DVD commentary, filmmaker Bob Zemeckis said one original idea was to use a time-travelling refrigerator.

But knowing the kind of influence a popular movie could have on the nation, the filmmakers decided that the nation’s youth might start locking themselves in their refrigerators. So they nixed that idea.

When they came around to the car idea, there was obvious sponsorship potential. Co-writer Bob Gale told Esquire that they received an offer of $75,000 to use a Ford Mustang. But nothing quite fit like the DeLorean. Its vertically-opening doors and space-age look were an ideal fit for a time machine movie.

The DeLorean was such an integral part of the Back to the Future movies that in 1989, Universal Pictures started giving John DeLorean--and his heirs--5% of earnings from promotions that included the car or logo. 

Just how lucrative and lasting has the association been? In 2018, the DeLorean makers sued a Texas company for capitalizing on its Back to the Future fame. But a judge decided that the Texas-based DeLorean Motor Company--which worked on restoring old DeLoreans separately from the original company--had permission to use the name and logo. 

To this day, the DeLorean enjoys a lingering nostalgia.

1985: Blondie and Andy Warhol Help Launch a Computer

The Commodore Amiga isn’t a household name in computing these days. But in a promotion in the mid-80s, the company did enlist a few household names to expand its brand.

It was an unusual pairing: Debbie Harry of Blondie and renowned artist Andy Warhol. Warhol used the Amiga (and its ProPaint software) to create Harry’s painting in his signature style at a live event. The event featured an orchestra and technicians in lab coats that ultimately produced a rare print of Debbie Harry. There are only two copies of it now, and Harry owns one of them.

Warhol’s enthusiasm was genuine; he went on to create other digital works beyond this advertising campaign. But it was the Amiga event that would demonstrate the power of creator marketing. 

The computer now enjoys fame largely thanks to its association with Warhol and Harry. Its contributions to personal computing are a debate for another day.

The mid-1980s: “Crocodile” Dundee Introduces a New Beer

The unexpected success of the film Crocodile Dundee introduced Australian culture to the American audience. And while product placement in the movie would have made more sense, it was too late. That didn’t stop anyone. Fosters capitalized on the movie’s success by hiring its star, Paul Hogan, as a sponsor.

It was the right decision. The advertising campaign helped launch Foster’s from “local beer to global icon.” After 1988, the Australian beer brand went from one of Australia’s most popular brands to one of the most popular beer brands in the entire world, eventually becoming the fourth largest brewing company globally.

1988: Bo Knows Marketing

Bo Jackson was a two-sport athlete who hit the national stage like a meteor. In the 1980s, Nike was on its rise. It had signed basketball superstar Michael Jordan as a sponsor. And while its success with the Air Jordans would change sporting apparel in the 1980s and 1990s, Nike wasn’t content to rest on its laurels when it came to other sports.

Even with the successful Jordan campaigns, Nike was still second-fiddle to Reebok. At the time, a cross-training shoe with sponsorship from tennis legend John McEnroe wasn’t making the progress Nike had hoped it would. They had to make inroads in a cross-training shoe, and they needed the right messenger.

It was perfect timing. Bo Jackson’s dominance in multiple sports made him the ideal collaborator for Nike’s goals. Nike had cross-trainers to sell. An electrifying athlete who excelled at numerous professional sports became one of the most famous names on the planet.

The result was the “Bo Knows” campaign. Bo Jackson would talk to himself in TV spots as he tried different sports like tennis, cricket, golf, and even racing. An eventual TV spot featuring music legend Bo Diddley would only enhance the campaign. 

The sponsorship with Jackson turned out to be just what Nike needed. Nike would capture 80% of the cross-training shoe market, moving its sales there from $40 million to $400 million. 

1989: Michael Jordan Endorses Hanes

Michael Jordan’s alliance—as mentioned earlier—with Nike had already proven his multimedia power as a sponsor. But did his celebrity power affect outside of the apparent athletic sponsorship deals: athletic apparel and sports drinks?

Hanes wanted to find out. In the late 1980s, they kicked off a business relationship that was still going strong 30 years later--well after Jordan retired. 

But it was in 1989 that Jordan and Hanes produced a television spot that would launch the campaign. The Chicago Tribune eventually rated it his third most memorable commercial.

The relationship would demonstrate that not every successful sponsorship in creator marketing would have to fit hand-in-glove as Bo Jackson helped Nike promote its cross-training shoes. Chief Branding Officer for HanesBrands, Sidney Falken, would say that the sponsorship was one of Hanes’ “most successful” when the brand used its 30th anniversary to create Micheal Jordan trading cards

Are There Better Opportunities for Creator Marketing Today?

These are a few of the top-performing creator marketing campaigns in the 1980s, but social media has decentralized everything these days. 

It’s now possible for companies to not only target a niche audience but to do so with a more reasonable budget than the Nikes and Pepsis of the world.

As the 1980s demonstrated, the right creator with the right product can produce an unforgettable campaign. But this requires a good match between creators and the brand messaging your company needs. 

We can help you find the right match. Just sign up today and get started.