‘The Vietnam Experience’ Television Commercial, 1985

Exhibit / January 4, 2017


Object Name: Time-Life television commercial for The Vietnam Experience: “What’s Vietnam?”
Maker and Year: Wunderman, Ricotta & Kline/Time-Life, 1985
Object Type: Two-minute television commercial
Source: The Vietnam Experience, Boston Publishing Company
Description: (Michael Grasso)

This two-minute television spot from 1985 promoted the Time-Life book series The Vietnam Experience, which was released serially from 1981 to 1988, perfectly bookending the Reagan years. Each of the 25 volumes covered subtopics about the Vietnam War from the American perspective, from military tactics to culture clashes between the Greatest Generation and Baby Boomers, to the secret war waged in the shadows by intelligence operatives. More important, the series was widely considered one of the more powerful popular avenues that grappled with the political and social aftermath of the war. No less an organ than The New York Times said of the series in a 1983 review: “It will be a good long while before we close ranks on this war, and it ought to be. How is one to avoid recriminations about the past without looking the past in the eye? These books are the eye.”

To this end, the commercial features a son’s plaintive question of his Vietnam-aged father as the two visit Maya Lin’s then-new (and controversial) Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982) in Washington, D.C.: “Daddy? What’s Vietnam?” As the question sits pregnant in the crisp autumn air, the gravelly voice-over of Martin Sheen, whose most famous role at this point was arguably that of Captain Willard in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), offers that this is “a question a child might ask, but not a childish question.” The ad poses historical knowledge about the Vietnam War as a responsibility handed down from fathers to sons. Much as the stark abstract bleakness of Lin’s design for the Memorial (and her gender and ethnicity) initially elicited controversy, these advertisements offered sharply poignant reasons for a sober historical remembrance of Vietnam. The American consumer would purchase and share these books with their children’s generation not as a celebration of a war won, but as a memento of a messy, painful conflict.

Along with questions like, “What were we fighting for?”, “Did we win the war, Daddy?”, and “Why didn’t we just drop the bomb?”, the commercial promises to examine the war from “every point of view”: “You’ll gain new insights into your position, as well as to ones you may have opposed.” The end of the ad summarizes all of these historical concerns with Martin Sheen’s portentous warning that “we must answer the question ‘What’s Vietnam?’ for ourselves and for the next generation,” and concludes with the young son’s anxiety, “Will I have to fight in a war, Daddy?” The Vietnam Experience series website calls the commercial “the most powerful and most successful of the commercials in terms of book order generation.”

Ad agency Wunderman, Ricotta, & Kline, which produced all five of the Vietnam Experience commercials for Time-Life, was purchased by ad giants Young & Rubicam in 1973, but continued to work under their own imprimatur, especially in the then-burgeoning field of direct mail marketing. Among Wunderman’s other prominent direct marketing campaigns over the years were the Columbia House Record Club and the magazine insert subscription card.

10 thoughts on “‘The Vietnam Experience’ Television Commercial, 1985

  1. I do remember that ad as well as ads for a lot of Time LIfe TV ads as well. They were a great source of info pre internet era, My Grandfather had a few of Time Life books in his collecton such as the Old West and WW2. I still remember one ad that stands out in my mind for a series on the paranormal. I can’t remember if he had the Vietnan War series or not but I think he did and I looked thur one or two I think. Over all Time-Life books were great reads back in the day.

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  3. A local used book store peddles The Vietnam Experience books for a mere $2 each. I have purchased some, but never found them an engaging read. I have the entire WWII set and find it fascinating. I remember this commercial well. One of the questions pondered was “Why didn’t we just drop the bomb?” This question apparently haunted General Westmoreland. In a more engaging book, it was recalled he asked and aid if this would have been a good idea some years after he was relieved of his command in the Far East.

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