“The Power of Music”: General Electric Stereo Commercial, 1985

 Exhibit / January 30, 2020 

Object Name: General Electric “The Power of Music” commercial
Maker and Year: General Electric, Howard Guard, et al, 1985
Object Type: Television commercial
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

Only in a decade as contradictory as the 1980s would one of America’s most respectable and historic companies spend nearly a million dollars on a commercial depicting new wave “adventurers” in a post-apocalyptic “third millennium” wasteland as part of a last ditch campaign to save its fatally outmatched consumer electronics line. The company was General Electric, and the commercial was aimed squarely, even obnoxiously, at the nascent MTV generation.

There were several different versions of the commercial, the longest a short film clocking in at two minutes. In all of them, our four Mad Max-garbed, shoulder-padded heroes come upon a city “imprisoned in silence,” whose princess is encased in a giant crystal (hilariously reminiscent of the alien cocoons in 1984’s This is Spinal Tap). Liking what he sees, the permed leader of the crew, his headphones curled suavely around his neck, signals for the boombox. A cassette is inserted, bad music rocks the cavern, and the people are freed from their “total audio block” helmets as the camera quick-cuts to various GE products (including a CD player in one version) no one ever bought. The crystal prison shatters, and hero and princess come together as the narrator intones: “The power of music. No one lets you experience it… like General Electric.”

The spot won a Clio award for best commercial in 1985 and was directed by Englishman Howard Guard, by this time well-known in the industry for his cinematic style. Guard had directed Roxy Music’s 1982 “Avalon” video (with then business partner Ridley Scott, who would soon set the benchmark in dystopian advertising), the 1983 “She’s In Parties” video starring goth legends Bauhaus, and a slew of commercials on both sides of the Atlantic, including a couple of impressive Maxell spots—one for blank cassettes, one for VHS tapes—featuring a smoldering Peter Murphy (Bauhaus’s frontman) and a host of ’80s aesthetic tropes: robots, ferns, lasers, prisms, neon, chrome, and… frogs?

The GE mini-epic sports obvious Cold War overtones, with the terse and swaggering warriors liberating the oppressed and repressed city with an arsenal of superior hair, superior tunes, and superior tech. The post-apocalyptic theme, which popped up in surprising corners of popular media throughout the decade, was even used in a print-advertised sweepstakes: grand prize was a 1986 Pontiac Fiero, and first prize was a trip for two to the ’86 MTV Music Video Awards. Alas, the good guys lost. GE’s consumer electronics division shuttered in 1986, soundly thrashed by another American Cold War nemesis: Japan and its bubble economy.

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