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Revisting '90s Youth Culture, One MTV Commercial Break at a Time

As pop culture artifacts go, few are as revealing as this 1995 MTV commercial compilation.
  • Down we go into the rabbit hole of 90s-ara MTV commercial breaks.
    Down we go into the rabbit hole of 90s-ara MTV commercial breaks.

    Paramount+ took a gamble ahead of its launch when it ordered two original shows that trade heavily on the nostalgia appeal of 1990s MTV programming, but it seems to have paid off. Both The Real World: Homecoming and The Challenge: All-Stars have been major attractions for the reborn ViacomCBS streaming service, serving up a taste of MTV that, frankly, hasn't been around for a very long time.

    I was reminded of this this recently as I fell down an epic rabbit hole on YouTube, where fans have uploaded dozens of compilations of commercials, promos, and network bumpers that aired on MTV during various periods in the channel's history.

    This is just one part of a larger subculture of YouTube commercial compilations that capitalize on one of the more curious strains of nostalgia: a longing for the low-fi days when we had to wait for time slots and wade through commercials while seeking out entertainment. But watching these MTV commercial compilations recalls another bygone phenomenon: the days when MTV was the beating heart of American youth culture. While not everyone was super into MTV or the videos and TV shows they aired, if you grew up in the late '80s or the '90s, you almost certainly had some kind of cultural relationship to the channel.

    Modern pop culture is steeped in the lore of the first generation of MTV VJs, the dawn of music video as a medium, and the dawn of reality television, but the cultural dominance of MTV was just as present in how it played out over the course of a regular day for young people at the time. The difference between having MTV as a central hub, with its curated content and intentionally loud aesthetic, versus today with the multiple tentacles of social media as a very much decentralized hub, could not be more stark.

    The above compilation culled from commercial breaks that aired during the 1995 MTV Movie Awards on June 15, 1995 is a great example. Included are a series of bumpers with black-and-white backstage footage from the ceremony featuring the likes of Sandra Bullock and a then-coupled Jim Carrey and Lauren Holly, but the true stars of this show are the commercials they bookend.

    Here's an annotated guide to the highlights, and what they tell us about what was the most culturally relevant media entity of its time:

    0:00:37: Right off the bat, we get a promo for the upcoming season of The Real World in London. These were the very early promos that didn't feature footage from the season so much as cryptic descriptions of the new cast members ("a fencing hopeful from Washington state"; "a traveling princess with a taste for Vegemite"). From our vantage point today, the London season is ancient Real World history, but it's fun to remember what a leap it was to take the series abroad in its fourth season. Coming off of the San Francisco season, The Real World was a phenomenon, and the anticipation for the London season was high.

    0:01:15: The first of many, many ads for Blockbuster Video, which today is as much a pop culture artifact as MTV when it comes to entities that shaped and dominated the way we consumed culture. In 1995, Blockbuster was still in the process of usurping the nation's mom and pop video stores and turning at-home video rental into a legitimate cultural experience. This particular ad features the actor who played the guy who tried to rape Donna on that one 90210 episode, so the warm-and-fuzzies of "Make it a Blockbuster night!" are slightly muted.

    0:02:15: Another cultural relic: ads for collect calling services. Remember collect calling?? The waning days before the dawn of universal cellular phones were an absolute bonanza for collect calling. This ad features David Letterman mainstay Calvert DeForest and serves as a time-capsule double-whammy by referencing the just-ended Major League Baseball strike.

    0:03:20: Because they aired during the MTV Movie Awards, there are a barrage of movie ads in this set of commercials. Few things are better at carbon-dating an old VHS recording than the movie trailers that play during the ad breaks, so close your eyes and transport yourself to a time when Waterworld, Species, Apollo 13, Judge Dredd, and Under Siege 2 were all about to converge on your local multiplex. Seeing an ad for an impending bomb like Waterworld is especially poignant, sort of like that Real Housewives of Beverly Hills clip where Kyle Richards is like "Nobody knew that was the last time we'd all be in the same room again," only the "we" in this case is Kevin Costner and box-office clout.

    0:03:40: Okay, not to be all "You might be a Gen-X/Millennial cusp if…" about this, but the way that this Martha Quinn ad for Neutrogena stayed absolutely branded on the recesses of my psyche for decades, only to emerge in full when I watched the first nanosecond of it in this compilation makes me want to study brain science. Quinn was long past her days as one of the original MTV VJs by this point, but she still clearly had some kind of cultural pull on Gen-Xers and their purchasing decisions when it came to acne-fighting products. The modern-day skin-care industry is far bigger and more complex than simple acne-fighting face washes, with advertising to teens obsessed with "breakouts" left almost entirely to social media influencers, making these kinds of acne-based TV ads another relic of the past.

    0:04:15: Besides the advertisements themselves, these compilations are heavy on MTV's in-house ads, which were plentiful and varied. You had the animated bumpers that played like film-school assignments, painting grotesque scenarios that would invariably end in the MTV logo appearing as a blob of pink slime or as a pattern on a bodybuilder's abs. But you also had recurring characters like Jimmy the Cab Driver, an obnoxious and filthy-looking cabbie played by then-unknown character actor Donal Logue, who went on motormouthed tangents about pop cultural subjects that tied back to MTV in some way, once again contributing to this sense that the pop culture every random person was talking about at any given moment swirled around MTV.

    0:04:40: It is, of course, ironic to remember that in 1995, we were well into the era where people complained that they never showed music videos on MTV anymore. This was because MTV aired reality shows, game shows, and even the odd scripted drama (Dead at 21 hive, rise up!) in primetime and only aired blocks of music videos all afternoon and morning and also late at night. This particular bumper was simply a promo for the videos in current rotation during those times, like Madonna's "Human Nature," Seal's "Kiss from a Rose," Soul Asylum's "Misery," and TLC's "Waterfalls." The genre mix in these videos — from pop to grunge to hip hop — was typical of MTV's mid-'90s run.

    0:06:05: These old MTV compilations bring back a lot of things for an aging Gen Xer, but strangely prominent among them is the one-time cultural dominance of Wendy's TV ads, with Dave Thomas seemingly inventing new menu items every week. This particular item, the Wendy's Chicken Cordon Bleu sandwich must have seemed like the height of luxury at the time. Fried chicken, salty ham, elegant Swiss cheese, and exotic dijon mustard? The perfect meal for the high schooler who fancies himself a very refined fast-food consumer.

    0:09:05: Perhaps the best and most artifact-y moment on this entire compilation, Lily Tomlin narrates an ad for Microsoft Encarta, the CD-ROM (!) encyclopedia that came packaged with many personal computers in the mid-'90s. The whole world at your fingertips on a slim CD-ROM — the information revolution was here.

    0:13:10: Another great example of the way that MTV owned pop culture in the '90s is this ad for their upcoming week of Michael Jackson programming, featuring music video marathons, a world-premiere concert film, a music-video countdown from [pulls collar] Neverland Ranch, Moonwalker, all leading up to the premiere of the Michael and Janet Jackson video for "Scream," one of the most highly anticipated music videos of all time. It's impossible to catalog just how many elements of this feel utterly foreign today, and the deification of Michael Jackson is merely one of them. For one thing, a week of block content is something we let the internet do these days, not TV. For another, new music (and new music videos) no longer get week-long ramp-ups to their premiere; now they just sneak-attack premiere at midnight on a weekday. But moreover, this was the kind of thing MTV could do that few other networks could, which is to dictate how you were going to be spending your weekend. Next week is Michael Jackson week. The weekend after that it's a Real World marathon. The weekend after that it's MTV Spring Break. Even if you weren't glued to the tube all weekend, that was the cultural event happening in the background.

    0:16:40: The first in a series of targeted advertisements for the Alicia Silverstone movie Clueless. There were few movies more targeted to the MTV demographic than Clueless, in part because Silverstone had established herself so prominently as the Music Video Girl in a trio of Aerosmith videos, back when — and, youngsters, you'll have to trust me on this — Aerosmith was the most visible and therefore important music act in America.

    0:20:10: Oh hey! An early promo for the debut season of Road Rules, which will end up changing the game for The Real World, setting the pair of franchises on a long and winding road toward The Challenge.

    0:30:20: Talk about bygone nostalgia: this Best Buy ad for CDs tried to capture the indie-rock zeitgeist of the moment — with a Boston angle, for some reason. Authenticity was such a thing back then. (Also, CDs!)

    0:34:00: This clip compilation appropriately ends with the tiki god from the MTV Beach house advertising that night's programming (including Singled Out, the most horrifying document of heterosexuality in the '90s that has ever been made). The MTV Beach House was yet another way that MTV's cultural hub asserted itself in the '90s, a months-long destination for kids home from school who couldn't have fabulous fun times in the Malibu sand but could live vicariously through on-location episodes of The Grind. I miss this era of MTV.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: MTV, YouTube, The Real World, Road Rules