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RadioShack’s Super Bowl Ad Revels in an Uncomfortable Truth: It’s a 1980s Throwback

4 minute read

I don’t like football and am usually immune to the charms of Super Bowl commercials. So I caught up with RadioShack’s spot — which you can watch in the player above — only after the game was over, online.

It’s a funny, self-effacing ad, which confronts the electronics retailer’s reputation for being somewhat less than cutting-edge by depicting Kid and Play, John Ratzenberger as Cheers‘ Cliff Clavin, 1984 Olympics darling Mary Lou Retton, Child’s Play‘s Chuckie, Hulk Hogan, ALF, Erik Estrada as Ponch from CHiPs, the California Raisins, Q*Bert and other icons of the 1980s ransacking a dowdy RadioShack of its VCRs, fax machines and boom boxes.

At the end, there’s a glimpse of a surprisingly spacious, modern RadioShack tastefully displaying sexy products from Samsung and Beats. Which seems to be more of a promise of good things to come than a claim that your nearby RadioShack is fully a creature of the 21st century. My local one looks more like the store looted by Cliff and Mary Lou than the dream store at the end of the commercial; it’s claustrophobic and a bit messy, qualities which most of the RadioShacks I’ve ever visited have shared. It also devotes a fair amount of its precious floor space to stuff like capacitors, which I have a hard time believing is a rational business decision in 2014.

Rummaging around in the investor section of RadioShack.com, I learned that the company is losing money and is hopeful that new concept stores — presumably similar to the sleek one in the Super Bowl ad — will come to the rescue. That’s pretty much the latest chapter in a long-running saga. Back in 1992, for instance, the New York Times compared the chain to Sears Roebuck — which, then as now, is never a compliment. Then, in 1993, it reported that the company was looking for a new ad agency to help change consumers’ perceptions of its stores.

In other words, even when the 1980s were a recent memory, Radio Shack was already struggling with image problems. If they’ve festered for decades — and they have — it’s unlikely that a clever TV commercial and store remodelings will turn things around in a jiffy.

Still, this new campaign avoids the lameness of the company’s attempt, in 2009, to get us to call it “The Shack.” (A similar lack of comfort with its own moniker led it to compress “Radio Shack” into one word in 1995.) And I’d love to see this venerable institution thrive. The computer that introduced me to computers, back in 1978, was its TRS-80. I used to actively look forward to the publication of the annual Radio Shack catalog. Like many Americans of a certain age, I’m also a former card-carrying member of the Radio Shack Battery Club.

That’s the firm’s dilemma in a nutshell: The fact that you evoke warm, nostalgic feelings is not a plus when you’re trying to sell the latest in consumer electronics. The Super Bowl commercial is a logical attempt to confront this uncomfortable truth head-on — but we’ll know that RadioShack has entered a new era when stepping into a typical store no longer feels like entering a Wayback Machine.

For no particular reason other than that they’re loads of fun, let’s end this with some vintage Radio Shack commercials. Here’s Peter Nero on behalf of portable tape recorders:

Half-price 8-track tape players:

The not-that-well-remembered Color Computer 2:

$2495 cell phones in 1987, when that was apparently a bargain:

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