1988 Countdown: Commercial Break #3

MTV plays a promo for a Michael Jackson video debuting on New Year’s Day at 5 pm, 8pm, 9pm, and 10pm: “Leave Me Alone.” In the clips we see, Jackson rides a toy airplane and dances with the Elephant Man’s bones. A stack of newspapers has fake tabloid headlines (“Michael Weds Alien”). I believe in 1988 it was still possible to imagine a tabloid headline referring to Michael Jackson that did not call him “Jacko.”


“And cap off the week with Michael Jackson Sunday, including exclusive scenes from his brand-new home video Moonwalker,” the MTV voiceover guy says. Moonwalker was released theatrically overseas, but in the States, it went straight to video. Failures in spin: The “Leave Me Alone” video was clearly meant to be an ironic skewering of Jackson’s own image, letting us know he was in on the joke. But it has a hyper-defensive tone that starts with the title, and instead managed to cement the notion that something just wasn’t right. (Child-molestation charges against Jackson wouldn’t come until 1993.)


There’s a short ad for Rain Man, with images flashing by of cars and casinos and kisses. Somewhat incongruously, “Iko Iko” is playing in the background the whole time. Tom Cruise looks young and dewy–and has puffy ’80s hair. Dustin Hoffman looks like he’s working really hard for that Academy Award.

A new scene, of a woman tidying up a kitchen while dramatic synth music plays. Portentous voiceover: “How would you explain it? A woman in Wisconsin is doing the dishes when suddenly, she’s possessed by a terrifying feeling.” The woman gasps as the screen fades to white. Footage of a little girl playing with a ball against a white screen. “She’s positive that her young daughter has just been in an accident.” Back to the woman in the kitchen. “She quickly makes a desperate phone call, only to learn that her feeling was true.” A green phone receiver dangles against a mustard kitchen wall.

We are presented with more incidents: alien encounters all around the world, a man sees a blinding light on the hospital bed, four guys enter an Anglo-Saxon fort and one of them floats in the air for thirty seconds. “And how can you explain the growing number of people who feel that they’ve had a brush with something beyond our everyday understanding?” says the voiceover guy (who, incidentally, is of higher quality than MTV’s voiceover guy). “Maybe no one can fully explain these things, but they can no longer be ignored. That’s why Time-Life takes a serious look into this world with a remarkable new series, Mysteries of the Unknown.”


Stock photos: Stonehenge, crop circles, the pyramids. Then some of the volumes in the series: Psychic Powers, Mystic Places, The UFO Phenomenon. This is a very long commercial. The commercial ends with the Wisconsin woman hugging her unharmed daughter–dramatic catharsis in just 120 seconds!–and then info on how you can order the first volume (and sign up for a subscription) for just $12.99 plus shipping and handling.

According to Wikipedia, Mysteries of the Unknown became the most successful series ever for Time-Life Books, with 33 separate volumes. Four years later, Chris Carter would repackage this free-floating belief in the paranormal (and government plots) into The X-Files. In a coincidence as yet unexplored by conspiracy theorists, the debut of The X-Files and the first civil lawsuit that charged child abuse by Michael Jackson would come within a week of each other, in September 1993.

posted 10 June 2008 in 1988 and tagged , , , , , , , . 2 comments

2 Comments on 1988 Countdown: Commercial Break #3

  1. Willdav713 Says:

    Is there any way you can post that Time Life Mysteries of the Unknown commercial online? I have the full version but the woman and wisconsin part was recorded over.

    Let me know, thanks.

  2. Gavin Says:

    “Willdav713,” I don’t currently have a setup where I can easily post excerpts from these videos online. If I ever do, I’ll let you know, of course.

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