Pop Culture

A Trip through Vintage Butterball Commercials

November 24, 2016

Every week, I decide to take a gander at old commercials for discontinued foods. Advertising. It's fascinating! But the stakes are higher this week, because, in case you missed it, it’s Thanksgiving tomorrow. Did you know this? In case you missed it, it’s about to be Thanksgiving.

The watchword here is “Thanksgiving,” and so my editor Kenzi proposed a rather ingenious idea: why not find old Thanksgiving commercials for this week's column? Enough to compose a whole Thanksgiving meal? "Kenzi—I love it," I said in our meeting. What a great gameplan. You know, spice things up a little. Give some flavor. Add some zest to the proceedings.

I’ve covered Cool Whip already, so we don’t need to revisit that. I was only able to find vintage commercials for Butterball Turkeys. No cranberry sauce; no green bean casseroles. Nothing. Huh! Some Thanksgiving meal that is!

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Good news is that there are quite a few old Butterball commercials roaming around YouTube. Butterball's been around since 1954, and they've been continuing to churn out some funny, sweet commercials apace for the past sixty-plus years—consider the "Turketarian," a bit of verbiage the company coined a few years back in its commercials. So I guess it’s as good a time as any to tackle some old Butterball commercials. I’d like to make this blog post sing a little, and so I’ve implemented a rating system to assess the merits of each commercial. (I'm afraid the highest rating I can afford any video is three turkeys, because, well, that's the maximum number of side-by-side images our site will let me upload. So you'll just have to deal.)


Ah, 1956. I like this one. It's comfortingly instructional—step-by-step, but never dry. It never speaks down to us. Not a huge fan of the curtain in the background; it takes away from the feeling that we're in this anonymous woman's home, and instead makes us hyper-aware of the fact that this commercial is all for show. Minus one for that. My grade? Two turkeys.


Raspberry! What a lovely shade to choose for a filter. This is great. Love how the jingle starts slow and steady before pumping up to a toe-tappin' little jig. There's even a little mystery the commercial manages to maintain at the end, with a band of shadow people. Three turkeys!


Hm...interesting. Some cosplay. I wasn't expecting this, but here we are. We've chanced upon some ghostly territory here with two Pilgrims apparating into the frame of a 1978 Thanksgiving dinner. I do wish the actors both pursued their roles with more abandon; as it stands, they seem to be smirking at the innate absurdity of the whole enterprise, as if winking from behind their costumes to reassure us that, no, they're not really Pilgrims. And that noncommittal approach to acting is why this baby has two turkeys.


Well look who we have here. The Pilgrims are at it again, this time to disturb the proceedings of another family. "Truly plump and juicy," the narrator describes this turkey as. Hm...would you describe your turkey as pleasantly plump? I've never thought of this. And that zinger at the end! "'Tis truly plump and juicy," spelled out in typeface for us. Aggressive! I'd say this is markedly better than its 1978 antecedent, because the two Pilgrim thesps are taking their roles more seriously. High marks.


I love Audrey Meadows, Alice of The Honeymooners. And I'd say her droll witticisms are a nice antidote to the inoffensively pleasant leanings of these Butterball commercials. I'm loving this tension between Meadows' no-bullshit demeanor and the fact that, well, she's selling a turkey to us. "Plump, juicy, tender"—when you hear these adjectives siphoned through her voice, what's not to love? This is by far the best commercial.


Hm...not sure about this one. It's very short, and its scope has a false sense of ambition: beginning in a bedroom, then a car, hopping across milieus before it finally lands at the dinner table. Everyone's talking about Marian and her first turkey. But why doesn't Marian speak a word? I'm not a fan of this silencing. Bad.


This one begins in medias res (yeah, I know my stuff), with some older family members worrying about the condition of the turkey itself. Dry turkeys. Such constant sources of anxiety! So color them pleasantly surprised when the turkey is a real Butterballin' beast! I would describe this commercial as neither "here nor there"; just over sixteen seconds, I'm afraid there's not much room for it to accomplish a lot.

...Oh my. I didn't mean to end on a bad note, but here we are.

Where does this leave us? I'm honestly not sure. Butterball commercials have been "all over the map," and though I began writing this with the expectation that I would've formed a take by the end...well, I'm sorry. I haven't. I guess you could say that their ads have changed a lot over the years. I'm sure those of you who've grown up with fond memories of Butterball turkeys remember some particularly rockin' commercials, so I implore you: Please let me know if this is true in the comments. And while we're at it, I'd love to know about your thoughts on Butterball turkeys in general, because why not?

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.

1 Comment

Lissa November 24, 2016
They sure took that one shot of cutting into it and ran with that for a good fifteen or so years, didn't they?