A few months into the pandemic, Marco Garcia had too much time on his hands and a quarter-century-long itch that he badly needed to scratch. “This was something that had come up so many times over the years,” Garcia, a tech employee in Boston, says. “It was the subject of many drunken discussions amongst friends.”
Like a fair amount of American millennials who grew up watching daytime Nickelodeon, Garcia had a distinct infatuation with a particular commercial. It’s not like he had any real interest in commercials at large, he says; he wasn’t also going around quoting the Muzzy or Pure Moods spots or anything like that. But there was just something about this ad that caused it to be lodged into his brain and constantly referenced around various forms of company—sometimes yielding results that surprised even him. The 35-year-old Garcia remembers a time from his childhood when his family was at his rabbi’s house for a Sabbath lunch, and his mention of the ad got a reaction from the rabbi, who somehow knew it as well. “I was like, ‘This is proof that this commercial cannot skip past anyone’s radar,’” Garcia says.
The brain-burrowing commercial at hand begins in media res: A couple, disheveled and sweaty, in the kitchen, are in the middle of a conversation about how hot it is. “I cannot live another day without air conditioning,” the woman says, fanning herself with the open freezer door. The man, framed in a brutal Dutch angle, looking at his morning paper, replies with a casual weather forecast. “Says tomorrow’s gonna be hotter.”
“Hotter?” the woman groans.
“Like yesterday,” he says, matter of fact.
“Yesterday? Yesterday you said you’d call Sears,” she reminds him, pulling the paper down.
“I’ll call today,” he replies, looking to move on. But the woman has heard this one before.
“You’ll call now,” she says, lovingly, in a way that betrays the fact that this is not a choice for him.
A quick beat—a moment of consideration from the man in which the whole relationship seems to flash before his eyes, as he bobs his head from side to side. He smiles wryly and almost whispers his next three words, the tone outwardly playful but perhaps distinctly pained on some deep, interior level. “I’ll call now.”
At the end of the ad—after about 40 seconds of cheerful narration explaining the benefits of a Sears-installed Kenmore unit—they reappear in an air-conditioned oasis, looking and feeling good. “So what’s the paper say about tomorrow?” the woman asks, about to enjoy a climate-controlled strawberry. “Another scorcher!” he tells her, and she almost looks straight back to the camera for her punny reply: “Cool.”
In November 2020, Garcia decided to do what he had talked about with his friends many times: track down the couple from the Sears AC commercial. “Some have taken up sourdough bread baking, online degrees, and a slew of other more ‘meaningful’ activities, as a way of coping with the pandemic lockdown restrictions,” Garcia wrote in his post on the Commercials subreddit. “Say what you will, but this is what I’ve chosen to take on.” The post, titled “Actors names from 90s Sears Home Air Conditioning Commercial (I’ll Call Now!),” garnered only a handful of upvotes and comments. But one of them was from someone named Monica Zaffarano: “Here I am! This has been hysterical to see this unearthed! You’ll watch now!” she wrote, adding a few smiley-face emoji.
I found myself on this post recently because, I, too, had the same compulsion as Garcia to learn more about the commercial. In the summer of 2020, I had even gone so far as to reach out to Sears’ corporate office—or what was left of it after the company filed for bankruptcy in 2018—and got no response. I also reached out to the current iterations of the two longtime advertising agencies for Sears—Ogilvy & Mather and Young & Rubicam—with no luck. But I couldn’t let it go.
The commercial was a living meme in the pre-digital era, as I remember it—a script that a certain type of person felt compelled to recite whenever it was hot out—and it became an internet meme almost immediately when YouTube started. And yet, unlike most early-era internet memes, this one has had true staying power. Every year, it blows back up in Reddit posts on places like /r/nostalgia—and lately it’s been utilized in videos with a TikTok-style sense of humor, too, with re-creation and response videos that only further support this ad as some odd force of nature. With the assist from Garcia, I decided to scratch the same itch.
“It’s still really hard for me to understand how this thing went so viral,” Zaffarano, the actress in the commercial, tells me. “It didn’t strike me as any different than any other commercial that I had done as an actor, quite frankly.”
Zaffarano lives in Los Angeles and runs a production company—working behind the scenes to put together the types of commercials and photo shoots that she used to star in. Back in the ’90s, she was a busy model, actress, and musician, capitalizing on a resemblance to Julia Roberts and Andie MacDowell, who were at that point hugely in demand, to get all kinds of work. She spent a few years in Europe, pursuing modeling and music (here she is miming the bongos as part of Shari Belafonte’s TV performance band), and eventually made it back to the U.S., where she did commercial and acting gigs of all kinds (here she is riding a horse in a music video for the Buffalo Club). The work was steady, and she never had the need for a side hustle to make ends meet. “It was a marketable thing, whatever I seemed to have back then,” Zaffarano says.
She had no idea about the enduring life of the Sears ad until a few years ago, when her daughter, Emma, a millennial, showed her a few posts online, including Garcia’s plea into the digital night. This was appropriate, since, in the spring of 1995, when the Sears commercial was made, Zaffarano was living in Chicago and had just recently found out that she was pregnant with Emma.
“When they cast me for Sears, I hadn’t popped,” she explains. “I was still wearing my regular old clothes. And then whenever we got to production, which was weeks later, is when I realized, ‘Oh, I can’t really hide it.’” The only person she told on the shoot was the wardrobe stylist, who advised Zaffarano to keep the detail between them, and suggested she just carry a dish towel to help hide the baby bump. (You can see the Towel Technique during the narration part of the minute-long ad, as the man gives her a thumbs-up while on the phone, since he did, in fact, call now.) The daylong shoot went off without a hitch.
Gus Buktenica, the actor opposite Zaffarano that day, was similarly unaware of the commercial’s second life until a niece tipped him a few years ago, sending him down a rabbit hole of comment sections. Some of those commenters, he’d notice, loved to pile on him and his character. “It’s like, ‘What did I do?’” he says with a laugh. “‘I’m just doing a commercial here!’ But I wasn’t hurt by it—it was amusing.”
In the mid-’90s, Buktenica, who is still a full-time actor, was particularly busy with commercial work. He drove a limo about once a week “just to hang on” to the gig, but he had a few national commercial spots that paid well, like a Mr. Clean ad, which he says was the most lucrative one he ever got. “I saw half of that once at the gym,” he remembers, explaining that he didn’t have cable at the time and would rarely catch his ads in the wild. “It wasn’t like this one, you know. I guess they just played the absolute shit out of this one.”
Buktenica is a little hazy on the details of the Sears shoot, but he thinks he remembers it being filmed on a somewhat cloudy and rainy day. Definitely not a scorcher. And one thing he remembers for sure: Despite ending up as likely one of the most viewed ads of all time, it was a low-budget affair, and was actually filmed at the director’s house in the suburbs of Chicago.
“Is this a prank?” says Joe Scudiero, the director of the ad, when I get him on the phone. “Am I on some prank thing? Out of all the commercials that we’ve done …”
Scudiero is a known entity in the Chicago advertising world, and this actually wasn’t his first time going viral. He was originally an editor, but in the early ’90s, he decided to shoot some film on a lark; he grabbed his cousin and asked him to do a dance against a brick wall as the hum of the city buzzed by. “I always loved the concept of 2-D,” Scudiero explains. “A wall, a person, and the camera.” Scudiero brought the film to an ad agency he was working with, and soon it was used in a commercial for a radio station, The Loop. Known as “Joey Bag O’ Donuts,” the ad was a word-of-mouth sensation. (“People call the radio station just to find out when the TV spot will air so they can videotape it for friends,” the L.A. Times reported in 1993.) Scudiero’s career as a commercial director took off from there.
As for how he got this job, Scudiero, in his thick Chicago accent, jumps right in: “I was in a dice game, right, with Dave Ward, the producer. He lost, and he goes, ‘Joey, how can I pay you?’” OK, what really happened was that Ward, a producer at A. Eicoff & Company, an ad agency, called him up and explained that they had this gig that they needed to turn around quickly, and that the budget was tight. “Can you do it?” Ward asked him.
To keep the production on budget, Scudiero decided to shoot at his place. “They showed me the boards and it felt simple enough—I didn’t need a big location,” he says. “I just needed a couple to be sitting at a kitchen.” From preproduction to post, it all went as well as you could ever hope—with the exception that everything in Scudiero’s freezer went bad over the course of the filming. (For sound reasons, the refrigerator was unplugged, and with Zaffarano doing her lines with the freezer door open, the food didn’t stand a chance.) “That was the first time and the last time we’ll ever shoot in my home,” Scudiero says. “My wife almost killed me.”
A quote you’ll often come across in the advertising world, which is attributed to retail giant John Wanamaker, is: “Half my advertising spend is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” Particularly in the pre-digital era, the major players, like David Ogilvy and his firm Ogilvy & Mather, were as much selling confidence as they were results. At Eicoff, however, Wanamaker’s lament would never have applied.
Founded in 1959 by Alvin Eicoff, the agency specializes in—and in many ways trail-blazed—direct-response advertising. Unlike traditional advertising, which hopes to win your business through passive coercion, direct-response advertising is pushing an actionable item: send your check here, call this number, click this link. (Eicoff, a highly memed company, is responsible for spots like Wilford Brimley’s “diabeetus” Liberty Medical campaign and Sally Struthers’s Save the Children campaign.) When creating these ads, there is little argument to be made for artistry, and that is because in terms of results, there is no ambiguity. Either the ad is effective or it is not—and if it isn’t, they won’t hesitate to take it down and try something different. “We always were sort of envious of Ogilvy, because it was hard to track,” says Ward, the producer of the Sears ad, who worked at Eicoff for decades before recently retiring.
Sears, the largest retailer in the country through the 1980s, was still a major marketing force in the ’90s, but not every ad campaign received the same focus and resources. Ogilvy or Y&R would get the more traditional television commercial assignments, which would take considerable time and money to make. Something like the 1995 AC commercial, however—a direct-response ad solely intended to instigate calls—would go to Eicoff, which was purchased by Ogilvy in 1981 and still operates under Ogilvy’s larger media umbrella. Ward estimates that, while an Ogilvy-produced Sears ad of the time would have “easily” cost $500,000, this AC spot probably cost more like $100,000. “You can’t make that go that far, really,” he said.
“I remember you had to get a lot of information into a short period of time—just a couple of seconds,” says Judy Rohner, who wrote the Sears AC commercial. “And so you had to get a lot of copy points in and usually had to be as literal as possible to accomplish all that. The husband and wife sitting around the table—and it’s hot and they don’t have air conditioning, and they’re kind of complaining to each other—just seemed kind of funny.”
Rohner joined Eicoff in 1989 as a copywriter, and then rose up the ranks to become a vice president before retiring in 2007. She now lives in Asheville, North Carolina, and had no idea that her ad was a meme. By her estimation, that spot was written perhaps as quickly as overnight—and was really just another assignment.
“It would make sense that you would have seen it in your childhood on Nickelodeon and afternoon TV,” she tells me, “because that’s how Eicoff placed media. They didn’t buy prime time on the major networks—they bought individual slots of media on cheap channels in the afternoon. And it was just a part of the philosophy there that when you wanted people to pick up the phone and call about something, you shouldn’t be on any show that they’re really engaged in. You would want to be on cheap TV, where people are half-interested.”
Beyond the fact that it was cheap ad time, the reason the commercial was pushed so hard on networks like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network for a good number of years was because they were targeting parents who might have been home while their kids were watching Rugrats or Dexter’s Laboratory—and who were disengaged enough with the programming to potentially make a call. “The fact that you saw it over and over again meant that it was working,” Rohner explains. (One lesson from David Ogilvy in his 1983 book, Ogilvy on Advertising: “If you are lucky enough to write a good advertisement, repeat it until it stops selling. … You aren’t advertising to a standing army; you are advertising to a moving parade.”)
Brian Kelly, an Ogilvy vet who was also a marketing vice president at Sears during the ’90s, sees this ad as a likely extension of a prominent campaign he helped create around the same time, known as the Softer Side of Sears, which targeted women. “What had happened [in the ’90s],” Kelly says, “was that women were really running the American family—women were what I call the chief financial officer. And as the chief financial officer of the home, we needed to build a dedicated relationship with her, because she was the one that was really going into these mall-based stores and buying appliances.” The campaign was a success, “[spurring] sales” according to the L.A. Times, and can reasonably be credited with partially manufacturing the last successful years of Sears, which would soon go out in a ball of mismanagement flames in the 21st century. (There are a handful of remaining Sears stores, but the former juggernaut is all but dead.)
Sears’ successful campaign aside, the advertising world at that point was still struggling to figure out how to effectively market to women. Jean Kilbourne, the filmmaker and activist behind the Killing Us Softly film series about depictions of women in advertising, explains that in the ’80s, ad firms were clumsily trying to market to women in the workforce and mothers at home by using an all-in-one “Superwoman” character: “The one who was a brain surgeon, but she was actually at home making cereal in the ad,” Kilbourne says. “Somehow, you’re supposed to do it all.”
This have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach could somewhat explain one enduring element of the Sears AC ad, which is the ongoing debate of who, really, was controlling whom during that kitchen standoff. Many commenters seem to read a patriarchal dynamic at play, since the woman is deferring to the man to make the decision and call himself. (“Why couldn’t she call tho?” is a pretty typical comment on these threads.) But some see the woman as being discreetly in charge of the situation, not taking “I’ll deal with it later” for an answer.
“I do think there was something in itself a little bit modern,” Kilbourne says of her reading of the gender dynamics in the ad. “In a way, she has a little more power than women often have had in ads with men. So I guess that is a slightly more modern—modern in terms of the ’90s—twist on a dynamic where a woman wouldn’t be brazen as to say ‘Do it now.’” (Still, that’s not to mean that the Sears ad is to be interpreted as some covertly feminist gesture, even in the most generous reading. “There’s always been a tendency on the part of advertisers—and actually on the part of capitalism in general—to co-opt any kind of movements for social change,” Kilbourne reminds.)
When I first asked Judy Rohner what she had been going for in the gender dynamics of the ad, she said she didn’t specifically remember. It was 27 years ago, after all. But the day after we talked, she sent me a text, telling me that she watched the ad a few more times, and had some thoughts about why it was so effective, particularly to a child of the ’90s like me: “Of course, it just ran over and over,” she wrote. “It’s also pretty tightly written, has a fast rhythm, and the couple is cute. Yeah, the woman should have called herself—this was the ’90s, not the ’50s. But it’s always fun watching two people who really do like each other argue—whether it’s the Honeymooners or Nick and Nora or a silly Sears ‘call now’ commercial.”
When the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in 1976, he explained the broad concept—that certain cultural traits, like fashion or slang, go through a form of natural selection that mirrors the way biology goes through evolution—using the metaphor of a virus. “So when anybody talks about something going viral on the internet,” he told Wired in 2013, “that is exactly what a meme is.”
The best way I could explain myself to Joe Scudiero, as he was wondering whether I was pranking him with my call, was that his commercial had infected my brain. (“In a good way!” I assured him, as he apologized.) What was so amusing to me about the Sears ad was something he seemingly couldn’t totally wrap his head around—but he did understand how these things happen. Scudiero brought up an old commercial for a towing company called Victory Auto Wreckers that used to air all the time in his native Chicago, which has its own cult following. “It’s just embedded in your brain,” he says. “I know what you’re talking about.”
When I later looked up the Victory Auto commercial for myself on YouTube, I found a mass of comments similar to what you would find on a rip of the Sears ad. The commercial’s fans were driven by a compulsion based on some kind of shared cocktail of mundane nostalgia and low-budget absurdity specific to a tribe of people, and through that, all found themselves joyfully in the same strange corner of the internet. To me, though, the ad meant nothing.
“The way that memes are most effective, where they are easily shared, is they have to be complex,” says Shane Tilton, a professor of multimedia journalism at Ohio Northern University. “And they have to resonate. So there has to be some layers to them.”
Tilton says there are certain psychological principles that help explain why memes catch on, such as exposure theory—the idea that mere repetitive exposure breeds positive association. He also explains that the more positive experiences you have surrounding a piece of media—like, for instance, watching an ad during the carefree days of being a kid in summer—the more likely you are to remember it. But ultimately, nobody can really explain why people like Marco Garcia and I feel keenly attached to this ridiculous commercial. “There’s so many variations [to the formula of why memes succeed],” he says. “It just happens. Things get popular because it gets popular.”
Soon after I reached out to Zaffarano and Buktenica, I received an email from Zaffarano titled “Reunited and it feels so good.” Inside was a picture of the two of them, enjoying another scorcher together in Los Angeles—their first time seeing each other since being in Joe Scudiero’s kitchen in 1995. “It was like picking up like yesterday, to be honest,” Zaffarano tells me later. “He’s my friend.”
Garcia is excited to see what will happen next in the ongoing life of the Sears AC commercial now that things are coming full circle; perhaps a return to the acting world is in store for Zaffarano, he says, and “maybe Gus will get the role of a lifetime—a Breaking Bad–esque type role.” But for the time being, this picture of the two of them back together is enough—this new thread of the meme that he very much manifested himself: “It’s a strange dream come true.”
Nate Rogers is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, GQ, and elsewhere.