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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Generic Products of The '80s

 Generic products (not to be confused with store or house brand named products, although they are identical in quality) were a fad of the early 1980s. With stark packaging, listing little more than the product name, ingredients, nutritional information, manufacturer and UPC bar code.

The idea behind them was by eliminating the cost for logos, descriptive copy, and photos/illustrations on the packaging, the savings could be passed on to consumers. Even though much of these were stock images anyway and in reality bore little extra cost in the actual manufacturing process.

It's been said generic products were factory seconds and had little to no taste or nutritional value. That was pretty much false as generic products were often manufactured at the same processing plants as name brand items (even on the same lines!) and in any blindfolded test it was hard to tell the difference between say, a generic can of corn and a name brand one. And some even thought the generic packaged products tasted better.

First appearing in 1981, they reached their peak in 1983 and 1984. However, as I mentioned, the savings from printing on the labels was very small overall and many retail chains began repackaging their generic products under house/store brand names. They completely disappeared by 1988    

They were often in uniform aisles in the store, where every item was generic.

They looked like this.....
....but felt like this.
The rock group Public Image Ltd. famously spoofed the generic craze on their 1985 album, simply titled Album (for vinyl releases) Cassette (for cassette releases of Album) and Compact Disc (for CD releases of Album)

See also The Return of Generic Products


  1. Thanks for the great post. I vividly remember these products from the early 80s!

  2. I was a teenager when the generics first came out. A lot of people that I knew used to put these down quite a bit. My family was fairly low income so we bought them and it was a 50/50 split. Some things were good if not better than the name brands and some things were not. But we used the generics anyway. I think beer was the only thing nobody really liked. I usd to hear people compare it to "Billy" beer. LOL!

  3. I remember Staff brands. I grew up in the 80's and I remember my mother buying them. The packaging was very similar but they must have said "staff" on them for me to remember it so clearly.

  4. "... in any blindfolded test it was hard to tell the difference between say, a generic can of corn and a name brand one. And some even thought the generic packaged products tasted better."

    You gotta be kidding.

    I remember our family trying that generic stuff in the stark black on white packaging way back when and most of it was *noticeably* lower quality than brand name counterparts. (BTW: I think your dates are off on this one. We started buying generics like this when I was still living at home and in high school - and that would have been 1973 - 1976.) The boxed mac-n-cheese was just awful compared to Kraft - gritty, watery and... not much actual cheese flavor. Paper towels were thin and largely pointless. The ice cream was pretty flavorless. Etc. etc.

    I seem to recall when this concept was launched that there was a lot of flak from manufacturers, that although the products may have been made in the same plants, the generic versions had to be of a noticeably different - cough, cough lower - quality than their brand name counterparts. (There are only so many various type food processing plants around. And I'm sure the Big Brands, having contracts with those plants, could have easily placed pressure to make sure generics were not the same quality.) Based on what I remember of the products that sure seems closer to the truth as I can't recall a one of them that was as good as or better than a brand name, even a store brand name.

  5. I remember store brands in the 80's (Roundy's, etc...) and they didn't even have pictures on them. Unless you were buying something name brand, the packaging was pretty plain.

  6. Basics was horrible. The last item I bought was a can of beans, back when I was struggling financially. I took one bite, dumped it in the trash and never bought any again. Paying a higher price for food I could actually eat was much more cost effective.

  7. I'm gonna guess that depending on which items you bought you got better or worse quality. my mom only bought the least processed generic items canned fruit like pineapples, pasta, rice, etc...stuff that wouldn't have to be formulated and taste tested. so nothing instant like mac & cheese or something like baked beans. the items she picked were fine.

  8. I miss Fed mart and Smith's.

  9. The point of generics wasn't to save money on the packaging, it was to save money on advertising and promotional costs, of which there was none. They were marketed on price alone. No gimmicks. No slogans. No celebrity endorsements.That's why the generics cost so much less than the name brand products.

  10. With any generic or store brands, it's usually a gamble. Many store/generic brands are quite terrible while some are actually better than some of their name brand counterparts.


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