Although it may seem that way in retrospect, Y2K was not an entirely made-up crisis. Despite the multi-billion-dollar efforts of engineers around the world, some technological issues did arise on January 1, 2000, including a handful of very scary nuclear power-plant glitches in Japan. (On a less life-or-death note, the slot machines at three Delaware race tracks shut down for a couple of days.)
But the actual scope of the problem wasn’t nearly as bad as techno-paranoiacs and doomsday prophets—and, it should be noted, the American government itself—made it out to be. Like all good conspiracy theories, Y2K was based on a tiny nugget of truth, namely that early computer programmers’ habit of only using the last two digits of a year (i.e. “77" instead of 1977) to save space was going to make things complicated once the year flipped over to 2000. Use that nugget to tap into deep distrust of institutions of power in general, combine it with evangelical Christians’ barely-suppressed longing for the apocalypse, and you’ve got a whole industry of products like the “Y2K survival kit” up above, sold mostly in late-night infomercials on religious cable channels.
Meanwhile, in the mainstream, celebrities like Leonard Nimoy and Robert Stack lent the whole thing legitimacy by hosting Y2K preparedness videos. (Bill Nye’s for Microsoft was a bit more measured, focusing solely on how to update your PC for the year 2000.) That legitimacy was further reinforced by local news reports like this one from December 28, 1999, featuring a sweet elderly couple stocking up on crackers, water, and cat food just in case. NBC got in on Y2K fever with a made-for-TV movie called—what else?—Y2K, which aired on November 21, 1999 and is surprisingly one of only two feature films about the “Y2K crisis” to be released that year.
And so it wasn’t just preppers stocking up on freeze-dried soups who soothed their Y2K anxiety with their wallets. Advertisers, perhaps concerned that consumers would soon lose access to their bank accounts and therefore must have them emptied as quickly as possible, were eager to cash in on this trendy paranoia, sometimes mocking it and stoking it in the same 30-second spot.
Apple was quite smug about its products’ built-in Y2K compliance, and the commercial that the company aired during Super Bowl XXXIII in January 1999 reflects that.
Nike’s message to potential buyers: You’re not one of these weak scaredy-cats freaking out about nuclear missiles firing at random. You’re an athlete, baby, and your peak physical conditioning will give you an edge in the post-apocalypse. And you know what, Nike? Fair enough.
Milk is indeed analog, and therefore unaffected by Y2K, as this installment into the famous series of ’90s “Got Milk?” commercials asserts.
We’re not really sure what Motel 6 is promising in this radio ad from 1999. Is it implying that the inside of a Motel 6 will be the one place unaffected by Y2K? Or simply that its cheap rooms would make a good hiding place to wait out the chaos? Either way, if the cable’s out, we’re not interested.
Polaroid’s Y2K ad takes a similar tack to Nike’s in that it’s all about flattering the viewer. This guy is smart enough to take a photo of his bank balance right before the crisis hits, and is rewarded with—to quote the Monopoly card—a bank error in his favor. You’re like this guy, right? A savvy survivor who can turn even the most dire circumstance into a money-making opportunity? Buy Polaroid.
Trojan Condom’s response to Y2K is nothing if not practical. We’ve all got enough problems, make sure you’re not getting a millennial bug of your own, you dig?
But perhaps our favorite Y2K advertising tie-in is this commercial for Toho’s Godzilla 2000, whose shoehorned-in approach has the pandering feel of a touring comedian working a local reference into their set. Anything to wash the 1998 Godzilla from the world’s collective consciousness, we suppose.