Every day we, as consumers, are bombarded with messages which are both subtle and direct. Everywhere there is somebody selling a product or offering a service. Their job is to convince us that we need or want a certain product or service. Slogans, celebrity endorsements, catchy jingles, comedic commercials or groundbreaking messages are all meant to make a company’s product/service stand out so we notice it and want it. For instance, we all know when a can of beer is opened girls in bikinis don’t come running out of the woods while our buddies fly by on assorted watercrafts (all to the background music of some late 80s hair band). We also don’t question how Tide can be ‘new’ and ‘improved’ at the same time. Nor do we care that making a taco shell out of Doritos doesn’t really add that much more enjoyment to the taco experience.
Commercials and ad campaigns are meant to show off something which, in turn, makes us part with our money to attain whatever service or product the company is offering. There have been some absolutely terrible commercials and ads over the years, yet, there have also been some very successful and long-running campaigns. Some campaigns, like some on this list, were launched when we were children, or not even born yet and they continue to this day. Others single-handedly turned around the fortunes of a company, making them into a household name everyone knows. Many have become rooted in popular culture either because of a catchy slogan, memorable ad or host of parodies and memes which have come about over the years.
The following list looks at 10 of the best-ever commercials and ad campaigns. Some of these date back to the 1940s, while many have their beginnings in the 1980s and 1990s. There is a wide diversity of products and services on offer here. Food, transportation, recreation and financial services are all covered. In comparison to today’s ads and commercials, many of the following techniques and approaches may seem rather basic or inappropriate, but they did work, helping each company become a powerhouse in its respective market and our homes.
Honorable Mention: The Marlboro Man
If you want to make a product successful by associating it with a lifestyle, look no further than what Marlboro did in the 1950s. Filtered cigarettes were generally marketed for women and Marlboro were looking for a way to get men ‘hooked.’ The answer came when an advertiser used a picture of a cowboy. Cowboys look masculine, do masculine things and live a life perceived by many to be free and without boundaries. All of this was associated with Marlboro cigarettes and sales took off. Fifty years on, many of the Marlboro men have died from lung cancer and social awareness on the harms of smoking have made this campaign a thing of the past in most of the world.
10. Where’s the Beef?
During the ‘burger wars’ of the 1980s, McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s all entered into a fierce marketing campaign to grab a bigger portion of the fast food market. Each company advertised its burgers as the best for a variety of reasons. Wendy’s chose to attack the competition between the buns. While McDonald’s and Burger King had large burgers, Wendy’s focused on the fact its burger wasn’t mainly bun with a little meat. Clara Peller became the face of the campaign and always queried “where’s the beef?” when faced with the competitor’s product. Running for over a year, the slogan became a catchphrase for many in reference to more than just hamburgers. It was even used by Walter Mondale in the 1984 Presidential elections.
9. Absolut _______
By the early 1980s, North Americans consumed approximately 40 million cases of vodka per year. Of this, Absolut, a Swedish vodka producer, held a tiny 2.5% share of the import market. Enter New York-based advertising firm TBWA. TBWA took the very plain and simple Absolut bottle and used it in a 25-year-long advertising campaign which saw 1500 separate ads produced. Ads used the bottle or its shape to represent a variety of iconic buildings, events or activities. For instance, one ad titled ‘Absolut Time’ had two bottles joined at the spout to look like an hour-glass. Absolut became hip and modern and it showed in sales figures. By the early 2000s the US imported 4.5 million bottles of Absolut – around half of all imported vodka.
8. Tastes Great, Less Filling
In the mid-1970s, beer-maker Miller was looking for a way to market a new beer to men. Miller Lite was, as its name suggests, a beer which had fewer calories and less alcohol. Men could drink more of it and Miller could make a lot of money – a win-win for everyone. The main problem Miller had was in figuring out how to market its beer to a consumer who either didn’t care about less calories and alcohol or thought lite beers tasted weak. The answer was an ad campaign which used a variety of sports and movie stars to ‘prove’ how masculine and great Miller’s beer was. The ad campaign worked and Miller Lite production nearly quadrupled by the 1980s.
7. Think Small
German car manufacturer Volkswagen has produced many memorable ad campaigns over the years. More recently you can probably recall the “Drivers Wanted,” “Autobahn for All,’ and “Das Auto” ads. Volkswagen has never been one of the ‘biggest’ car manufacturers and this was never more true than in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the 15 years after World War Two, VW was popular in Europe but needed to break into North America, a society dominated by large American manufactured cars. VWs were foreign, small and some people continued to associate them with the Nazis. Despite this, advertisers focused on what VW cars were and made no false claims or exaggerations. Minimalist advertisements showed the car and nothing else. The campaign was a success and set the benchmark for future advertising.
6. A Diamond is Forever
This slogan has been around since 1947 and had a noticeable impact on society over the years. Strange as it may seem, proposing with a diamond ring was not always the norm. Diamonds were not always readily available. This changed in the early to mid-20th century and the company DeBeers sought to capitalize. The challenge was to market the diamond as a necessity for more than just the rich or collectors. DeBeers’ slogan, “A Diamond is Forever” successfully associated the diamond with love, religion, commitment and marriage. Simple and effective ads associated newly engaged or married couples with DeBeers diamonds. The campaign can be considered a success as DeBeers pulls in over $6 billion a year in sales and couples everywhere begin their road to marriage with a diamond.
5. Got Milk?
This ad campaign not only increased milk sales but spawned an endless number of ‘Got___?” parodies. In 1993 the California Milk Processor Board chose to advertise milk in an effort to ward off the challenges posed by the emerging fruit, energy and carbonated drinks market. The purpose was not to sell milk to a new market, but to consolidate the market and ensure milk drinkers drank more and were aware of milk’s benefits. The campaign proved to be a huge success and was taken nationally in 1995. In addition to using celebrities in their ads, the Got Milk? campaign also saw its slogan licensed for use on merchandise as well as parodied across the world.
4. (Have You Had / You Deserve) a Break Today
Ok, McDonalds has had a number of memorable and effective commercials and ad campaigns over the years. Currently, the “I’m Lovin’ It” is one of the most successful. However, before the Justin Timberlake infused melody was attached to this fast food giant’s ads, there were other well know campaigns. Perhaps the best known, and very successful, was the ‘You Deserve a Break Today’ ads of the 1970s and 1980s. The commercials were full of dancing and singing and, in comparison to today’s marketing, somewhat crude – but they worked because the jingle got into everyone’s heads and stayed there. In the 1990s, the slogan was revamped to ‘Have you had your break today?’
3. Don’t Leave Home Without It
This slogan dates back to 1975 when American Express tried to emphasis to the consumer that its credit cards and traveler’s checks were a necessity for anyone who travelled. Over the years, other aspects were included, such as dining out or purchasing goods. The emphasis was that American Express was ‘the’ credit card to have and would never leave you stranded no matter where you were. As with most ad and commercial campaigns, American Express turned to celebrities to endorse their products and give them a boost over the competition. Celebrities have included Roger Daltrey, Karl Malden and Jim Henson.
Mastercard provides us with our second credit card company on this list. In 1997, people watched an ad on television where a father went to a baseball game with his son. During the ad, the cost of various purchases at the game were listed and tallied leading up to a ‘priceless’ moment. The message is that Mastercard can pay for almost everything and help bring about or set the stage for a ‘priceless’ moment. What most of us find priceless today is that the two popcorns, hotdogs and drinks at a Major League park only cost the father $18. In any event, the ad campaign has since been successful and spawned many parodies and internet memes.
1. Just Do It
It’s hard to think that at one time Nike wasn’t a massive and all powerful sports apparel giant. That time did exist, however. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the American company was batting second to rival Reebok. Nike targeted the elite athlete and marathon runner while Reebok targeted a much broader population. Nike executives wanted a bigger share of the market so they brought in a marketing team and came up with the ‘Just Do It’ slogan. The athletic and un-athletic were targeted by Nike who made their shoes and clothing look cool whether you were running 5 miles or sitting on the couch eating Doritos. The slogan was short and catchy and further helped Nike attain a modern and sharp image. From 1988 to 1998 sales went from under $1 billion a year to over $9 billion.