Advertising pervades every part of everyday life, from radio, internet and television to print media, movie screens, park benches and the sides of city buses. While the majority of consumers damn the pictures and words that persuade us to spend money on the tiniest of purchases like gum and candy bars to major investments like vehicles, cruises and homes, defying the influence of creative marketing and promotion seems impossible.
Despite its monumental impact on a company or product’s success and profitability, there is no formula to developing a successful marketing campaign. The most successful ads of all time have had the most diverse themes possible, ranging from silly humor and biting satire to pathos so well executed even the toughest people are reduced to tears.
The product or service being peddled also seems to have little impact on how well the ads impact consumers or how memorable they are. Winners have included everything from car rental companies to hair coloring, beverages, fast food, brassieres – the diversity is astounding.
The only common thread in the most memorable and profitable advertising campaigns is cutting edge creativity. As the hit TV show Mad Men so accurately depicts, the turbulence of ’60s politics and social change dramatically altered the guidelines for marketing and promotion. During this era, the cloth of political and social correctness started to fray around the edges and playfulness and humor began infusing advertising. But as the economic and social strata of shoppers simultaneously blurred and created new customer profiles, finding the perfect angle to garner the largest market share became trickier to calculate.
This emerging rental car company rocked the print ad world with its, “We’re No. 2, we try harder,” campaign. Self-deprecation has always been popular with public speakers to soften up their audience and the tactic worked wonders for Avis. Pointing out that they had to be better than the number one company to gain market share and ending with the tag line, “The line at our counter is shorter,” Avis profits soared.
With the double entendres and suggestive language that pervades today’s advertising, it’s hard to believe the simple question about hair coloring, “Does she or doesn’t she?” caused such a fracas when it was written by female advertising pioneer Shirley Polykoff back in 1956. Life magazine refused to run the ad until Polykoff insisted they poll their female employees, who found it inoffensive. Within 6 years, 70 percent of all adult women were coloring their hair, and Clairol’s sales quadrupled. As a result, Polykoff was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 1967.
Miller Brewing Company thought their introduction of low calorie beer would revolutionize the beer market back in the ’70s but quickly learned that guys generally just had no interest in staying trim; many felt such vanity was sissified. To change that perception, Miller’s ad agency rounded up the brawniest, beefiest, most manly men they could find in the celebrity world and featured them in humorous settings repeating the phrase, “Tastes Great, Less Filling,” sales took off, and competitors started producing similar beers.
Absolut vodka was absolutely flummoxed as the ’80s decade approached. Although Americans were drinking about 40 million cases of vodka year, only 1 percent was imported and Absolut had a measly 2.5 percent of that 1 percent in sales. They decided to defy convention and launched an off-the-wall print campaign that featured their bottles in hundreds of different scenarios that reflected everything from pop culture to world events, holiday seasons, space exploration, favorite pastimes – just to name a few. Each ad was heavy on visuals and light on text, with many versions simply stating, “Absolut ________” with a keyword following the brand name. The creative promotion was so successful that Absolut now sells about half the US’s imported vodka.
Since the Volkswagen Beetle made its transition from the European market to America about the same time US families started growing in size, the tiny car had a rough time appealing to consumers who were snapping up station wagons to haul their kids around. Instead of trying to psychoanalyze their target audience, VW took a simple, slightly humorous approach that gently poked fun at the country’s urge to “go big” in every aspect of life. The VW Beetle was centered in a photo with a plain background with two words printed underneath: Think Small. Sales soared and the ad became one of the most famous and successful in advertising history.
Coca-Cola seems ubiquitous but the brand didn’t achieve that stature without constantly reinventing itself and trying to one-up its competition. One of Coke’s most successful ads, which earned the coveted 1979 CLIO award for advertising. Instead of pushing the image of world unity and peace through soft drink consumption that the company was so famous for, this ad had only two characters, a young boy and renowned NFL player “Mean” Joe Green. The kid timidly approaches an exhausted Green in the stadium tunnel after a game loss and offers him his Coke. Green initially rebuffs him but finally takes the Coke and chugs it. As the boy walks away, Green calls out to him, smiles, and pitches him his jersey. The kid beams and Green smiles, proving once again that the ads that tug at heart strings always succeed.
In a take-off of George Orwell’s iconoclastic book 1984, Apple’s most famous commercial of all time aired only once, during the 1984 Super Bowl, announcing the introduction of Macintosh. Depicted as the antidote to conformity, a woman interrupts a row of people marching in time as she carries a hammer and a picture of the yet unseen computer. She declares, “Our Unification of Thoughts is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth…We shall prevail!” followed by the tagline, “On January 24th, Apple Inc. will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” The ad was talked about for months…and the company continues to make technological history.
Just when people thought the Big Mac couldn’t be marketed in any more ways, McDonald’s made the double decker burger the prize in a 1993 basketball shoot-off between icons Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. The competition advances from simple court shots to shooting from the tops of city buildings. Bird and Jordan never miss a shot, accentuating the value each athlete put on the fast food reward.
Though many would deny that advertising campaigns were ever created by people under the influence of creative, mind-altering substances, the Budweiser frogs really make that hard to believe. Besides the fact that frogs and beer have absolutely no known connection, having three animated talking frogs croak the three syllables of Bud-Weis-Er turned out to be one of the beer company’s most memorable and award-winning promotions.
While humor is a reliable avenue for advertising success, sarcasm and irony can also work. Monster.com, a worldwide job posting site, pushed the proverbial envelope in 1999 with a commercial that hit home for millions of consumers. Children in the ad were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up but instead of giving the usual and expected responses of fireman, nurse, doctor, teacher, etc., their disheartening responses echoed despair and bleak realism: “I want to file papers!” “When I grow up, I want to be a yes man!” and “I want to be underappreciated and underpaid.” Dark but effective.
Comic falls are big crowd pleasers whether they’re real or staged. Reebok capitalized on that guarantee with their award-winning 2003 ad featuring a huge professional football player whose sole purpose was to spot distracted office workers and physically tackle them to get them back on task. “Terrible” Terry Tate, Office Linebacker, appeared in nine different Reebok ads between 2002 and 2004.
One of the most amusing, unforgettable and mimicked ads was unveiled by Federal Express in 1982. “Fast Talker” John Moschitta, Jr. played Mr. Spleen, a harried business executive who simultaneously ate lunch, hired an employee, conducted a board meeting, and consummated a business deal on the telephone speaking at a rate of more than 450 words a minute. The voiceover at the end lamented the pressures of a crazily fast-paced business world and the ad ended with FedEx’s historic tagline unveiled in 1979, “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”
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