Famous commercials from the year you were born
Famous commercials from the year you were born
On April 30, 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation. That was nothing new—unless you were one of the few thousand lucky people who instead of listening on the radio, watched the event live on the world's first television broadcast, which took place at the New York World's Fair in Flushing Meadows Park. A little more than two years later in 1941, four years before RCA manufactured the first mass-produced TV, the handful of Americans who did own one were treated to their first commercial break.
Soon, millions of American households would welcome salespeople into their livings rooms via their televisions. In just two years between 1949 and 1951, TV ad spending grew more than tenfold from $12.3 million to $128 million, and then again multiplied nearly tenfold to $1 billion in 1955. By 1957, 450 stations were beamed to 37 million televisions from coast to coast and by the dawn of the 1960s, nine out of 10 American households were equipped with one of the bulky, glowing, furniture-encased boxes.
Today, the television ad business is a $70 billion industry, and some of the biggest stars in the world earn more from their endorsement deals than they do from their day jobs. Over the years, commercials have reflected pop culture and steered it, launched fads, helped elect political candidates, sold government policies, and made fortunes for corporations, ad agencies, and celebrity pitchmen and pitchwomen. Here are some of the most famous ads, starting with the very first commercial, which aired before the United States entered World War II.
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1941: Bulova Watch Co.
On July 1, 1941, a television broadcast of the Philadelphia Phillies vs. the Brooklyn Dodgers was interrupted for an event that would change the course of history—sports history, television history, retail history, advertising history, and U.S. history. That day, the Bulova Watch Co. aired the world's first television commercial, which cost the company $9, including $5 in station charges and $4 in air charges.
1942: Oldsmobile 60 B-44
By 1942, the country was at war, and newsreels were dazzling theater patrons with impressive new footage of flying war machines like the B-17 Flying Fortress. In keeping with the national mood, Oldsmobile unveiled what it dubbed the 60 B-44, a car that Olds likened to U.S bomber planes with an ad that sold the machine on its heft, durability, and power.
1943: A Present With a Future
In 1943, war dominated the American consciousness, and Bette Davis was one of many stars who lent her celebrity to the cause. In a PSA titled "Present With a Future," the actress urged Americans to buy war bonds for Christmas instead of traditional gifts. When her kids griped that they wanted toys and a bike, Davis urged them to consider that her idea for a gift was much better because it would allow them to "celebrate future Christmases in peace."
1944: Buick Liberator Engines
By 1944, most American weren’t buying much of anything that wasn't necessary because vast resources were diverted to the war effort and frugality hadn't yet given way to the post-war boom years. Buick was one of the companies that played it smart by positioning itself as a luxury people would be able to afford once the war was won—and by reminding citizens of the role it was playing in the struggle. That year, the car company ran an ad explaining that "Buick powers the Liberator" and that "as of Sept. 1, 1944, Buick has built more than 55,000 Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines."
1945: There Is Always Hope
In 1945, Clarke Gable starred in a PSA for the March of Dimes. In soliciting donations, the movie star personalized the cause by showcasing one of the charity's potential benefactors, a "victim of infantile paralysis" named Bobby. Gable's appearance proved that the power of celebrity was as useful for raising money for philanthropic causes as it was for selling toasters, coffee, and cars.
1946: Cleanest Clean Under the Sun
In 1946, Tide touted its detergent as offering "the cleanest clean under the sun." A clever play on words, the ad featured women hanging laundry on outside clotheslines on a beautiful sunny day, which tied the company's detergent to the unsullied freshness of the great outdoors.
1947: The Elbow Tax
Hard work in scrubbing has long been known informally as "elbow grease," which in 1947 Colgate vowed would no longer be necessary thanks to its new miracle cleaner, Ajax. The miniature cleaning pixies who appeared in that year's animated TV ad promised "you'll stop paying the elbow tax when you start cleaning with Ajax."
1948: Whistle Up a Party
Jax Beer, inventor of the six-pack, was among the last breweries built before Prohibition. The company's most significant contribution, however, came in 1948 when it released "Whistle Up a Party," the first commercial aimed at black America. The cast consisted entirely of refined and elegantly dressed African-Americans politely socializing in a nice home—something that was virtually unprecedented on television at the time.
1949: What Cigarette Do You Smoke, Doctor?
People trust doctors, so why wouldn't the masses in tobacco-crazed 1949 America want to emulate the smoking habits of the friendly neighborhood physician? Camel bet that they would, and launched a campaign that speaks volumes about the era: more doctors smoke Camels than any other brand.
1950: It Floats
In a positively bizarre commercial from 1950, Ivory sells its soap not on its power to clean or soften skin, but because it's tough to lose since it floats in the bathtub—and that's not the weird part. The famously odd commercial begins with a woman who plans to use the soap confessing her mental illness in a Victorian living room. It turns out both her pleasure-loving side and practical side enjoy a bath with Ivory.
1951: Motorola Television
By 1951, Motorola was advertising its televisions on television. The TV sets the company pitched, however, played second fiddle to the many options and styles of cabinets, stands, and other massive furniture pieces that the actual televisions were packaged inside. As America was entering the age of mass consumer credit, another main selling point was the 65-week financing plan Motorola offered.
1952: Mr. Potato Head
In 1952, Mr. Potato Head earned the distinction of becoming the first toy ever advertised on television. Unlike the all-plastic version that would appear in the 1960s, this version was just a kit. A kid lucky enough to score one had to stick the facial features into an actual potato.
1953: Sunbeam Bread for Energy
In a commercial that epitomizes early 1950s clean-cut innocence, Sunbeam pitched its bread as a cure for juvenile lethargy. The ad portrays a crew of cowboy-costumed, middle-America kids at a fair, but one, with the generic name of "Junior," doesn't have enough pep to make it through—until he gets his hands on some white bread. After all, "every slice of Sunbeam bread sure does pack a big energy wallop."
1954: Radioactive Dirt
One of the most bizarre and ill-advised commercials ever made aired in 1954, when fears of mutual nuclear destruction between the United States and Russia were at their height. The ad featured a scientist rubbing dirt on a model's face to show just how quickly Dorothy Gray cold cream could clean up even the messiest of messes. In a sign of the times, the company raised the stakes by contaminating the dirt with radiation, a fact the advertisers highlighted by including a scientist with a Geiger counter.
1955: Sometimes I Forget to Eat
The Marlboro Man embodied the rough, rugged, and macho image portrayed for decades by the cigarette brand, though ironically smoking killed at least four Marlboro Men. Before the smoking cowboy, however, there was the regular guy in his garage. In 1955, Marlboro pitched its product through an undeniably masculine, yet average guy who became so entranced with working on his old car that he "even forgets to eat," but never forgets to smoke.
1956: You'll Wonder Where the Yellow Went
"You'll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent." That's the promise the toothpaste maker made with a rhyming jingle—which in places sounds more like a primitive rap song—in an animated ad that extolled the virtues of a great smile. Two animated young men spend the entire commercial chasing an animated young lady because they can't resist her white teeth.
1957: Cheerios Kid
In 1957, Westerns were all the rage and one cereal company capitalized on the trend with a cartoon commercial that portrayed a pioneer maiden in distress. Her only hope? A swift rescue from the lasso-toting Cheerios Kid.
1958: Baseball Shavers
In 1958, Dodgers greats Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, and Don Zimmer joined forces for a Gillette commercial that featured a rare trio of top-shelf celebrity endorsers. In this case, the sluggers reminded young men about the "self-respect" that comes with a clean, close shave.
1960: Psycho Trailer
Alfred Hitchcock is known as the "master of horror" for terrifying audiences with movies like "The Birds" and, most famously, "Psycho." But the famed director (and serial cameo appearance maker) was also a master of marketing. In 1960, he toured the fictional Bates Motel for a trailer that was just one part of a grandiose marketing scheme designed to make audiences afraid to miss seeing "Psycho."
1961: Coke Is Great for Weight Loss
If you asked 10 modern nutritionists the quickest and easiest way to help you lose a few pounds, they might tell you to replace sugary soft drinks with water. In 1961, however, Coke was still pitching soda to pre-women's-lib housewives as a way to stay slim, arguing that a bottle of Coke was comparable to eating half a grapefruit. The now-ironic tagline was, "There's no waistline worry with Coke, you know."
1962: Chatty Cathy
Mattel's Chatty Cathy doll—available in blonde, auburn, and brunette—ushered in the interactive doll craze. This circa-1962 commercial, and its catchy jingle, had little girls across the country clamoring for their own Chatty Cathy, which could talk with the pull of a string.
1963: Harold, Is the Coffee All Right?
In 1963, commercials still portrayed women as housewives who lived to please their husbands, which explains the inner turmoil suffered by Jane, a TV ad wife whose husband hates her coffee. Luckily, Jane bumps into Mary at the grocery store, and Mary shares her secret for making a man happy: Folgers instant coffee, which she promises "tastes as good as fresh perked." The next morning, a newly revitalized Harold agrees.
1964: Daisy Girl
First aired on Sept. 7, 1964, the Daisy Girl ad forever changed the nature of both marketing and politics while solidifying its status as arguably the most consequential commercial in television history. The first true political attack ad, the spot featured a little girl innocently counting while plucking flower petals, which morphs into an ominous mission-control countdown that culminates in a mushroom-cloud nuclear blast. The ad, which ran at the height of the Cold War, ends with Lyndon Johnson warning viewers that "these are the stakes" if they voted for his opponent Barry Goldwater—Johnson won the presidency handily.
1965: Dancing Fingers
In 1965, the world met for the first time one of the most enduring mascots in the history of corporate marketing: the adorable, giggling-when-poked Pillsbury Doughboy. Stop-motion animation brought the beloved Doughboy to life with 24 shots for every second of action in the now-famous Dancing Fingers commercial.
1966: Newport Tastes Fresher
By 1966, the menthol revolution was in full swing, and Newport pitched an ad to frustrated city slickers who longed for a day at the beach. The ad portrays a man who misses the bus and is poised to lose his cool until a billboard comes to life and brings a little taste of sand and surf to the grimy city. Charmed by a beauty and her beau enjoying a smoke on the beach in the magic billboard, the man’s mood lightens up when he hears the "Newport tastes fresher, tastes better, too" jingle.
1967: KFC Lie Detector Test
In one of the creepier commercials ever produced, KFC's Colonel Sanders finds himself kidnapped and interrogated via lie-detector test by angry women in a "Clockwork Orange"-esque setting reminiscent of a torture chamber. At the height of the Cold War and the dawn of the era where Americans were growing more cynical about their government, the commercial harkened to CIA mind-control experiments that the public was first becoming aware of at that time.
1968: How Many Licks?
In 1968, advertisers posed what would become one of the most enduring questions in history to the television-viewing public: how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? The answer, researchers would later discover, is roughly 997 licks.
1969: It Doesn't Get Rid of Freckles
Famous as an oddity, a commercial for Bactine Medicated Skin Cream features a beautiful woman with seemingly flawless skin who laments that soap dries as it cleans and cleansing cream cleans, but leaves your skin oily. Then, after repositioning herself at odd angles on her chair, the model settles on Bactine, which she promises leaves your skin clean and soft, but not dry or oily. The only drawback, she groans as the camera zooms in on freckles that appear to be perfectly charming, is that Bactine, like the other two choices, "doesn't get rid of freckles, either."
1970: As Little As 70 Cents
Known informally as Ma Bell, the Bell System used a 1970 ad to stake its claim as one of the only services that actually got cheaper over time. The ad starts by reminding anyone old enough to remember that in 1915, the minimum charge on a call from New York to San Francisco was $20.70, but by 1940 it was just $3. Ma Bell went on to brag that by the time the commercial aired in 1970, you could phone coast to coast on weekends for as little as 70 cents on "calls you dial yourself."
1971: The Crying Indian
In 1971, the fledgling environmental movement was picking up steam and the Ad Council and Keep America Beautiful chose Earth Day to launch what is probably the most memorable anti-pollution ad in history. Native American actor Iron-Eyes Cody cried a single tear while navigating a toxic landscape ruined by careless people in an ad that first pitched conservation as an individual responsibility.
1972: Mikey Likes It
Parents of finicky children rejoiced in 1972 when advertisers introduced them to Life, a cereal the company pitched as so universally beloved that even the pickiest of eaters couldn't resist it. The proof was Mikey, a boy notorious for rejecting whatever mom put on the table—until a bite of Life lit up his eyes and his brother proclaimed "he likes it!"
1973: It's Slow Good
Although Heinz hadn't yet come up with its famous "the best things come to those who wait" slogan in 1973, it had the working concept in order. This precursor commercial features a couple getting in some quality time while they wait for their ketchup to come out of the bottle while a narrator explains, "it's slow good."
1974: My Bologna Has a First Name
Jingles have been a part of television commercials from the beginning, but super-sticky tunes that cling to your brain and never let go might have reached their pinnacle in 1974. That year, lunch meat giant Oscar Meyer reminded America that it has a way with b-o-l-o-g-n-a.
1975: Big Mac Jingle
From Ronald McDonald and the Golden Arches to the Happy Meal and the Hamburglar, McDonald's knows branding—and McDonald's branding is known for its jingles. This 1975 ad put the iconic Big Mac sandwich on the map by compelling regular people to state the ingredients over and over again under the guise of watching them stumble through the tongue-twisting lyrics.
1976: Stuck on Band-Aid
With Band-Aid’s circa-1976 commercial, the popular adhesive bandage did what all great ads are supposed to do—differentiate the product from those of its competitors, in this case, the bandage's ability to stick and stay stuck. That, however, is not what makes the campaign special—what makes it special is star power. Legendary "Copacabana" singer Barry Manilow wrote the jingle, as well as many other commercial tunes for many other major brands.
1977: I Coulda Had a V-8
In 1977, V-8 went a long way towards separating itself from the other beverages in the field by pitching itself both as a healthy drink and a weight-loss supplement. In a famous V-8 ad, regular people bop themselves on the head in frustration after gorging on a fattening snack when they could have had a V-8 instead. The point the tomato-based vegetable juice peddlers succeeded in making is that a healthy V-8 can fill you up and give you the willpower to say no to ice cream and overeating.
1978: Bank Robbers
In the history of all things drinkable, few images are more iconic than the big, red Kool-Aid Man busting through a brick wall. In 1978, that's exactly what the pitcher-shaped mascot did while thwarting Prohibition-era bank robbers to the delight of a couple of Kool-Aid-thirsty kids and a grateful cop.
1979: Mean Joe Green
The "have a Coke and a smile" campaign is one of the most successful in advertising history. The man the beverage giant used to prove that Coke can soften even the hardest hearts was "Mean" Joe Green, one of the most feared tough guys ever to play football. While limping off the field, an ornery Mean Joe is hobbling to the locker room when an awkward and nervous superfan kid reverses the big man's bad mood by giving him his Coke.
1980: Let's Check the Scoreboard
Although Atari had already debuted, the era of non-arcade gaming had not yet quite hit its stride by 1980—but Coleco was looking to change all that. A 1980 ad, hosted by a make-believe umpire, introduced gamers to Head-to-Head Electronic Baseball, a two-player handheld game. Although an entire device loaded with just a single game seems comically primitive now, it's impossible to overstate how exciting mobile two-player gaming was to young people of the era.
1981: MTV Moon Man
Although pregnant teenagers and Jersey Shore dwellers have come to define the network in recent years, there was a time when cool was whatever MTV said it was. Shortly before the network blasted Madonna and Michael Jackson into the pop cosmos, MTV launched a similarly space-aged marketing masterpiece of its own. According to the New York Times, the iconic image of the MTV astronaut planting the network's flag on the moon changed American advertising and soon had Madison Avenue making its own campaigns a little more rock and roll.
1982: Chariots of Fire
Before it signed Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and the rest of the world's most marketable athletes, Nike launched its first TV commercial in 1982. It wasn't selling a particular product, but establishing itself as a company driven by the inner drama of the active lifestyle. By drawing a link between early humans who ran out of necessity and modern athletes who run for passion, Nike made itself the brand that understands athletes.
1983: Cousin Willy
One of the greatest strokes of marketing genius came in 1982, when Hershey's more or less invented product placement with a risky gamble that ultimately paid off in spades. The company paid Universal Studios $1 million to have its Reese's candy featured heavily in a movie called "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" and Reese's faltering sales tripled within two weeks of the blockbuster's release. The adorable alien quickly popped up in Reese's marketing, and this not-so-adorable "Cousin Willy" alien startled local shopkeepers in a famous Reese's commercial.
1984: Taste of a New Generation
In the early 1980s, Pepsi escalated the cola wars when it spent more than any advertiser ever had, $5 million, to sign Michael Jackson, who was arguably the most famous person in the world. Although the first ad featuring the King of Pop ran in 1983, it was a 1984 Pepsi commercial that would go on to become the most famous and infamous of the entire campaign. Sparks from the set ignited when they hit Jackson's heavily gelled hair, starting a fire that nearly killed him.
1985: Michael J. Fox Braves the Storm
Both "Teen Wolf" and "Back to the Future" came out in 1985, and television's "Family Ties" was at the height of its run, making Michael J. Fox one of the most recognizable faces in the world. That year, Fox starred in a now-famous Diet Pepsi commercial that featured him braving a raging storm, barking dogs, motorcycle bandits, and his own locked window to score a Diet Pepsi—from a vending machine conveniently located in the alley behind his apartment—for his attractive new neighbor.
1986: California Raisins
They may have been nothing more than anthropomorphized raisins singing on behalf of the California Raisin Advisory Board. But when the animated rhythm and blues band appeared performing their own rendition of "I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” Americans were hooked. The song made such an impression, in fact, that it landed on Billboard’s Hot 100 two years later and marks possibly the only time a claymation band became a one-hit wonder.
1987: This is Your Brain on Drugs
In 1987 at the height of the War on Drugs, a Partnership for a Drug-Free America ad came to define prohibition in the modern era. In a grossly simplified analogy designed to ram home the dangers of addiction, a cracked egg sizzles as it's dropped into a hot frying pan as a narrator ominously states, "This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?"
1988: Willie Horton
In 1986, presidential candidate Michael Dukakis supported a program that offered weekend furloughs to some prisoners. That same year, a convicted murderer named Willie Horton raped a woman while out on furlough, a fact that George H.W. Bush capitalized on with a now-famous ad that portrayed Dukakis as soft on crime.
1989: Energizer Bunny
In 1989, an ad featured a room full of fuzzy, drum-banging toy bunnies slowly stopping the beat one by one, running out of juice and eventually coming to a stop—all except one. The last rabbit standing, wearing sunglasses and flip-flops, marched and drummed its way into the American consciousness. The Energizer Bunny was born.
1990: Spend Your Whole Life Playing Gameboy
By 1990, handheld gaming had come a long way since Coleco unveiled Head-to-Head Electronic Baseball a decade earlier. The pinnacle of the technology was Gameboy, a Nintendo creation that an oh-so-'90s ad hyped up with selections like Tetris, Mario Land, and F1 Race.
1991: If I Could Be Like Mike
By 1991, Michael Jordan was widely recognized as the greatest basketball player in history and the world's most marketable athlete. Gatorade capitalized on the craze and signed No. 23 to an eight-figure endorsement deal that guaranteed exclusivity. The first ad in the campaign borrowed the song "I Wan'na Be Like You" from 1967's "The Jungle Book" and converted it into one of the greatest ad jingles in history: "If I Could Be Like Mike."
1992: Better Eat My Wheaties
In 1992, Michael Jordan appeared in yet another commercial. What was new was the fact that in the ad, Jordan missed what should have been an easy jump shot. After the ball went in and out of the hoop, the great Chicago Bull realized the likely cause of the error and proclaimed with a smile: "I better eat my Wheaties."
1993: Got Milk?
In 1993, the dairy industry introduced its now-famous "Got Milk?" slogan. The ad featured a history-obsessed radio listener who missed his chance to win a $10,000 on-air trivia contest because his mouth was full and he was out of milk, which, apparently is the only liquid suitable for washing down a mouthful of food. Either way, the ad launched one of the most memorable slogans in branding history.
1994: Dining Room
By the 1990s, advertisers began targeting gay men because corporate research showed they were likely to have more disposable income than the larger population. In 1994, Ikea ran a groundbreaking and, at that time, highly controversial ad. It was the first time a major corporation featured a gay couple in a nationally televised commercial.
1995: Budweiser Frogs
The last decade of the 20th century reached its midpoint and Budweiser launched a campaign that would become synonymous with its brand: the Budweiser Frogs. Each of the three frogs croaked a syllable of the beer giant's name, signaling a shift by Budweiser away from product-focused branding and more toward ads designed to entertain.
1996: Crown Royal
The liquor industry had adhered to a self-imposed ban on televised liquor ads since 1948, and 1936 for radio. That all ended in 1996, when Crown Royal—famous for its velvety purple bags—ran the first televised ad for booze that any American had seen since President Harry Truman was in office.
1997: Yo Quiero Taco Bell
In 1997, Taco Bell introduced the world to what would become a famous Chihuahua mascot known for exclaiming in Spanish that he wanted Taco Bell. The ad was the start of a massively successful campaign—and the beginning of a multi-million dollar lawsuit filed and won by the original creators of the mascot.
1998: We Apologize
In 1998, FedEx launched one of the cheapest ads ever produced, although it aired during the Super Bowl, which in and of itself isn't cheap. It was also, however, one of the most original campaigns of the year. Showing only bright, attention-grabbing error bars, the humming screen featured a scroll of text, purportedly from a fictional insurance company, apologizing to viewers for using a FedEx competitor to deliver the ad tape to CBS, which never made it to the studio and therefore couldn't air.
In 1999—and well beyond for some clingers who didn't realize the fad had passed—you might remember people greeting you with the informal salutation of "wassup?” It all started with a Budweiser ad that, like its frogs in 1995, sold the company as hipper, cooler, and more youthful. It was the first major ad campaign in the world to go viral.
2000: Geico Gecko
In 2000, the Geico Gecko—soon to become the most famous animated lizard on Earth—dumped a ringing telephone into a trash can because he was sick of being confused with an insurance company with a name that sounded like his species. The ad, and the instantly recognizable mascot it produced, was developed out of necessity. Hollywood was in the grip of what would come to be known as the Commercials Strike of 2000, which prohibited unionized human actors from appearing in ads.
2001: The New York Miracle
The New York Miracle is actually a series of six commercials that aired throughout 2001 in the wake of 9/11. In an effort to boost business and bring tourists back to New York City, some of the most famous people in the country revealed themselves in the ads, but only after performing some act of hijinks before Mayor Rudolph Giuliani closes by saying, "The New York Miracle—be a part of it."
2002: Can You Hear Me Now?
In the flip-phone era of the early 2000s, "Can you hear me now?" was the go-to phrase for anyone trying to wander their way out of a reception dead zone during a choppy phone call. Verizon, the carrier that owned network superiority at the time, had the sense to put its best foot forward and claim those five little words as its own. The phrase would come to define the brand.
2003: Terry Tate, Office Linebacker
By the third quarter of Super Bowl XXXVII, Tampa Bay already had the game well in hand over the Oakland Raiders, but the commercials at least were interesting. The best of the bunch was compliments of Reebok. In the ad, the Reebok company sends a ruthless linebacker named Terry Tate to enforce the rules at a fictional office, where anyone caught playing solitaire or mailing it in on a Testing Procedure Specification report was targeted for a bone-crushing hit by the Lawrence Taylor-esque gridiron brute.
2004: Not Cool!
Geico had already established itself as a master in the ads-for-entertainment space before the world met the Geico Caveman in 2004. That year, Geico parodied one of its own commercial sets with a pitchman who says, "It's so easy to use Geico.com, a caveman could do it." The unaware and embarrassed actor then realizes that one of the crew is an actual caveman, who does not take kindly to the insult.
In 2005, Sony wanted to position its new Bravia television as the undisputed king of color resolution. It brought its "color like no other" concept to life with an ad that followed the trajectory of no less than 250,000 brightly colored bouncy balls leaping freely through the hilly streets of San Francisco in a rainbow of impossible-to-turn-away-from action.
2006: Most Interesting Man in the World
In 2006 the country met the most interesting man in the world. The worldly gentleman/adventurer, who would be parodied countless times in the years to come, closed the ad—and the many that would follow—by reminding viewers that men of his ilk "prefer Dos Equis" beer.
2007 wasn't the first time Apple used a clever commercial to pitch a product that would change the world, but that year's campaign was probably its most dramatic and consequential to date. In February, well before the device's release, Steve Jobs tantalized America with the coming of the iPhone through an ad that used clips from famous movie and television "hellos" to chronicle the history of the telephone. The evolution of the telephone ends with the iPhone, the device that would usher in the mobile revolution and put computers in our pockets.
It's been more than a decade since Progressive gifted the world with Flo, the quirky, charmingly annoying, perpetually aproned insurance rep who works nonstop in a bright white retail store that sells insurance as a tangible product that comes in a box. In an age of advertising that has largely moved beyond the brand mascot, Flo has proven to be more durable than perhaps any that came before. It all started with a 2008 ad that pulled Progressive out of insurance obscurity and made actress Stephanie Courtney as instantly recognizable as an A-List movie star.
2009: The Potato Heads Take a Drive
Like Reese's Pieces did with E.T. more than a quarter-century before, in 2009 Bridgestone used a beloved icon of American popular culture to sell a completely unrelated product. While on a countryside drive, Mrs. Potato Head relentlessly nags Mr. Potato Head about his unsafe driving until they encounter a herd of sheep in the road and screech to a stop just in time, thanks, presumably, to Bridgestone tires. But what makes Mr. Potato Head happy is not the fact that they avoided a crash, but that Mrs. Potato Head's mouth flies off in all the excitement and tumbles down a cliff.
2010: You're Not You When You're Hungry
In 2009, Snickers was still the world's #1 chocolate bar, but just barely. The slumping brand went big with a major ad campaign the next year that positioned the iconic candy bar not as a snack for kids, but as a quick fix for adults whose hunger has turned them into someone else. In the case of the original ad, that someone else was the loveable actress Betty White, the famished alter ego of a person revealed by a bite of a Snickers bar to be a young man playing pick-up football.
2011: The Force
Volkswagen's 2011 commercial, the most-watched Super Bowl ad of all time, is still a force all these years later. A boy dressed as Darth Vader tries Jedi magic on everything in his house to no avail, until he telepathically starts the car, unaware that he got a little help from his father's remotely activated key fob. It also stands out as the first ad in history to pre-release leading up to the game, which is now standard industry practice.
2012: The Jogger
Nike was not an official Olympic sponsor in 2012, but the apparel giant stole the show that year with an inspirational ad called "The Jogger." Like its original 1982 "Chariots of Fire" ad, Nike wasn't selling a particular product with the single long-take shot of an overweight pre-teen jogging alone down an empty road. Nike used the imagery and its corresponding message to project its "find your greatness" campaign—and once again to position itself as a company that exists to help average people find their inner champion.
2013: The Epic Split
Aesthetically beautiful and surprisingly poetic, considering the subject and narrator is none other than Jean Claude Van Damme, the Volvo Epic Split commercial was filmed in a single take at sunrise in Spain. Designed to display the directional stability and precision of Volvo Dynamic Steering, the ad invites the viewer to watch as the martial arts icon calmly descends into his trademark epic split while straddled between two Volvo trucks that slowly drift apart from each other—while going in reverse.
2014: I Will What I Want
Long seen as a brand defined by masculinity, Under Armour made a successful bid in 2014 to lure more women athletes into its ranks. The athletic apparel brand enlisted American Ballet Theatre Principal Dancer Misty Copeland for its ad, in which Copeland’s inner little girl re-reads a rejection letter she received in her youth from a ballet academy that criticized everything from her physique to her age—at 13, she was too old for consideration. While the young narrator reads, however, the grown-up Copeland performs the moves that made her a star after refusing to give up in the face of rejection and defeat.
2015: Like a Girl
A year after Under Armour athletic apparel climbed aboard the girl power train, Always feminine hygiene products followed a similar path by redefining what it means to do something—throw, fight, run—"like a girl." By challenging girls to take ownership of the classic chauvinistic phrase, the ad also asked boys to reconsider their own perceptions of the next generation of women.
2016: Please Re-Elect Gerald
2016 was an election year, but the top political ad of the year, and maybe among the top ads of all time, was launched not by a presidential candidate, but the county commissioner of Travis County, Texas, Gerald Daugherty. It's hard to imagine that any ad has ever done more to humanize a candidate who, in this case, lives and breathes mundane county business so thoroughly that he can't get through a barbecue, dinner, or laundry night without obsessing over it to anyone in earshot. The ad closes with Mrs. Daugherty pleading with voters to re-elect her husband—for her own sanity.
2017: The Talk
In 2017, Procter & Gamble endured some controversy, but ultimately won an Emmy for its anti-racism ad, "The Talk." Named for the difficult conversation virtually all African-American parents must have with their children about growing up black in America, the ad portrays women from different eras having some version of the talk with kids, who, for the first time in their lives, have an experience that makes them realize what they face.
2018: A New Kind of Camera
Snapchat ran its first televised commercial during the Final Four basketball tournament in 2018. Offering its social platform as "a new kind of camera," the company highlighted its fun and interactive features while positioning itself as a service not just for the young, but also for the old, the traveler, the office worker, and just about anyone else who longs to use a phone to make human connections more meaningful.
2019: Democracy Dies in Darkness
The 2019 Super Bowl was, by any reasonable standard, a snooze. One of the highlights, however, was an ad by the Washington Post designed to remind the country of the crucial role that the often-vilified and easy-to-scapegoat media plays in U.S. democracy. The powerful ad closes with an homage to journalists killed or captured in hostile lands while working to bring difficult stories to light.