50 TV ads that made history
As any fan of AMC's acclaimed television series “Mad Men” knows, advertising is an art form, as well as a high-stakes game. A 30-second 2019 Super Bowl spot cost $5.25 million, or $175,000 per second. Sure it's a lot of cash, but a worthwhile investment considering the spot reached an audience of about 110 million.
The best commercials are fresh and innovative. They may employ witty repartee, a heart-melting narrative, or a pitch from high-profile spokesperson. Whatever the formula, the goal is the same: convincing people to part with their hard-earned cash—whether through the purchase of a particular product, a political donation, or a charitable contribution.
Advertising has evolved over the years, notably with respect to the representation of women. In the early days of television, perky housewives peddled convenience foods and detergents. With the advent of feminism in the 1960s and ‘70s, advertisers targeted a new demographic: women with children to raise and careers to advance. More recently, gender stereotypes have been put under a particularly critical lens, resulting in Procter & Gamble's groundbreaking “Like a Girl” campaign, as well as Gillette's reinvention of its familiar catchphrase, “The best a man can get” in light of the “Me Too” movement.
Technology also has changed how advertisers target potential audiences. As opposed to gathering around the television after dinner like their parents and grandparents, millennials and members of Generation Z tend to consume content on demand, often on computers and handheld devices. Consequently, digital advertising has experienced double-digit growth in recent years while the traditional television market has declined.
Stacker tuned into the video archives and consulted newspaper and magazine articles to compile this slideshow of 50 ads that made television history. Scroll through the list to find out which politicians launched the nastiest campaign ads, which advertisers came up with the most infectious taglines, and which commercials were so brilliant they put even Don Draper to shame.
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Bulova: “America runs on Bulova time.”
On July 1, 1941, WNBT in New York aired a spot for Bulova watches just before a Brooklyn Dodgers game—the first legal commercial in television history. The black-and-white ad ran for just nine seconds and featured the image of a watch face superimposed over North America while a voice-over informed viewers, “America runs on Bulova time.”
The larger-than-life, anthropomorphic pitcher of Red Dye #40 made its debut on national television in 1954 and has been the face of Kool-Aid ever since. The spot featured a perky, June Cleaver-esque mom serving the drink to a posse of enthusiastic kids while extolling its many virtues—literally and metaphorically encouraging viewers to “drink the Kool-Aid.”
Fred Flintstone for Winston Cigarettes
Smoking was commonplace in the 1960s, and even Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble indulged now and then. The popular cartoon characters shilled a number of products over the years—including Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dove soap, and Winston cigarettes. Spots showing the prehistoric pals lighting up went up in smoke when tobacco advertising was banned on television in 1970.
Veg-o-Matic: The original infomercial
Samuel Popeil introduced a slew of simple, inexpensive machines designed to revolutionize food preparation; his greatest invention, however, may be the infomercial. Introduced to late-night television viewers in the early 1960s, Popeil's company, Ronco, aired a series of commercials demonstrating the Veg-O-Matic, the first of many items Ronco would advertise using this method over the next 50 years.
Palmolive: Madge the manicurist
Starting in the late 1960s, down-to-earth manicurist Madge dished out advice—in the form of Palmolive dish soap—to clients, as well millions of television viewers throughout the country. Before Madge, who was portrayed by Jan Miner for more than 27 years, household products were generally pitched by actresses posing as housewives. Madge's intimate tone and no-nonsense attitude broke with tradition, ushering in an era of new female voices in advertising.
Mr. Whipple: “Please don't squeeze the Charmin.”
Type A grocer George Whipple ran a tight ship. Introduced to television audiences in 1964, Mr. Whipple admonished customers for 30 years not to squeeze the Charmin. The comical ads distinguished the toilet paper from its competitors, with manufacturers Procter & Gamble crediting the character for much of the product's success.
Lyndon B. Johnson: Daisy
The infamous “Daisy” commercial, which aired during the 1964 presidential campaign, is one of the most startling and effective television ads ever produced. The spot focuses on a young girl picking the petals off a daisy as she counts to 10; when she finishes plucking the final petal, the frame zooms into the girl's eye, and the countdown reverses itself, culminating in the detonation of a nuclear bomb. Commissioned as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's re-election campaign, the ad played into Cold War America's greatest fears and was aimed squarely at Johnson's unnamed Republican rival, unapologetic war hawk Barry Goldwater.
The Marlboro Man, accompanied by theme music from the classic Western “The Magnificent Seven,” first galloped across the open range and into homes around the country in 1957. Originally a filtered cigarette aimed at women, the renowned Leo Burnett Agency created the rugged Marlboro Man to target a more masculine demographic and combat lackluster sales. Revered as an American expression of freedom and individuality, the Marlboro Man did just that, catapulting Philip Morris to the top of the tobacco industry. Four actors who portrayed the mysterious cowboy died of tobacco related-illness, including anti-smoking activist Wayne McLaren.
Tootsie Pop: “How many licks?”
How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop? In the classic 1968 ad, a young boy sets out to find the answer. Wise Old Owl thinks he can solve the riddle—but even he gives in to temptation after just three licks, chomping down on the confection. Created by the Detroit-based Doner agency, the animated clip charmed audiences with its catchy concept and gentle humor. So, just how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? In 2015, a team of researchers from NYU and Florida State put their heads together to find out the answer. After hours of exhausting research, it was determined that it takes approximately 997.
Juan Valdez: National Federation of Coffee Growers
Coffee farmer Juan Valdez, much like the iconic Marlboro Man, was the face of the National Federation of Coffee Growers for almost 50 years. In 1969, Carlos Sanchez brought the character to life in a seemingly endless series of television commercials. The ads depicted hardworking Valdez lovingly tending his crop: the antithesis of the Colombian drug lords who loomed large in the popular imagination.