50 TV ads that made history
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.
Coca-Cola: it's the real thing.
A sea of people of all ages and ethnicities join in song on an Italian hilltop, bound by their love of Coca-Cola and one another. The infectious lyrics were written by McCann Erickson's Bill Backer on a napkin while killing time at an Irish airport. The resulting tune eventually reached #7 on the Billboard Hot 100, paving the way for the 1971 television commercial. With a budget of $250,000, it was the most expensive ever produced at the time. Considered to be one of the most brilliant commercials in advertising history, the ad's message of peace and harmony struck a chord with Americans growing increasingly weary of the Vietnam War. “Mad Men” showrunner Max Weiner credited his antihero, ad exec Don Draper, with creation of the spot, thereby resurrecting Draper's troubled career.
The Crying Indian: Keep America Beautiful
Distraught over the endless carpet of litter covering his native land, America's most famous Native American stared straight into the camera and shed a single tear in the highly effective 1971 public service announcement. Created by the Marsteller agency and the Ad Council for the nonprofit organization “Keep America Beautiful,” the ad was launched on Earth Day and contributed to the reduction of litter in the U.S. by a reported 88%. In 1996, it was revealed that the spot's star, actor Iron Eyes Cody, was not actually a Native American, but the offspring of Italian immigrants. Despite the ensuing scandal, Ad Age magazine hailed the commercial as one of the most successful advertising campaigns of the 20th century.
Life cereal: Mikey likes it!
Picky-eater Mikey became an overnight sensation after downing a bowl of Life cereal in front of his incredulous big brothers in this 30-second spot from 1971. The ad spawned an enduring urban myth that child actor John Gilchrist died of a ruptured stomach after consuming exploding Pop Rocks candy followed by a Coca-Cola chaser. The ubiquitous catchphrase, “Mikey likes it,” has weathered decades of use, and is currently the name of an artisanal ice-cream parlor in New York City's trendy East Village.
McDonald's: “You deserve a break today.”
A chorus line of uniformed employees delivers McDonald's most famous tagline with all the bravado of a big Broadway musical in the 1971 ad developed by Chicago agency Needham, Harper & Steers. Penned by crooner Barry Manilow for the burger giant's first national television campaign, McDonald's employed the catchy jingle for more than 40 years before retiring it in 2014.
Kellog's: “Leggo My Eggo!”
Kellogg's first Eggo commercial, which aired in a plum spot during the “Brady Bunch,” celebrated the eternal battle of wills between parents and children. Created by the Leo Burnett agency, “Leggo my Eggo!” remained Eggo's catchphrase from its inception in 1972 through 2011, when it was replaced by the “Simply Delicious,” campaign. When that slogan failed to excite customers, Burnett brought back the old tagline in 2014.
Alka Seltzer: “I can't believe I ate the whole thing.”
In 1972, Alka Seltzer launched a commercial as unglamorous as indigestion itself. The spot featured a married, middle-aged couple hitting the hay. When hubby, played by character actor Mitt Moss, is overcome by a gluttony fueled attack of heartburn, he utters Alka Seltzer's unforgettable catchphrase: “I can't believe I ate the whole thing.” An advertising classic, the commercial was admitted in 1977 to the Clio Awards Hall of Fame.
Joe Namath: Noxzema Shave Cream
In this suggestive 1973 Super Bowl spot for Noxzema shave cream, Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Namath can't wait to have shaving cream applied by future Charlie's Angel, Farrah Fawcett. The 30-second celebrity endorsement, which cost $42,000 to produce, was an instant hit with fans who couldn't get enough of the pair's flirtatious interaction.
“Calgon, take me away!”
“The traffic. The boss. The baby. The dog!” The feminist movement brought greater opportunity to American women, but “having it all” was often a difficult juggling act. Calgon made an appeal to this emerging demographic with this 1977 ad, encouraging working women to escape the stresses of modern life with a relaxing Calgon bath. The popular tagline firmly imprinted itself on the national consciousness and has provided fodder for endless memes.
Chiffon margarine: “When you think it's butter...”
In 1977, Chiffon launched the first of a number of commercials featuring actress Dena Dietrich as a vengeful Mother Nature. Taken in by the buttery taste of Chiffon margarine, Dietrich threatens, “It's not nice to fool Mother Nature,” and summons an ominous thunderclap. Created by the D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles agency, Dietrich's acidic delivery of the snappy catchphrase was a hit with consumers.
Bounty: The quicker-picker-upper
Before she was Rhoda's mom, pint-sized powerhouse Nancy Walker lit up television screens as Bounty's Rosie, the wise-cracking waitress. The first commercial launched in 1971 and was so successful, Walker reprised the role for 20 years.
James Garner and Mariette Hartley for Polaroid
In 1977, Kodak turned to “The Rockford Files” star James Garner for its Polaroid camera campaign, pairing him with lesser-known actress Mariette Hartley in a series of charming and witty television spots. The chemistry between the two stars was so authentic, audiences were convinced the pair were a real-life couple. Although the rapport was nothing more than stellar acting, many Americans believed Hartley was to blame for Garner’s divorce. The ads proved to be so popular, Kodak would go on to make 250 more commercials in the following decade.
Dannon: “In Soviet Georgia...”
The Soviet Union may no longer exist, but Dannon yogurt is still going strong and can thank an innovative 1977 commercial set in what is now the independent country of Georgia. The ad plays like a documentary, depicting a number of exceptionally spry Georgian centenarians engaged in activities such as chopping wood and horseback riding. A voiceover informs viewers that Georgians frequently live to a ripe old age, and, coincidentally, eat a lot of yogurt. American audiences drew the connection, and Dannon's declining sales suddenly skyrocketed.
ALCU: “Look for the Union Label.”
One of the most memorable jingles in advertising history wasn't part of a high concept ad campaign and didn't advertise an innovative product. The “Look for the Union Label” song, written by Paula Green for the 1976 International Ladies' Garment Union spot sold America on a progressive vision of worker solidarity back when the United States was still a center for manufacturing jobs.
Mean Joe Green for Coke
Pittsburgh Steeler Charles Edward Greene, aka “Mean Joe Greene,” marketed himself, as well as Coke, in the classic 1979 McCann-Erickson ad, which showcased the football star's softer side. One of the first black men to appear in a commercial for a national brand, Greene gruffly accepts a post-game Coke from a young fan and takes a swig, then flashes a winning smile and tosses the boy his game jersey. The ad premiered during the 1979 Monday night football season and figured prominently during the 1980 Super Bowl.
The capable heroine of Enjoli perfume's early 1980s commercial didn't need a Calgon bath to relieve the stress of modern life—she could “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you're a man.” An ode to female empowerment, Enjoli tapped into the energy of the women's movement to target their female demographic.
Before the television show “Dynasty,” Heather Locklear—more accurately, multiple Heather Locklears—peddled Fabergé Organics shampoo via an infectious ad that used the power of TV to promote the product through a traditional word-of-mouth campaign. After extolling the shampoo's virtues, Locklear told consumers that she told two friends, who in turn told two friends, as her image multiplied on the screen.
Brooke Shields for Calvin Klein Jeans
A 15-year-old Brooke Shields, dressed in a pair of jeans and a half-buttoned blouse, informed viewers that nothing came between her and her Calvins in the infamous 1981 jeans commercial. Shot by legendary fashion photographer Richard Avedon, the overtly sexual ad was banned by both ABC and CBS. Designer Calvin Klein, however, was unphased, remarking “Jeans are like sex. The tighter they are, the better they sell.”
At&T: “Reach out and touch someone.”
One of the biggest tearjerkers in commercial history, Bell Telephone's 1981 “Joey called” ad played on traditional family dynamics and the popular conception that long distance meant bad news. Created by N.W. Ayer & Partners, the spot featured a middle-aged couple discussing a recent phone call from their son. Dad assumes there's trouble in paradise until Mom informs him that she's crying tears of Joy—Joey called just to say “I love you.” The commercial came at a critical time for AT&T, a monopoly on the brink of divestiture facing competition from new kids on the block such as Sprint and MCI.
Dunkin' Donuts: “Time to make the donuts.”
In Dunkin' Donuts' 1981 ad, dedicated baker Fred awakens at a terribly early hour every morning, grumbling, “Time to make the donuts”—one of the most famous catch phrases in the annals of advertising history. The face of Dunkin' for 15 years, classically trained actor Michael Vale appeared in more than 100 Dunkin' commercials. When Vale retired in 1997, his send-off included a party and a parade, with nearly 6 million free donuts distributed to Dunkin' customers.
The Apple revolution
Hailed by some as the greatest ad of all time, the 1984 Apple commercial created by the Chiat/Day agency bombed initial market testing and was almost scrapped. The innovative spot depicted a gray, Orwellian dystopia smashed by a female athlete wielding a mallet, followed by an official announcement regarding the imminent release of the Macintosh personal computer. A revolutionary advertisement inspired by a revolutionary product, it first aired during the 1984 Super Bowl and sparked $155 million in sales within three months of its airing.
Wendy's: “Where's the Beef?”
The 1984 Super Bowl was a standout year for television commercials and included Wendy's “fluffy bun” ad, which proved that it isn't the question but who's asking it that counts. The original pitch, featuring a middle-aged man asking the perennial question “Where's the beef?” failed to impress—but when disgruntled octogenarian Clara Peller demanded accountability for a competitor's skimpy patty, the catch phrase was soon on everyone's lips. Created by the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample agency, “Where's the beef?” is cited by Ad Age as one of the top 10 slogans of the 20th century.
Michael Jackson for Pepsi
A year after Michael Jackson's smash album “Thriller,” was released, the star signed a $5 million deal with Pepsi, making him the face of its “New Generation” campaign. Pepsi launched the first of three ads featuring Jackson in 1984. Although the singer himself graced the spot for just a few fleeting seconds, Jackson did suffer serious burns while filming when pyrotechnics caught his hair on fire—an accident that may have sparked his fatal pain-killer addiction. The ad's premise—a young fan imitating the pop idol—hasn't aged well in light of the sexual abuse allegations levied against Jackson in recent years.
The California Raisins
Commissioned by the California Raisins Advisory Board to combat slumping sales, San Francisco-based agency Foote, Cone & Belding brilliantly paired a group of Motown-inspired Claymation raisins with the 1960s hit, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” The ad first aired in 1986 and was an overnight sensation, reportedly increasing sales by 20%. The California Raisins' take on the tune reached #84 on the Billboard Hot 100, and spawned four albums, two of which went platinum.
Calvin Klein's Obsession
In the mid-1980s, Calvin Klein launched a series of highly stylized commercials for his latest fragrance, “Obsession.” Never one to shy away from controversy, the ads featured an elusive young woman and her four fascinated suitors—an older gentleman, a younger man, a boy, and a woman. Klein turned to acclaimed photographer Richard Avedon to write and direct the overtly sensual ads, which were then filmed by legendary cinematographer Nestor Almendros. “Saturday Night Live” parodied the ad with a spot-on skit for fictional Compulsion perfume.
Partnership for a Drug-Free America: “This is your brain on drugs”
Named one of Time Magazine's most influential commercials of all time, Partnership for a Drug-Free America's 1987 ad depicted the powerful image of an egg—standing in for the human brain—sizzling in a hot pan. The disturbing metaphor was so successful, it was brought back for a 1997 spot with actress Rachael Leigh Cook targeting heroin.
Michael Dukakis: The Revolving Door
Produced by Roger Ailes of Fox News fame, the 1988 Bush campaign's infamous “Revolving Door” commercial targeted the furlough program promoted by his opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, pegging him as soft on crime. The stark, black-and-white spot depicted an endless parade of men exiting and then re-entering a prison. Although the ad was considered by many Americans to be the most influential spot of the 1988 election run-up, it has been criticized for being racially charged and stoking prejudice.
The Energizer Bunny
In 1989, the American public was introduced to the iconic Energizer Bunny, the pink, battery-operated toy rabbit that routinely outlasted his posse of manically drumming rabbits. Hailed as the “ultimate product demo” by Ad Age, the Energizer Bunny has appeared in over 100 ads over the past 30 years.
San Francisco-based ad agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners took an innovative approach to the legendary “Got milk?” campaign, asking a focus group to refrain from drinking milk and then assessing how a lack of it affected their everyday lives. The answer? Profoundly. The 1993 “Aaron Burr” ad for the California Milk Processor Board focused on the hazards of running out of milk and featured an eccentric collector who fails to answer a $10,000 question about Alexander Hamilton's nemesis, despite clearly knowing the answer. The poor wretch can't get the words out—he's run out of milk and can't wash down his peanut butter sandwich. The clever spot ended with the famous “Got milk?” tagline.
Ikea: the first openly gay couple in a television commercial
In 1994, Ikea introduced the first openly gay couple in a television commercial. Limited to major East Coast markets, the ad took a homespun documentary approach to the featured partners' search for the perfect sofa, casually highlighting their backstory and loving, committed relationship. Ikea was inundated with letters of support, as well as angry protests and even an empty bomb threat.
Budweiser's quirky 1990 ad celebrated bro culture with the breakout catchphrase, “Whaassup!” The brainchild of 28-year-old Justin Reardon, higher-ups at DDB Chicago initially resisted his claim that the concept would resonate with the youth market. After greenlighting a limited campaign targeting urban markets, sales spiked and Reardon became a golden boy when the spot took home the Grand Prix at the 2000 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
Geico's mascot, the little green lizard named Martin, made his television debut in 1999. A relatively new auto insurance outfit at the time, Geico was eager to launch its first TV ad campaign and compete with industry players. The Screen Actors Guild strike, however, quashed any plans to hire live actors, and the Geico Gecko was born out of necessity.
John Kerry: Swiftboated
In one of the nastiest political commercials in modern times, the 2004 George W. Bush presidential re-election campaign targeted opponent John Kerry’s military record in an ad spot known as “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.” The ad depicted actual veterans accusing Kerry, who adopted an anti-war stance after serving in Vietnam, of lying about his experiences as a swift boat commander. Although the commercial played fast and loose with the facts, it did irreparable harm to Kerry’s shot at the Oval Office. The ads were so effective, the term “swiftboating” entered the lexicon to describe any brutal personal attack against a public figure.
Dos Equis: “Stay thirsty, my friends”
Since 2006, actor Jonathan Goldsmith has been billed as “the most interesting man in the world." In a series of unusually dry ads created by EuroRSCG, Goldsmith can be seen jet-setting around the world with a bevy of beautiful women, arm-wrestling dictators, engaging in daring adventures, and, of course, drinking the occasional Dos Equis beer. The campaign went viral, driving Dos Equis sales up by 22% and insulating the Heineken brand from the threat of the craft beer movement.
Endearingly annoying Flo has been the face of Progressive insurance for the past 11 years. The first ad aired in January 2008 and used a mixture of humor, visual props, and a modernist setting to demystify the insurance industry and thereby win the trust of consumers.
Barack Obama: “Yes We Can.”
Barack Obama promised voters a new approach for the country and his 2008 campaign didn't disappoint, harnessing the power of the internet to convey his message to potential voters. The nearly four-minute spot intertwined Obama's own words with a star-studded, upbeat music video created by the Black-Eyed Peas' will.i.am. The viral video broke from the confines of conventional television, reinventing the political ad for a new generation of voters.
Volkswagen: The Force
There are few things more awe-inspiring than a child's imagination, save for perhaps a parent's love. The Deutsch agency nailed it with “The Force”, an ad chronicling the adventures of a pint-sized Darth Vader and his enterprising dad. In an unprecedented move, Volkswagen released the commercial on YouTube the Wednesday before the 2011 Super Bowl, racking up 17 million views before kick-off. According to Deutsch, the ad paid for itself before it even hit national television.
Thai Life Insurance: Silence of Love
Asia is famous for “sadvertising:” mini-melodramas that pull at the consumer's heartstrings. Ogilvy & Mather Bangkok's 2011 “Silence of Love” ad kicked the formula up a notch, telling the tear-jerking tale of an ungrateful teen girl and the sacrifices made for her by her deaf father. The life insurance commercial went viral, reaching an international audience far larger than its intended Thai market.
Cheerios and the all-American family
In General Mills' 2013 ad, a little girl adorably asks her mother about the nutritional value of their breakfast cereal. When mom responds that it's good for your heart, the concerned tyke promptly places a handful of Cheerios on her sleeping father's chest. What distinguished the heart-warming, family-friendly commercial was its use of a mixed-race family. The ad's official YouTube video was hijacked by bigots, forcing General Mills to disable the comment section, although the company refused to pull the ad.
Procter & Gamble: “Like a Girl”
Procter & Gamble smashed the patriarchy with its groundbreaking “Like a Girl” ad. Created by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, the commercial cross-examined traditional female stereotypes, asking both boys and girls questions such as “What does it mean to throw like a girl?” The 2015 Super Bowl spot may have been peddling Always feminine hygiene products (a Super Bowl first), but what it was really selling was female empowerment.
Gillette: “The best a man can be.”
Not to be outdone by Procter & Gamble, razor giant Gillette responded to the MeToo movement by turning its familiar tagline “The best a man can get” on its head. Presented as an ironic question rather than a statement of fact, the 2019 Super Bowl spot put toxic masculinity under the microscope—and consequently generated both praise and condemnation. Despite a boycott, Gillette stuck by its message—donating a total of $3 million to nonprofits working to raise the consciousness of American males.