The Most Important Commercials of All Time
Affective commercials don't just sell us a great product; they also tell a story. People buy with their emotions before their logic, which makes advertisements that play on feelings so effective.
These are the most iconic commercials, the ones that have stayed in viewers minds years or even decades after the fact due to their memorable stories, controversial statements or hilarious jokes. Which one of these products would you buy based on the commercial?
Calvin Klein: "Obsession" (1986)
The set of this commercial for Obsession perfume looks like an Escher painting because of its black and white color scheme and multiple staircases. With its emphasis on flowers and sleek, sophisticated shapes, it was easy to see Obsession was about to be a worldwide, well, obsession.
Apple: “1984” (1984)
George Orwell’s novel 1984 is a staple of pop culture, so it’s not surprising that someone tried to use it in a commercial in the titular year. In this Super Bowl commercial, Apple states that its technology can remove you from the iron clutches of Big Brother and lead you to freedom.
Coca-Cola: “Hey Kid, Catch!” (1979)
In this commercial from 1979, Mean Joe Green shotguns a Coke given to him by a young sports fan after a game. As a thank you, Green tosses his jersey and spouts the famous line, "Hey kid, catch!" which has been parodied and referenced ever since.
Metro Trains: “Dumb Ways to Die” (2012)
This animated Australian safety campaign was designed to promote child safety. Its animated cartoon characters told children how to avoid danger around trains specifically, but also featured electrocution, food poisoning and fire.
PSA: "This Is Your Brain on Drugs" (1997)
"This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?" This tough-love PSA was no doubt scary for children but was memorable in delivering its anti-drug rhetoric. The campaign was so popular and quotable that another campaign was launched that featured the actress slamming the frying pan into dishes and other breakable objects.
Monster.com: “When I Grow Up … ” (1999)
Sometimes, an effective ad campaign is a parody of less successful commercials. "When I Grow Up..." was exactly that, a parody of aspirational commercials that told children to reach for the moon and stars. Where other ads came across as too idealistic to believe, this one didn’t take itself too seriously.
IAMS: “A Boy and His Dog Duck” (2015)
America loves coming of age stories, especially easily digestible ones. This commercial told the story of a boy and his dog Duck, who both grow old together as the viewer learns why the dog received his unique name. Spoiler: Duck is how the boy pronounced the name "Duke" when he was a kid.
Extra: “Origami” (2013)
Why is a gum commercial trying to make you cry? Much like the previous commercial, this one uses the story of a parent-child relationship and origami wrappers to tell a sweet story. The little girl places all the origami swans they’ve made together in a shoebox and takes them off to college. It's hard not to make an audible "Aww" when you see it.
Casper: “Can’t Sleep?” (2017)
Mattress company Casper decided to create an unorthodox ad aimed at a core part of its consumer base: insomniacs. The commercial itself is just a 15-second snippet of relaxing imagery and the number for a hotline along with the words, "Can’t sleep?" It aired at 2 am.
John Lewis: “The Bear and the Hare” (2013)
Are you from the UK? If you are, you've no doubt seen the annual John Lewis & Partners Christmas advertisements for the department store of the same name. 2013’s commercial was particularly noteworthy. It told the heartwarming story of a bear who receives an alarm clock for hibernation from his friend, the hare.
Chipotle: “Back to the Start” (2011)
This heartwarming stop-motion Chipotle campaign followed two farmers who moved to a more sustainable farm, and it was insanely popular in 2011. It featured a moving cover of Coldplay's song "The Scientist" by Willie Nelson.
John West Salmon: “Bear” (2000)
In this mockumentary commercial about a bear fishing, a guy shows up and kung-fu fights the bear so he can steal his salmon. A scene that could be stolen from National Geographic turns into Fight Club in seconds.
Old Spice: “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” (2010)
Old Spice wasn't a company that preferred funny commercials over serious marketing at first, but that all changed in the 2010s. Isaiah Mustafa delivered kept audiences laughing from start to finish and made the phrase, "I’m on a horse," a joke all on its own.
Keep America Beautiful: "Crying Aboriginal" (1971)
This commercial depicting a Native American crying over the pollution of his land was one of the most successful campaigns run by Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit that advocates for litter removal along highways. The commercial has become a hallmark of 70s environmentalism.
Mentos: "The Freshmaker" (1992)
This advertisement for Mentos candy combined a Euro-pop jingle with corny acting and the beauty that was 90s fashion. It wasn't effective at first, but it did give visibility to a candy that wasn't well-known in the United States until this ad campaign.
Nike: "Hang Time" (1989)
If you’ve ever thrown a sheet of rolled-up paper in the trash while yelling, "Money!," you have "Hang Time" to thank for that. Director Spike Lee and Michael Jordan collaborated to make fun of the traditional "hero athlete" image to create a series of hilarious commercials.
Wendy's "Where's The Beef?" (1984)
Wendy's, Burger King and McDonald's are fast-food rivals to end all fast-food rivals. While the first of the three has often lagged behind its competition, the catchphrase, "Where's the Beef?" from a Wendy’s Super Bowl commercial helped it catch up a bit by drawing attention to the lack of beef in its rivals’ burgers. The phrase has subsequently come to mean calling the substance of something into question.
Budweiser: "Wassup?!" (1999)
Beer commercials are well known for using beautiful women in their ads, which made Budweiser’s "Wassup" commercial all the more unique. It showed guys just hanging out,, and it made the beer a subtle element in the commercial itself. This Super Bowl ad created a new genre of commercials that used entertainment to sell a product.
IKEA: "Dinning Room" (1994)
In 1994, IKEA launched a trilogy of ads focusing on different families buying dining room furniture, including a husband and wife, a divorcee and a gay couple. The religious right protested ad featuring gay men, but IKEA didn't back down.
Chanel No. 5: "Marilyn" (1994)
When Marilyn Monroe told an interviewer that she wore only Chanel No. 5 to bed, it made the company millions of dollars. To capitalize on that success for a new generation, Chanel used a mix of acting and technology to morph Carole Bouquet in Marilyn Monroe singing I Wanna Be Loved by You.
TRIX: "Trix Are for Kids" (1959)
"Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids!" says a plucky young girl after outsmarting an animated rabbit. That rabbit has been on a quest for the fruity goodness of Trix for decades now, but to this day, he hasn't had a bite.
MEOW Mix: "Singing Cat" (1972)
The classic Meow Mix song is a hit today, but it was actually the result of an accident. While filming a cat eating for use in a commercial, the cat in question began to choke on its food. While the cat was fine, the footage was unusable — until someone decided to take a snippet of the video and use it to create the famous lip-synced cat.
Reebok: “Terry Tate, Office Linebacker” (2003)
In this Super Bowl commercial, Terry Tate destroys an office building and its staff and gets paid for it. If you haven't already watched this, you're in for a treat. The one-liners and outrageous behavior truly earn this commercial a place in the ad pantheon.
Snickers: “Hungry Betty White” (2010)
Is Betty White ever not funny? The answer is no. During the 2010 Super Bowl, the former Golden Girl starred in the now famous "You're Not You When You're Hungry," which spawned an entire series of additional ads.
Honda: “Paper” (2015)
This unique ad takes viewers through Honda's 60-year history. It starts with Soichiro Honda's idea of using a radio generator to power his wife's vehicle and ends with a red Honda driving away in the desert. The paper background makes the commercial feel nostalgic and personal.
E-Trade: “Monkey” (2000)
Ad Age described this ad as "impossibly stupid, impossibly brilliant," and that’s certainly not wrong. E-trade is an investment website that helps people make informed decisions about things like stock and bonds. The commercial shows a chimpanzee dancing in a garage and lip-synching "La Cucaracha."
Mountain Dew: “Puppy Monkey Baby” (2016)
"Puppy Monkey Baby" features, unsurprisingly, a weird hybrid creature resembling a baby, monkey and pug. It was bizarre, and probably the cause of many a child’s nightmares, but it was a social media success. It generated 2.2 million online views and 300k social media interactions in one night.
WATERisLIFE: “Kenya Bucket List” (2013)
Thanks to adoption adverts from the 1960s, it's well known that many rural parts of Kenya have poor drinking water. In 2013, nonprofit WATERisLife created a campaign that brought awareness to this fact again. In fact, according to the ad, 1 in 5 children in Kenya won't reach the age of five.
Volkswagen: “The Force” (2011)
Volkswagen’s "The Force" is currently the most-watched Super Bowl commercial of all time. In the commercial, a tiny child dressed as Darth Vader tries to use the force in multiple ways. He "successfully" uses it against a car when his father secretly activates it with a remote.
Thai Life Insurance: “Unsung Hero” (2014)
This Thai Life Insurance commercial was massively popular because of how beautiful and touching its story was. It follows a man who likes to do nice things for people, but this "unsung hero" doesn't get any adoration for it — in the beginning.