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Branding / Feb 12, 2023
12 Great Commericals of the Past 30 Years
I love commercials. Always have. It's one of the many reasons why I work in advertising today. Ever since I was a young boy, I craved advertising wherever I could find it to read (magazines), listen (radio), or watch (television).
With Super Bowl LVII coming up today, I thought it'd be fun to recount some of my favorite television commercials that I can remember.
Some went internet viral (Berlitz), some were played throughout the year (Nike), and some changed the way we looked at Super Bowl Commercials (Volkswagen). They may not all have aired during a Sunday night in February, but they all changed how we think about ads — well, they did for me anyway.
1. Volkswagen - The Force (2012) — Lance Acord (dir), Deutsch Agency
I love this commercial, which happened to be the brainchild of my friend Craig Melchiano (read his story here). Remember, this was before the resurgence of the Star Wars universe, and it wasn't as popular in culture as it has become. They had struggled to get John Williams' iconic theme song rights, went through hundreds of child actors, and the most amazing? They "leaked" the commercial before the Super Bowl, which hadn't been done before— forever changing advertising in the days leading up to the big game. Plus, the content is impressive, the child actor perfect, and the emotional connection palpable.
2. Berlitz - Sinking (2007) — Nic Sune (dir), Pål Sparre Enger (copywriter)
My brother, who speaks multiple languages (read: 6 or 7 besides English) sent this to me years ago, and we laughed and laughed for hours. The hook for this ad? Easy, it's funny yet brutally honest. It connects the human element of misunderstanding with a real-life "oh sh*t" moment. It didn't air during the Super Bowl, but it aired on my MacBook for hours — and that has to count for a bunch of Nielson points right there.
3. Nike - Elephant (2000), Dante Ariola (dir)
Regardless of what you think of Lance Armstrong or the way he handled himself in the wake of his downfall, this admittedly doesn't play well in hindsight. But in the moment, Nike capitalized on their cycling star for nearly a decade as Lance was arguably the most well-known athlete on the planet apart from Tiger and Jordan (both also Nike athletes). Teasing a line from Star Trek, when the human cannonball says, "I'm not a doctor," I have to smile. Sure, in hindsight, this lacks self-awareness, but with Lance's VO2 Max off the charts, it rang a bell for many endurance athletes like myself over two decades ago.
4. Milk Board - “Got Milk” - Aaron Burr (1993) — Michael Bay (dir), Goodby Silverstein & Partners (Agency)
Anything Goodby Silverstein does, in my mind, is genius. This has to be one of the all-time great commercials, directed by a young Michael Bay before he went on to launch his behemoth of a Hollywood career directing Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon, Transformers, and others. Bay's career wasn't the only idea launched with this commercial. "Got Milk" took on a whole new life of its own. The Masterclass with these two is fantastic, and they discuss making this commercial. Worth a listen.
5. Hummer - Big Race (2003) — Scott Hicks (dir.), Modernista! (Agency)
Ah, the age of big SUVs and machismo. Yet another campaign that doesn't quite sit well in 2023, but it's fun anyway. Using an early (1966) single from The Who, Hummer does a great job of showing precisely what a Hummer H2 can do without ever showing a Hummer. Brilliant. It's half-James Bond chase (cutting through the off-road while other cars dole out the switchbacks) and half soap-box derby. You're rooting for this kid, which means, in reality, you're rooting for Hummer.
6. Apple iPod - Are You Gonna Be My Girl? (2004) — Chiat Day (agency)
What first started as outdoor and print ads in 2003, the "Silhouette" campaign(s) then jumped to the small screen and have become legendary. From 2003 to 2008, Apple used dark silhouettes on colored backgrounds to showcase the iPod and its white earbud cords, which became synonymous with Apple. Soundtracks included music from Nelly Furtado, U2, Feist, The Prototypes, Gorillaz, Daft Punk, The Black Eyed Peas, Wolfmother, Coldplay, and the below ad featuring Jet whose song "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" had already debuted in UK the year prior but lifted the band to world acclaim when they appeared in the commercial in 2004. Many other artists saw the commercials as a powerful vehicle to launch a song. You couldn't go anywhere without seeing these ads, bouncing to the music, and coveting your friend's white cords.
Due mainly to these ads, I was introduced to great European bands like Caesers (Sweden), The Fratellis (Scotland), and Ting Tings (UK) from these adverts in the 2000s.
7. Levi’s - 501 Double Stiched Jeans (1995) — Michael Mort (dir), John McCabe (copywriter), Bartle Bogle Hegarty, London (agency)
More musical ads are upcoming, namely this classic Levi's claymation song featuring Shaggy's "Mr. Boombastic." When a fire breaks out at a local hotel, Mr. Lover Lover rides a stolen police motorcycle up the fire truck ladder to rescue a damsel in distress. He whips off his Levi's, prompting his claymation damsel to faint, only to use them as a zip line hold to carry her to the safety, ahem... of his arms.
8. Levi’s - Dangerously Low - Levi's Low Rise Jeans (2002), Ivan Zacharias (dir), BBH New York (agency)
Another Levi's commercial I just thought was brilliant at the time. A woman sneaks around an old chop shop readying to steal a car. She's crawling around rafters and catwalks and drops onto the cement ground right behind an old classic muscle car. She sneaks into it, rummages into her Low Rise Jeans for a spare key, and busts out of the factory like she's in a chase scene from Ronan. Then as she searches under the seat — for what? — she's swerving all over the road, narrowly avoiding oncoming cars. Then she finds it: a trinket she replaces on the dashboard in front of her with a smile. It was her car all along. She stole it back. She's dangerous. So are the jeans.
9. The Gap - Khaki-a-Go-Go (1998)
Though Vince Vaughan and Jon Favreau's Swingers had already come out two years earlier, what ended up ushering in what became the short-lived but wildly popular swing dance movement (Squirrel Nut Zippers anyone?) to the masses was this Gap ad in 1998. Using Louis Prima's 1956 "Jump, Jive, and Wail" to put khakis at the forefront of the buying public, Gap inadvertently became part of the zeitgeist, riding a wave of sales as high as poodle skirts dancing to the Lindy Hop.
To "reinvent khakis," Michael McCadden, the VP of Marketing at the time, commissioned this commercial and even announced its coming on PR Newswire, stating in a press release that advertising for khakis as a product was so new for The Gap that they will "debut a major global campaign featuring Gap khakis on April 23. It's the first time in Gap's 29-year history that khakis will star in television ads."
What followed was not just a string of ads like this featuring dancing, but just a few months after the first airing, original Stray Cat himself, Brian Setzer, released a cover version on his big band orchestra's August 23 album The Dirty Boogie, which not only charted at 23 on the Billboard 100 but won him a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
10. Jeep - Groundhog Day (2020)
With the 30th Anniversary of the movie Groundhog Day just having passed, I pulled this one up from the Super Bowl in 2020.
Lots had to go right for this commercial to work. And, lucky for us (and Fiat-Chrysler), Bill Murray’s first appearance in a national commercial will forever be known as this one.
From January 24 through 26 of 2020 (mere weeks before the Super Bowl), filming began in Woodstock, Illinois, where the movie was shot. They quickly got the rights and licensing to recreate the movie and use the song “I Got You Babe” by Sonny & Cher — the same song Murray woke up to each day in the film. Using some of the exact locations as the movie, plus cameos from the film's other actors (Murray’s brother, Brian Doyle-Murray, who played the city of Punxsutawney’s mayor, and Stephen Tobolowsky as Ned Ryerson), it was all pulled off with most of the commercial ad-libbed by Murray.
But the absolute brilliance is that at the heart of the idea was that now, after all this time, Phil Conners doesn't mind so much repeating the same day over and over because he gets to do it in a Jeep Gladiator.
11. Nike - “You Can’t Stop Us” (2020) — Weiden Kennedy (agency)
Honestly amazing. Megan Rapinoe narrates this ad that pairs 53 athletes, 24 sports, and 72 sequences into a tremendous video editing effort. Throughout its 90 seconds, the commercial uses hand-picked clips from more than 4,000 archived videos, stitching the athletes together in a split screen as if one shot, further driving home the idea that "we can do this together." I dare you not to cry.
12. Dollar Shave Club - Our Blades are F**cking Great (2012) — Michael Dubin
This original ad (shown on YouTube) is phenomenal. Taking its comic cue from Old Spice, Dollar Shave Club founder Michael Dubin wrote, produced, and starred in one of the funniest and most viral commercials ever. This ad went everywhere. And, unlike the Old Spice ads, he didn't have to pay much. It also started a movement of goofy ads like this from CEOs and Founders who thought they could be as funny as the former actor Dubin. Most couldn't.