blog about graphic design, web design and marketing

The D. Drew Design Blog
aug 09

The 10 Most Successful Ad Campaigns of All Time and How They Came to Be

The point of an advertising campaign is to either sell product, or stick in a person's mind. I pieced together this guide to the top 10 ad campaigns in the last century. The list itself was provided by Ad Age, as they're the authority on advertising, but all the background research I dug up from various websites and consolidated into this article. Enjoy (after the jump)!

10. Campaign: "We Try Harder"

Company/Campaign: Avis
Agency: Doyle, Dane & Bernbach
In the '50s, Avis was doing pretty badly. By 1962, with more than a decade of losses, the new president, Robert C. Townsend (no relation to Pete), set out to hire DDB, who, at the time, was renowned for their forward-thinking approach to advertising and marketing.

In a move that would have been unheard of today, DDB's president suggested to Avis that they start getting their act together, as he saw advertising for the company as "making good advertising for a bad product." Then DDB went to work studying the ins and outs of Avis' operations. The art director of DDB, Helmut Krone, in collaboration with copy-writer Paula Green used a reply during the initial meetings between DDB and Avis. When asked why anyone rents a car from Avis, the reply received was that "we try harder, because we have to." With this straightforward and no-punches pulled message, DDB had crystallized the turnaround of Avis.

And a turnaround it was. Within one year, Avis went from being $3.2 million in the red to $1.2 million in the black.

9. "Does She, or Doesn't She"

Foote, Cone & Belding
Shirley Polykoff, a legendary female advertising personality, is the star here. If you watch Mad Men, you might associate her with Peggy's character with a little bit of Joan thrown in. She positioned herself early on as a dynamo in selling and advertising. However, despite her reputation, she had a difficult time pushing this campaign through. The reason? It was thought to be "too suggestive."

At one point, in fact, the campaign was turned down initially by Life magazine for this very reason. Polykoff demanded that Life poll, unscientifically, the women of their offices to see what they thought about the phrasing, and whether or not it was too suggestive. To their surprise, and to Shirley's lack thereof, the women saw no racy connotation with the phrasing. Polykoff knew, of course, this would be the result, as she knew no "nice girl ever got an off-color meaning about anything."

As a result of the campaign, the hair coloring market exploded from a niche activity in the '50s to a token craze. Revenues blew up by 800 percent, from $25 million annually to $200 million. Clairol, at the forefront, raked in half this revenue, and continues to dominate this market, even now.

8. "Tastes Great, Less Filling"

Miller Lite
McCann-Erickson Worldwide
During the '70s, Miller had invented an entirely new beer that had fewer calories, so guys could drink more of it (thereby spending more money) and not get fat. Just one problem: guys didn't really care about lower-calorie beer.

With this dilemma in mind, MEW went to work. Their solution? Sell the beer using the burliest guys and the manliest men they could find. The result was a series of commercials featuring sports legends and entertainers in comedic situations, and no shortage of cameo spots.

More importantly, perhaps, was that Miller's beer sales went from 7 million barrels to 31 million, and is still considered the largest expansion ever recorded by a beer maker.

7. "Absolut _______"

In the late '70s/early '80s, Americans were consuming upwards of 40 million cases of vodka a year. One percent (about 400,000 cases) of that market was imported vodka, and a mere 2.5 percent of that was Absolut. The rest of the imported brands were Russian, and selling on the credibility of Russia as the authority on vodka.

In order to gain share, Absolut, a state-run distillery, decided it was going to position itself as a modern and more hip vodka. And, thus, the great experiment began. The bottle has come to represent a golf course, a conspiracy, a bridge, and... well you get the picture by now.

But print ads were hardly the extent of their reach. In fact, one year on Father's Day, Absolut packaged a tie with their ad running in the New York Times, distributing 500,000 of them. The free publicity alone from the campaign more than made up the cost.

Today, Absolut enjoys a dramatically increased share of the vodka market in the U.S., 4.5 million cases, or half of all imported vodka. Not bad for redrawing a picture of a bottle for 20 years, eh?

6. "A Diamond Is Forever"

N.W. Ayer & Son
If one is to propose to their significant other these days, a diamond ring seems to be par for the course. But as passe as it might be now, it wasn't always the case. In fact, with the great explosion of discovered diamond mines in the late 19th century, and, largely, for the early part of the 20th century, diamonds were reserved as a collector's item of the affluent.

DeBeers, a concerned interest in the production and sale of diamonds -- they owned 80% of all diamond trade at one point -- started pursuing marketing for their product, as the overabundance of diamonds produced was far outweighing the demand for them. Harry Oppenheimer, the chairman of DeBeers, met with NWA&S (a funny acronym, now that I'm looking at it) in 1938 to try to turn the market around. And for almost a decade, the two companies worked feverishly, targeting young men and women with heavy campaigns to associate the idea of a diamond with love, religious unity and commitment.

For the large part, these targeted campaigns did little to stand out in their customers' minds. What DeBeers needed was a solid sales line. It wasn't until 1947 that a lowly copywriter at NWA&S, working late one night in the offices, prayed that she would receive the right line from on high. She would have history believe that God, should he exist, is a genius marketer, because not too late after, she scrawled the line "a diamond is forever" on a picture of a honeymooning couple.

The line was incorporated into the campaign, and in less than a year, DeBeers' new slogan was "A Diamond Is Forever." Now DeBeers, owning only 40% of the market share of diamonds enjoys yearly revenues in excess of $6 billion, and a top-of-mind product, nay, rite of passage, that each proposer must complete before they can prove their eternal love.

5. "You Deserve a Break Today"

Needham, Harper & Steers
In the early '70s, McDonald's was looking for a new company to head their next campaign. NHS impressed McDonald's through the marrying of their various audiences -- mothers, fathers and kids -- with the singular idea of "getting away." Setting to work, the creative team decided on a spot where McDonald's stores, being isolated, lit locales in a city scape, represented islands that families could get away to from their daily routines.

After shooting the spot, NHS ran into a snag with their "McDonald's as islands" themed campaign. Lawyers found that a food chain in Nebraska was already using a campaign labeling themselves as "Islands of Pleasure." Not wanting to paint a target on themselves for lawsuits, McDonald's requested the nearly-complete campaign be dumped. The NHS creative team went back to the drawing board.

They decided to create a song-and-dance routine. After it was written, they brought it to the executives to listen to, who loved it, but felt it was lacking, especially around the ending line "We're so near yet far away." So, again the creative team took the song back to tweak it. The team sat in a room and hammered out the line "You deserve a break today," in a very create-by-committee fashion. And in one more interesting hurdle, the musicians behind the actual performance of the song deemed the line "un-singable." With little more than a "do it or we'll find someone who can," the music team figured out how to sing it, and the rest is history.

The bouncy jingle stood out with its flash and show and nailed itself into the minds of consumers at the time, and, even now, you can still see references to its title line everywhere.

4. "Just Do It"

Wieden & Kennedy
In the late-1970s/early-1980s, Reebok's line of sports apparel sold far better and had a much more robust share of the market, thanks to the explosion of aerobics and general exercise enthusiasm amongst women. Nike, who at the time had little more than a line of marathoners' shoes to their name, wanted a piece of the action. So they went for the whole pie.

Late into the '80s, they started to tackle every demographic. They did this on their "Just Do It" campaign, purportedly coined during a meeting of executives between WK and Nike ("You Nike guys, you just do it."). The phrasing reflected the corporate culture and advertising approach, which was a take-no-prisoners assault on the inactive and lethargic.

Furthermore, they tied their brand to smart, humorous and cool advertising, and made sports apparel cool to wear when, well, you weren't being active. This all culminated into a perfect storm during the '90s, at which time, their market share jumped from 18% to 43%, and their sales exploded from $800 million a year in 1988 to upwards of $9.2 billion in 1998. Wanna look cool? Just do it.

3. "The Marlboro Man"

Leo Burnett Co.
In another classic case of trying to sell a token "effeminate" product to men, the Marlboro story should feel familiar. In the mid-'50s, Marlboro had created a filtered cigarette that they advertised to women as being "Mild as May." They needed a way to capture the male market, though, and that's where Leo Burnett came in.

He saw some pictures in a 1949 issue of Life magazine that featured a cowboy doing cowboy things. Burnett saw tons of masculinity, and a way to advertise a product. With little more than the word "Marlboro" and a picture of a rough and tumble cowboy smoking a cigarette, the Marlboro Man campaign was born.

The campaign turned sales on their head, and is still considered one of the most brilliant strokes in advertising of all time. There is an asterisk to this story, however. While the campaign stood up the test of time for a solid 50 some-odd years, it also ran into hiccups with all of the Marlboro Men having died of lung cancer, and one of them even testifying to Congress for regulation on smoking. Marlboro distanced themselves from the man, claiming he was never in a Marlboro ad, but then later recanted, saying he just wasn't a Marlboro Man. Nowadays, the Marlboro Man campaign seems more quaint than brilliant, but its voraciousness in tobacco sales, for a time, can never be taken away.

2. "The Pause That Refreshes"

D'Arcy Co.
Like many great campaigns, this campaign starts out with a problem. Coca-Cola didn't have many issues selling Coke during the summer months. The problem lied in the wintertime, when they sold virtually none.

In an effort to fluff up some of their seasonal sales, they turned to DC to come up with a campaign. "Thirst Knows No Season" was their first run at the campaign, and it worked very well. They actually began selling more Coke during the winter than they did during the summer.

But time passed, and as all companies do, they wanted to further increase their profit and reach. Aiming to put a Coca Cola into someone's hand every single day, DC stopped looking at the product, and started simply looking at the behavior of people. The more they observed, the more they realized that people need breaks in their hustle-bustle lives. And Coke, they deigned, should be in their hands during that break.

Sales plowed ahead yet again as people saw Coke as a necessary part to maintaining their daily sanity, and Coca Cola sealed its place in business history.

1. "Think Small"

Doyle Dane Bernbach
The same legendary DDB that you saw above helping out poor Avis was also at VW's side during the most legendary advertising campaign of all time. From then to now, every company has measured the success of their advertising campaigns against the Think Small campaign.

Volkswagen had plenty of success with the Beetle in Europe, but wanted to bring it to the U.S. They hired DDB to helm the advertising effort.

And it's not like the German auto company didn't have anything against them going into it. The car itself wasn't much to look at. Bigger vehicles were much more popular in the U.S., thanks to the Baby Boomer familes. Not to mention the plant that manufactured the cars was built by Nazis. So there was that.

The DDB team knew they had to do something different to win over the jaded consumers. Campaigns at the time were strictly informative in nature, or fantastical in presentation. The VW ads aimed to sell. Present an emotional connection that the ad's audience could meet.

VW isn't the top auto manufacturer these days, and, frankly, has never really been at the top. However, the impact of its ad campaigns revolutionized advertising forever, and, even now, when you see a VW ad on TV or in print, you can't help but be captivated.