Yes, I know. Using the word “best” to describe any list is a highly subjective endeavor. In this case, the goal is to compile a list of commercials that were not only memorable but also the kinds of commercials that you actually looked forward to or that touched you on a deeper level than the average spot.
Almost any aficionado of advertising has heard of the 1984 Apple commercial, but that doesn’t fit my list because, frankly, we all found it rather creepy and didn’t care for it after the initial viewing. The E*TRADE baby commercials are quite cute but not all that special. There are also commercials that are just precious like the one from Volkswagen known as The Force where a young child in a Darth Vader costume tries valiantly to mind-control everything in his path. Other notables of their time include a Wendy’s commercial that sparked a new phrase and launched an aging senior into stardom as well as a favorite Super Bowl ad about the trials and risks of cat herding.
However, this list is about a breed of commercial above and beyond the rest, and for me, they’re as follows:
This is Your Brain on Drugs
This commercial from Partnership for a Drug-Free America had everyone talking the moment it aired in 1987. People everywhere were shocked at its brutal honesty and harsh message, but we all remembered it.
1970 Budweiser Commercial
This is a personal favorite of mine. The song is forever stuck in my head, and the enthusiasm of some of the actors is just classic. Check out the actor in the front row at about the 56-second mark. Now that’s a guy who love’s his Bud! I’m blown away by the production values involved. Also, think about the last time you heard a catchy original jingle in a commercial. This just doesn’t happen anymore. I’d kill to see this song turned into a live improv bit if I could just find a group of like-minded (and talented) singers to join me! The hard part would be finding a way to sneak in that timpani.
Nissan Leaf Polar Bear
Polar bears have been used in commercials forever, but this spot takes one into entirely unexpected territory — literally. It features a stunning glacier collapse, beautiful vistas, butterflies, raccoons and one of the most touching moments in commercial history.
1971 Hilltop Commercial
One of the most famous commercials ever made was so iconic that it spawned a sequel a generation later featuring the initial actors and their own children returning to the very same location to relive the moment. The accompanying jingle was so popular that the producers turned it into a full-length song that reached #13 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 list. Everyone, everywhere sang the tune, and Coca-Cola danced all the way to the bank.
Mean Joe Green
Eight years later, Coca-Cola did it again, this time featuring future NFL Hall of Famer Mean Joe Green and a young fan hoping to get an autograph. The battered warrior turns into a giant teddy bear right before everyone’s eyes.
The Man Your Man Could Smell Like
This one dazzled viewers with its incredible effects, snappy dialogue and over-the-top, in-your-face attitude. All anyone needed to say was a phrase of four short words, and we all instantly knew the reference: “I’m on a horse.”
Two All-Beef Patties…
McDonald’s created the Big Mac in 1967, but it wasn’t really part of the lexicon until a new ad campaign, focused on its ingredients, aired in 1975. By the time it ended its run a year later, everyone in America knew the exact makeup of the chain’s signature sandwich. To this day, I can recite the list of ingredients in rapid succession forward and backward. Bun seed sesame a on onions pickles cheese lettuce sauce special patties beef all two! Don’t miss the Prince William lookalike in the middle of the spot.
Long before Dos Equis brought us The Most Interesting Man in the World, Maxell gave us the coolest man on Earth with its breezy ad for its high-fidelity cassette tapes. He’s so cool that, for years, we all thought his glass was full of a fine white wine, but it’s just water. You couldn’t show liquor in an ad back then. Amazing.
The Daisy Ad
Easily the most famous political ad ever created, this haunting spot from 1964 features a precious little girl, a nuclear blast and President Lyndon Johnson actually saying, “We must either love each other … or we must die.” Oof. Can I still vote? Can someone drive me? I need to get to that polling place NOW, DAMMIT!
For those who don’t remember noted actor Yul Brynner, he represented the pinnacle of machismo from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. An Academy Award winner for The King and I, Brynner also starred as Pharaoh in The Ten Commandments as well as the main lead in The Magnificent Seven. The latter role led to one of the strangest reprises ever when he starred as an evil robotic version of that character in the highly successful Westworld. However, it was in his shortest role that he made perhaps his biggest impression. Not long before he died of lung cancer in 1985, Brynner shot a public service commercial. The ad wasn’t aired, by design, until after his death where Brynner, speaking from the grave, implored viewers not to smoke. It was absolutely unforgettable.
Believe it or not, in the early years of my life, it was completely commonplace to watch people toss all manner of trash out of their car windows while driving. The country’s highways were just one incredibly convenient, large trash receptacle. Then came an ad so moving that it compelled everyone to act almost overnight. The image of that singular emotional native American so burned onto everyone’s soul that the thought of littering became unconscionable. The effects were both dramatic and immediate.
Bud Ice Penguin
Few companies have had more success with iconic creatures than Anheuser-Busch. As an avid hockey fan, my favorite character from their archives is the Bud Ice penguin. This strange little creature was created to usher in Bud’s newest product by featuring a horror-based theme that rocked the advertising world for several years. The penguin would show up just about anywhere a Bud Ice might be found using his tell-tale jingle/phrase, “Doo bee doo bee do.” A narrator would conclude each entry by asking viewers to, “Drink Bud Ice but, uh, beware the penguins.” You haunt me, my friend…
Mac vs. PC
In 2006, Apple created one of its best ad series by having two then-fairly-unknown actors stand in for a Mac and a PC (Justin Long and John Hodgman) to joust about their various features. The result was a series of 66 phenomenal ads that virtually anyone can enjoy. The real trick is in how Apple manages to turn incredibly brutal condemnations into lighthearted jest. The series transformed Macs from being the choice of graphic designers into the choice for virtually anyone that wanted to feel trendy and current.
Nescafé and Taster’s Choice Couple
In 1987, Nescafé introduced a new series of commercials in the UK featuring a couple who flirt over instant coffee. The commercial spawned a long-running, soap opera-like romance between the two that captivated everyone. The company later reunited the couple for US audiences for their Taster’s Choice line with the same mesmerizing popularity. We watched as their romance slowly blossomed despite a myriad of wonderful complications. The actor is, of course, the very popular Anthony Head of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame.
The Polaroid Couple
About a decade before the Nescafé series launched, Polaroid ads featured a very photogenic couple (James Garner and Mariette Hartley) so convincing that everyone was certain they were married off camera. The belief was so strong that Hartley had shirts printed up stating, “I am not Jim Rockford’s wife.” (Jim Rockford was the name of Garner’s popular TV character at the time.) Their chemistry and bickering were legendary and they just look great together. People would often talk about the latest entry in this long-running series (over 300 of them). I enjoyed them so much that I had to include a few favorites. Oh, the looks, the smiles, the snickers… They had to at least be hot for each other.
Here’s an ad that has it all: incredible effects for the time, a great classic rock riff, the biggest icons of the toy world in G.I. Joe and Barbie (actually paper-thin variations of each to avoid the trademark issues), hot cars and, of course, cats. We couldn’t ever turn this off when it aired and prayed that Nissan would do a follow-up that never materialized, leaving us to always wonder about what might have been.
A while back, I was approached in a mall by one of those polling people with a clipboard working for a research group. They asked me to watch two competing ads about the power of the Internet. One was a confusing but interesting ad from Microsoft about a group of men and women who knitted or crocheted — I have yet to grasp the difference between them — for charity. The other was from Google about a farmer in Africa. The version included here isn’t quite the same version that I saw back then, but it’s close. The original one spent more time talking about the guy with the windmill and how his village now calls the notice board “The Internet,” but this one is just as powerful.