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Ads are ads. They're not art or philosophy or anything approaching the transcendent capacities of man. But occasionally, the right person or team at the right company brings the right product to the right agency, and together they put their finger on the pulse of something bigger. Although a lot of wacky ads flash in the proverbial pan and score big recall numbers a month after the Super Bowl, communications programs that do more—that speak to their audiences with words they not only understand but also want to hear, that move the cultural needle, that work—are few and far between. In identifying the best efforts of the past 25 years, let's start with the last criterion, basically efforts that sold their products and their companies. Naturally, a few come to mind—VW's New Beetle launch, Miller Lite's “Great Taste, Less Filling,� Wendy's “Where's the Beef?� But culling my shortlist, I singled out the works that did more, that addressed the genuine issues on the minds of the target demographic and, in some cases, also became a catalyst for those issues. The following five campaigns are bellwether as much as advertising, composing a sort of shorthand cultural road map through the last quarter century.

Levi Strauss & Co., 1984-1988: “501 Blues�

Seeing the launch spot for Levi's Type 1 jeans reminded me of the company's 501 campaign, not for any similarities but for how far the company has strayed. The new ad, showing a heroin-addict-scrawny model weeping while a herd of buffalo stampedes past her amid a sprawling, emptied cityscape, seemed the kind of abstract expression only a Europhilic fashion wag could appreciate. “501 Blues,� on the other hand, was as American as American could be, in all the best, populist, street-level notions of the term.

Unscripted and shot by San Francisco agency Foote Cone & Belding, the spots sold the basic, straight-legged jeans not as an “aspirational badge� but as the simple stuff of life. Real people, not models, danced dopey and devil-may-care in real, dirty streets and futzed over relationships, all intercut with name and no-name musicians singing original tunes—blues, doo-wop, rock, country. The only common denominator was the mention of the brand name.

The campaign showed another America, one far from the realms of power ties and LBOs. This, after all, was where jeans lived, among the great unwashed (as it were). Levi's had been one of the defining adornments of the youth culture that had broken off from the sterile mass culture of the '50s. “501 Blues� reestablished Levi Strauss's connection with that singular catalyst of that youthful schism, American music, and its polyglot casting, featuring people of all colors, subtly recalled the cross-racial fusion rock 'n' roll had affected in those decades past. “501 Blues� also became the company's spiritual compass, reinstating the Levi's brand as the fabric of Americana while never putting on airs or talking down to its market. “Blues� propelled the 501 brand sales to a 20 percent increase in 1984, though the company's overall sales remained flat. The turnaround lifted all boats the next year, as 501 sales jumped 50 percent in 1985 and sales for Levi's jeans division climbed 7.1 percent, to $1.5 billion.

Nike, 1987-1991: “Spike & Mike�

One could cite any number of Nike ad campaigns as candidates for this list: “Bo Knows,� “Just Do It,� et al. But as the company came off a horrific 1986, when sales plummeted to $877 million, from $1.1 billion, it was two bracing black-and-white spots that helped Nike turn a corner, fundamentally changed the way it spoke to consumers and helped introduce an urban aesthetic into mass culture.

“Yo! Mars Blackmon here, with my main man Michael Jordan�—for a few years, this became the opening line to rare laugh-out-loud advertising, as intoned by Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon, reprising the ever-yapping geek character from his film She's Gotta Have It. Lee played a Jordan fan to the point of psychosis, as the ascendant superstar went about his breathtaking dunks in desolate gyms. A later spot brought in an aeronautics professor, and its genius is simply Mars's wide-eyed reactions as the former explains: “Michael Jordan overcomes the acceleration of gravity by the application of his muscle power in the vertical plane, thus producing a low-altitude Earth orbit.�

Spike & Mike “set a new standard for what we expected at Nike, that ads should be intelligent, creative in terms of production value, but also clued in to contemporary culture,� says Scott Bedbury, who was Nike's ad director during that campaign. “What you were seeing by then was the rise of urban culture, a street culture that seemed so at ease with itself, so confident, so true … and it's no coincidence those things became fundamental to our brand identity.�

Jordan's star power and Mars's street cred revved that engine. They seemed to bring a distinct African American voice, as unique and wiggy as Lee's and as dignified as Jordan's, to the mainstream market, to a point where it would never be the same again (see Sprite, below). Along the way, the campaign righted the Nike ship: Sales rebounded to $1.2 billion in 1988, per Hoover's business data, then boomed to $1.7 billion, $2.2 billion and $3 billion in the next three years. Its creative momentum made Nike the most ubiquitous brand in sports, growing to a 43 percent market share in 1998 from 18 percent only 10 years earlier.

Saturn, 1990-1994: “A different kind of company. A different kind of car�

As marketing gurus busied themselves designing new concepts to reach an ever-elusive consumer, Saturn broke a TV spot that defined what in a few years would be buzz-phrased as “relationship marketing.� In it, a young guy driving across the country stops into local Saturn dealers ostensibly to get free checkups, but really for the free doughnuts. I recall the spot because it sold me. If I bought a Saturn (I didn't), I wouldn't just be buying a car but also membership in a support network staffed by people vested in keeping me happy. That's a lot of peace of mind, and it largely explains the cultlike following that sprang up around the fledgling GM brand.

Saturn began in 1985 as a skunk works charged with figuring out how to combat the small, fuel-efficient, ultra-reliable Asian imports that had ravaged Detroit's market share. It would evolve into a veritable cult of goodwill, a joint venture with the UAW, a company with ads that starred assembly-line workers and retailers whose enthusiasm for their product was contagious. From the outset, Saturn tackled the two biggest black marks on the American car business head-on: product quality and the shifty, high-pressure retail experience. One memorable spot told the story of a longtime Detroit autoworker who'd lost faith in the system, but who reinvigorated his hard work/good product philosophy at Saturn's Spring Hill, Tenn., factory. And though Americans have for years told pollsters that the car dealer is one of the least trustworthy of their fellow citizens, Saturn struck that entire issue with set, no-haggle pricing. Saturn and San Francisco agency Hal Riney & Partners didn't have to come up with gimmicky concepts about speed, performance, power or prestige, because the basic operating philosophy and resulting customer testimonials said everything, and said things no other car company could.

In January 1992, in its second model year, Saturn supplanted Lexus as the nation's highest sales-per-dealer car line, with average sales of 83 cars a month, and eclipsed Honda and Toyota for the No. 2 spot on the J. D. Power and Associates Dealer Satisfaction Survey (where it has remained for years). By the end of its fiscal 1992, Saturn had pumped its annual sales to 170,495 cars, a 236 percent increase over its first-year sales, and good for a 2.1 percent share of the market—better than Hyundai, Subaru, Volkswagen or Mitsubishi. Even more telling was the company's “conquest� ratio: According to Saturn's research, 70 percent of buyers said they had been converted from other makes, and, true to the company's raison d'être, 50 percent said they would have bought Asian had their new Saturn not been available.

Sprite, 1994: “Obey your thirst�

What Mike and Nike wrought by the mid-'90s became something of a celebrity-ad feeding frenzy. Every sneaker company signed superstars and set them in goofy or gritty ads. Even staid consumer products picked up the formula, bombarding the market with so many celebrities that no star could really exert a gravitational pull. A generation of latchkey kids, targeted from their early years by new, narrower media, graduated through a cultural looking glass, their disbelief unsuspended, wary of the crass shill.

It was to these people that a new campaign hawked something as innocuous as Coke's longtime also-ran brand, Sprite. “In my 17 years on this planet,� said the young African American narrator in the opening spot of the promotion in 1994, as standardized fake ad images flipped by, “they have subjected me to any number of product shots, drink shots, mega-superstars, jingles and the type of people I have never ever met in real life.� This salvo kicked off a series that made Sprite endearing by demystifying marketing. There is a devilish irony to the millions of dollars that went into the campaign over the years to tell youngsters that, whatever this or any other ad said, “Image is nothing. Obey your thirst.� Although they first addressed Sprite's core audience of ethnic consumers, the ads expanded in scope and victims and resonated well beyond this demographic.

One of the best was a mock ad for a fake soda, Jooky, featuring a dazzling, mega-fun beach party, then two slackers watching it on TV. When one of them opens Jooky and nothing happens, he says, “Aw, man, mine's busted.� Sprite even made fun of itself with an old-time “I recommend� spot with NBA star Grant Hill talking about the benefits of the soft drink. Dollar signs and money-bag icons pop up, with a cha-ching sound, every time he mentions the brand.

The iconoclastic tack invited no small amount of debate within Coke, says Darryl Cobbin, who was then a Sprite marketing manager and is now vice president in charge of the business. But “if we were going to be consistent and really reestablish this as a youth brand, we needed to take a risk, have an edge and be honest about it. When you're telling people, ‘You're smart, see through the BS, go do what you want to do,‘ that's a revolutionary message circa 1994. And when we said, ‘Along the way, if you get thirsty, pick up a Sprite,’ research indicated they said, ‘No one on Earth is telling us that.‘ And they rewarded us for it.�

Indeed, in a product category where minor single-digit sales bumps are heartening, Sprite exploded, growing 17.6 percent, to 541.5 million cases, in 1996, then another 10.4 percent, to 598 million, in 1997—doubling the brand's sales at the start of the decade.

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