What makes an ad iconic?

Narratives and emotions play a role in making classic spots like '1984' and 'Daisy' linger longer in the cultural consciousness

By I-Hsien Sherwood Published on November 17, 2020

What makes an ad iconic?

Narratives and emotions play a role in making classic spots like '1984' and 'Daisy' linger longer in the cultural consciousness

By I-Hsien Sherwood Composite by Ad Age. Published on November 17, 2020

Composite images via Youtube

Epic Games released a familiar-looking ad in August. The maker of the video game Fortnite parodied the most famous Apple ad of all time, “1984,” with a shot-for-shot CGI remake to protest the tech company’s policies on its App Store.

But “Nineteen Eighty-Fortnite” would have been a nonsensical ploy if Apple’s 26-year-old ad wasn’t still immediately recognizable. Whatever one’s feelings about Apple, “1984” has firmly lodged itself in the shared imagination of modern society. It is a cultural touchstone that can be referenced, emulated, caricatured or even divorced from its original meaning. Apple may own the copyright, but it belongs to everyone now.

What is it about ads that stick in the psyche—or stick in the craw—that lets them take up permanent residence in the collective consciousness? How are they made? Of course, there is no dependable formula for creating an ad that will do so. Otherwise, every ad would be iconic. But memory is fickle, and the magic that makes an ad unforgettable is not a solved game but some combination of craft, timing and social engineering—and more than a little luck.

“The idea of capturing lightning in a bottle—you can’t predict that,” says Lisa Sherman, CEO of the Ad Council, which has run some of the best-known campaigns of all time, including “Keep America Beautiful” and Smokey Bear. “But a powerful story, well told, can absolutely change the world.”

Tricks of the trade

In 1993, the California Milk Processor Board was looking for a new message. “Milk, It Does a Body Good,” itself a somewhat memorable campaign, was dairy’s go-to sales pitch in the ‘80s. But the focus on tangible benefits—calcium, protein, strong bones and muscles—couldn’t prevent slumping milk sales, as consumers turned away from what they saw as a beverage for children to soda, sports drinks and the burgeoning bottled water industry.

Some doctors and nutritionists also took issue with the health benefit claims. The commercials weren’t just ineffective, they were disprovable.

So Goodby Silverstein & Partners came up with an idea that had nothing to do with what milk did for the drinker. Instead the “Got Milk?” campaign focused on what might happen when the milk runs out, starting with a spot that paved the way for Lin Manuel Miranda by introducing an entire generation to Alexander Hamilton’s killer, Aaron Burr.

“Milk is not the most important thing in your life, and ‘Got Milk?’ acknowledged that,” says Jeff Goodby, co-founder and co-chairman of the agency. “It's really just a commodity. The only question is, do you have any of it or not?” The consequence laid out in the inaugural campaign spot was dire, $10,000 down the drain all due to a lack of milk. Subsequent spots were equally hyperbolic: a dead jerk discovers he’s been sent not to heaven but to a milk-less hell, a paranormal child predicts catastrophe at a birthday party.

“We used unrealistic mythologies to get across a very simple point, because that's what would stick in your head,” Goodby says. “The campaign is built upon elaborations that remind you that you should have milk—the more elaborate, the better.” Even the scenery was over-the-top. Michael Bay, never one to choose a subdued shot when a lurid one will do, directed “Aaron Burr” and was responsible for coming up with the character’s odd living situation, surrounded not just by Hamilton paraphernalia, but an old car, an oxidized bedframe and assorted tchotchkes.

“Look at how many elements there are to remember in those spots. There are indelible images, sure, but even more so there is a very sticky visual language,” Goodby says. Rather than Helvetica, which was used for the tagline in the rough cuts, agency co-founder Rich Silverstein commissioned a different typeface that would be more memorable.

Voiceover actor and announcer Denny Delk reads the tagline for the series with just a hint of condescension. “He did it with a lot of attitude,” Goodby adds. “It's like, ‘Well, have you got your milk or not?’ Like John Wayne.”

Mind games

The “stickiness” of those “Got Milk?” spots is due to the peculiarities of human memory. Brains are by their nature ignorant and forgetful. They must be, because they are continually bombarded by visual, auditory, tactile and proprioceptive stimuli. The mind is always sifting this stream of data, looking for clues that a bit information could be important enough to be retained.

“You probably remember the first time you rode a bicycle, but you don't remember what you had for breakfast yesterday,” says Shahram Heshmat, associate professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield, where he teaches behavioral and health economics. “But if someone tells us a story, we remember it so well. If somebody just gives us facts, we don’t really.”

Yes, despite its reputation as an overused buzzword, literal storytelling—the creation of recognizable, relatable characters who act in believable ways—does help viewers organize and recall information. Life cereal’s “Mikey” was onscreen for just 10 seconds of the oft-quoted 1972 commercial. But everyone knows a picky kid who won’t eat anything, and the joy of watching them find out they were wrong.

On the other hand, very few people know a history-obsessed collector who lives in a makeshift museum. But the trappings of the “Aaron Burr” spot tell the character’s tragic story without needing words. He lives alone. He prefers the classics. He buys in bulk. He will never get over this. “If you give someone pieces of information, we create a narrative in our mind that helps us to remember,” Heshmat says, a kind of mnemonic device that helps consolidate short-term memories in the hippocampus and move them into long-term memory.

Emotional content, emotional context

The encoding of memories occurs at the molecular level, in a stew of neurotransmitters and hormones that changes in response to internal and external stimuli. And emotions are one of the strongest influences on memory. “When things are emotional, they are kind of like a laser,” Heshmat says. “It imprints something in our memory.”

This is why appeals to fear work so well. Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign ad “Daisy” raised the specter of nuclear war. Agency DDB tapped into the worries of a nation in a constant state of existential dread with a brazen and blunt attack directed toward the ultra-hawkish views of Johnson’s opponent Barry Goldwater, though Goldwater is never named in the spot. Johnson won the election in a landslide.

During times of stress—real or perceived—the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol help consolidate memories, to better the recall of information necessary for future survival. The same mechanism is in effect during traumatic events, with PTSD the unwanted end result of the process gone awry—memories that can not only be recalled, but must be.

But when it comes to remembering, the body doesn’t distinguish between good and bad feelings. “All of these emotions come from the same part of the brain, the amygdala,” Heshmat says. “It’s not like there’s a certain area for positive or negative emotions.” During pleasurable experiences, serotonin and dopamine serve the same function as the stress hormones, facilitating the conversion of ephemeral experiences into memories. Funny ads, sappy ads, scary, sexy or provocative ads all trigger a primal urge to absorb and retain information.

But even innocuous content can become imprinted under the right circumstances. Most people older than 25 can remember where they were on 9/11, even if their immediate circumstances were banal. The context of their surroundings overrides the content.

The stakes needn’t be life or death, though. Fight or flight will suffice, and the adrenaline rush of the Super Bowl has fueled memorable ads for decades. There’s no better time to catch a large, attentive audience, amygdalas aflame, desperately searching for a storyline for the ages.

Small wonder, then, that brands love to present their most ambitious work on the Super Bowl stage. McCann Erickson’s “Hey Kid, Catch!” Coke commercial featuring “Mean” Joe Greene ran during the broadcast more than three months after it originally aired. McDonald’s pitted Michael Jordan against Larry Bird in an unforgettable game of HORSE spread across two 1993 Big Game spots in Leo Burnett’s “The Showdown.”

Chiat/Day understood the power of the platform so well that they buried the broadcast debut of Apple’s “1984” just before midnight on New Year’s Eve on a lone TV station in southern Idaho, guaranteeing that, in the days before DVR, virtually no one would have seen the spot before it aired during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII. (And who would have believed anyone who had actually caught the original broadcast, a ball-drop fever dream if ever there was one? The 1983 media buy was made solely to lock in eligibility for the 1984 Clio Awards.)

Chicken and egg

Strategists pride themselves on being able to tap into cultural conversations, to dig up the subconscious rumblings of the zeitgeist and put them to page. Sometimes, they succeed.

Apple’s “1984” worked on multiple levels, each speaking to the discontent of a different segment of society. George Orwell’s literary classic was experiencing a resurgence of popularity in its eponymous year, so an homage presented a clear aesthetic direction—totalitarian grays, surveillance screens and a big, giant head. The choice of Ridley Scott to direct, already famous for the futuristic dystopias of “Blade Runner” and “Alien,” cemented the tone.

Conservatives worried about the enduring Cold War with the Soviet Union could appreciate the nod to the lauded anti-communist. Liberals caught in the middle of the Reagan Revolution saw parallels to their own government. Techies chafing at the stranglehold of IBM could identify with the scrappy upstart manufacturer with the psychedelic logo. And everyone could imagine themselves as the lone, daring freedom fighter.

Coca-Cola did the same more than a decade earlier. “Hilltop” in 1971 was a marked departure from the soda giant’s longtime positioning. “Coke’s strategy before that commercial was to just tout the superiority of Coke,” says Timothy D. Taylor, professor of ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of “The Sounds of Capitalism.”

“Pepsi's campaigns were all about, ‘Think young’ and ‘It's a Pepsi generation.’ It was all about being in the hip and cool group that drinks Pepsi, and Coca-Cola adopted that position with that ad,” he says. The ad from McCann Erickson (not Don Draper) featured a multicultural choral ensemble clutching bottles of Coke labeled in different languages, the kind of imagery associated with the counterculture.

“It represented the counterculture without really buying in,” Taylor says. “To a lot of people, including my Midwestern, conventional parents, it made it seem less threatening and more something that they could countenance.”

Ads exist as part of the cultural conversation, so it can be hard to parse whether a commercial is channeling culture or leading it. Which came first, Nike’s “Just Do It” tagline or the rise of the amateur athleticism the phrase came to represent? “’Just Do It’ didn't say these are the shoes that professional athletes use so you should use them, too,” Goodby says. “It said you could be an athlete, too. You just have to get your ass out and do it. You've been saying that you're going to do it, but you haven't done it. Get out there and do it.”

In 2013, four years before the #MeToo movement burst back onto the scene, Always’ “Like a Girl” was able to tap into increasingly public frustrations about casual, systemic misogyny. “I think that advertising in its best form today is about truly reflecting and connecting with its audiences through truth,” says AJ Hassan, VP, executive creative director at R/GA Chicago, who was the creative director on Always at Leo Burnett at the time.

“It was the perfect storm of a change in the audiences and the type of communications that, I would say, women in particular expected at that time, and a lot of the conversations that were already starting to bubble up around gender equality and the lack of progress, the pay gap,” she says.

Have it your way

Some ads, like “1984,” air a handful of times and then live on in memory, archived on YouTube only many years later. But most are pushed to live beyond a single spot, and it is through the iterations that they gain longevity. “Mikey” ran unchanged for 12 years, which is why so many people remember watching it as a kid. “Got Milk?” spun out spot after spot for more than a decade, including the milk moustache ads and their infamous parodies.

“There were hundreds, if not thousands of them. People ripped it off and used it for like, school bake sales and stuff,” Goodby says. He recommended that the client, Jeff Manning, get a lawyer to stop them. “He said, ‘I can't afford one, just let them do it.’ And that turned out to be a really smart idea. I mean, we lucked into that.”

When audiences feel ownership over an ad, spots can begin to take on a life of their own. McGruff the Crime Dog and Smokey Bear are Ad Council mascots, but they work for the American people. The Crash Test Dummies inspired a band name, and “Friends Don’t Let Friends” and “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” became memes even before the internet.

“Because it's not tied to a brand, they can feel like they own it,” Sherman says of the Ad Council properties. “It is theirs and therefore it gives them more permission to tweak and iterate with us over time.”

Think different

Campaigns that achieve iconic status often do so because they change the status quo, either in the industry or society as a whole. But they also typically share the industry’s cardinal sin: The faces behind them are too white and too male.

There’s been some change in recent years. On the “Like a Girl” campaign, “most of the creative team, most of the brand team, most of the client team, most of our media partner team were women,” Hassan says. “It no doubt was a critical factor in telling the story in the most authentic way.”

Pictures from the awards shows that year, 2015, tell the story definitively. “A lot of people in the industry who were colleagues of mine said they'd never seen that many women on stage together,” Hassan recalls.

It stands to reason that if an ad can break out from the confines of a campaign to become a true piece of art and culture, to resonate beyond the life of the media buy and to change the opinions, values and frame of reference of the people who view it, so too can it change the people who made it. And maybe that’s their real legacy.

“’Like a Girl’ tapped into a universal human truth. It was the universality of that insult,” Hassan says. “It was the emotion of something that was an unconscious bias that we were all participating in, right under our nose, being revealed to us.” Adage End Bug

Web production by Corey Holmes.