Absolut Vodka achieved what Stolichnaya could never do: establish a
burgeoning marketplace for premium vodkas. It was a neat trick for
a product that is by law and by its very nature a flavorless
3) If it was simply unforgettable.
Consider, for instance, the granddaddy of all jingles:
Pepsi-Cola hits the spot.
12 full ounces, that's a lot!
Twice as much for a nickel, too.
Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you!
In 1949, that little number played 296,426 times on 469 radio
stations -- not counting jukebox play, where it was also a
favorite. The Pepsi jingle embedded itself not so much in the
nation's psyche as in its very nerve endings, like the Pledge of
Allegiance, or -- depending on your viewpoint -- a case of
Periodically a campaign comes along that not only captures the
public's imagination, but penetrates the vernacular. Wendy's
hamburgers' "Where's the Beef?" was on the lips of an entire
nation, including at least one presidential candidate. A succession
of Alka-Seltzer campaigns, from a succession of agencies, achieved
the same -- effervescently and hilariously -- for two decades. Plop
plop, fizz fizz, oh how memorable advertising sometimes is.
Smokey Bear has been in hibernation for years, but thanks to him
everyone knows what, precisely, only you can prevent.
Everyone knows where M&Ms do and do not melt. Everyone knows
what is 99 44/100ths pure. (Hint: It is not the advertising
industry.) Everyone knows what is "Mmm mmm good."
Sadly, annoyance can be unforgettable, too. The shrill, petulant
"Ring Around the Collar" still grates decades after its conception.
Mr. Whipple is long retired but still fondling toilet paper in the
darkest recesses of our memory. The Anacin hammers-in-the-head --
which were to Rosser Reeves' Unique Selling Proposition what the
hammer and sickle were to international Communism -- still
reverberate nearly 40 years later.
Such advertising is something like the Heimlich maneuver: a
disagreeable experience but one which undeniably dislodges the
By contemporary standards, "They laughed when I sat down at the
piano" is a transparently disingenuous dramatization of a dubious
promise, yet its triumph-of-the-nebbish approach informs
direct-response advertising still today. Listerine's halitosis
campaign ("Always a bridesmaid, never a bride") may have fed on
people's insecurities, but it certainly framed the issue.
"For sheer fertility in creating situations in which halitosis
could spell business ruin and wreck a romance," wrote E.M. Turner
archly in his witty chronicle "The Shocking History of
Advertising!" "Listerine must not be grudged a grain of
Resist if you can, as Mr. Turner could not, the temptation to
sneer. Listerine, Wisk and their like-minded brethren dominated
their categories at the time and for decades thereafter. Indeed,
they still do.
This gets to the consequence of citing the greatest campaigns
ever, especially with the ranking protocol employed here. We cannot
always surrender to our aesthetic better judgment, nor even our
It will amuse some, and horrify others, that in the pantheon --
what we judge to be the 10 greatest advertising campaigns ever --
are included: two air polluters (VW and Avis), nutritionless sugar
water (Coca-Cola), one reviled carcinogen
(Marlboro), two companies infamous for the use of virtual slave
labor (DeBeers, Nike), one purveyor of savory cardiovascular
time bombs (McDonald's), two booze peddlers (Absolut and
Miller Lite) and one cosmetic product preying on the vanity of
Mercifully, the second tier of 10 -- Apple Computer, Ivory Soap,
et al -- is markedly more benign. We leave it to history to divine
a meaning from all of this. We are inclined to believe the best
advertising is bound eventually to emerge from the biggest
categories, and the biggest categories consist of the things people
most desire. People do not most desire wheat germ.
Beyond the usual contemptuousness about the excesses of the
consumer society, it's probably worth a second look at the list to
see what conclusions we can draw from the advertisements
themselves. What common thread runs through the 100 greatest
campaigns of 100 years? What is the defining nature of this
particular instrument of these particular immortals?
It is acknowledged, once again, that some of these ads are
manipulative and some annoying and some less than completely
honest. (The Marlboro man, for instance, the most successful ad
symbol of all time, the supposed symbol of rugged independence, is
really a symbol of enslavement to an addictive drug, isn't he?)
But these advertisements, most of them, are something else, too.
They are treasures. For one, they are important artifacts in our
culture. Woe betide future anthropologists and historians who try
to trace the American experience without pondering what, exactly,
it is that her hairdresser knows for sure.
And that's because the greatest advertising isn't great for
moving merchandise any more than the greatest literature is great
for compelling plots. Somehow -- in the service of carmakers and
brassiere manufacturers and car rental agencies -- these campaigns
have discovered our humanity. They have touched us, understood us,
reflected our lives and often enough enriched them.
"They laughed when I sat down at the piano" may fall a bit short
in the facts, but in exploring the roiling psychology of
self-esteem, it overflows with human truth.
Not grand, momentous philosophical truth -- just, here and
there, from this surprising corner and that, an observation, a
revelation, a tender nerve struck. Maybe it's just an ad for piano
lessons or a computer or a facial soap, but it gets to the heart of
what makes us tick. Leave it to the philosophers to contemplate the
Advertising is content to think small.