Seven ad campaigns that changed everything.


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You gotta love all those end-of-year lists. They’re neat, tidy and timely.

That being said, I thought this might be a great opportunity to unveil our own end-of-year list. But rather than focus on the highs or lows of the past year, I thought, why not revisit campaigns that, quite literally, changed everything.

These are campaigns that gave us not just great ads, but forced us to rethink the very possibilities of persuasive communication. They’re presented in more-or-less sequential order.

1. Volkswagen “Think Small” (Doyle Dane Bernbach, 1962)


The now-famous Beetle campaign from DDB demonstrated how a marketer could succeed by creating a personality for his/her product, not by talking about the product, but by making the campaign more about the buyer. Volkswagen ads were like a dialogue with customers. Buyers could see themselves as part of the Volkswagen community. Looking at the DDB campaign en toto, one would surmise the Volkswagen buyer to be smart, frugal, no-nonsense and possessing an understated sense of humor. Truthfully, who wouldn’t want to be seen like that?

2. Xerox “Brother Dominic” (Needham, Harper Steers, 1976)

Until this famous TV Benedictine monk came along, business-to-business advertising was dull as dirt, pretty much confined to cold, boring sell sheets that reps would leave with their business cards. Business people don’t have time to be entertained, so the thinking went, so advertising to them as we would consumers is a waste of time. Kudos to Needham for remembering that business people are consumers, too. And that the best way to demonstrate a product’s true benefits are through storytelling, not bland bullet points.

3. FedEx “Sedelmaier campaign” (Ally Gargano, 1978)

In the 1970s and 80s, Chicago Director Joe Sedelmaier directed some of the funniest commercials ever aired, whether for FedEx, Wendy’s (“Where’s the Beef”), Alaska Airlines, Sprint (where I got the chance to work with him) and many others. His unique style of visual humor helped expand the definition of “what’s funny” in commercials. Until Joe, humor was pretty much restricted to quippy one-liners. Suddenly, sight gags were funny, characters were funny, ridiculous storytelling was funny. But the key thing was, with Joe, the needle moved. While many in the business derided him for “making fun” of the customer, results showed that “the customer” liked it, remembered it and acted on it.

4. Miller Lite “Ex-Jocks” (Backer-Spielvogel, 1976)

The use of jocks in advertising has become somewhat ubiquitous these days. And many of the spots are quite entertaining. But before the original Miller Lite spots, athlete advertising was pretty much of the hold-up-the-product-and-smile variety…not much in the way of capturing the personality of the jocks. Then Miller Lite came along. And Backer-Spielvogel was tasked with making a lite beer acceptable to the largest segment of beer drinkers—men. This campaign did it in spades. It not only propelled Miller Lite from a niche brand to the best selling brand of beer in America, it solidified jocks’ place in advertising lore.

5. Nike “Michael Jordan” (Wieden & Kennedy, 1986)

Nike did dozens of great ad campaigns prior to signing a rookie basketball player named Michael Jordan as a spokesperson in 1985. But Jordan became the brand, and the brand be came Jordan. The two represented the same values, and became inseparable, so far as Nike’s audience was concerned. The spots were so well crafted, they felt as if they were coming directly from Jordan, not scripted for him. Even these earliest spots featuring Spike Lee as Mars Blackman gave a hint at what was to come.

6. Apple MacIntosh “1984” (Chiat/Day, 1983)

Okay, so this is the low-hanging fruit. Yes, it ushered in the era of the bigger-than-life Superbowl commercial. But more importantly, it demonstrated how cinematic production values and flawless storytelling, when combined with a legitimate product promise, can move mountains.

7. National Milk Processors Board “Got Milk” (Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, 1994)


A great campaign to be sure, in every sense of the word. But “game changing?” I struggled with this at first, then decided to include it, for much the same reason Volkswagon and Xerox were included. For years, the Milk Board ran a campaign called “Milk Does a Body Good” that did a pretty good job of highlighting all the reasons a consumer should WANT to buy milk. Despite all those millions spent, growth was non-existent. Then Got Milk captured America’s fancy. And it did it by acknowledging HOW people used the product and WHY they wanted it. In short, folks didn’t buy milk because it was loaded with protein and Vitamin D; they bought it because someohow, nothing goes better with those monster chocolate chip cookies you love. Not just storytelling, but honest storytelling.

BONUS – 8. Old Spice “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” (Wieden & Kennedy, 2010)

Maybe this one is too recent to be included as a campaign of seismic proportions. But to my mind, it is the first campaign that successfully integrated traditional media with community-building Social Media to create unprecedented buzz (more than 1.4 BILLION views and mentions) and sales response (sales up over 100% in the two months following the campaign’s launch). And that doesn’t include the “updating-the-stodgy-brand” factor. From this day forward, I doubt there will be a “big idea” in this business that doesn’t include a strong Social Media component.

Can you think of any other campaigns you felt “changed everything?” Let us know, we’d love to hear from you.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Mickey Lonchar
Mickey Lonchar has spent the better part of two decades creating award-winning advertising with agencies up and down the West Coast, Mickey currently holds the position of creative director with Quisenberry Marketing & Design, a full-service advertising and interactive shop with offices in Spokane and Seattle, Wash.


  1. Mickey, another good read.

    I would add one other game changer: Geico. Their use of multiple simultaneous campaigns is brilliant — caveman, gecko, “but there is some good news,” and on and on. Plus, I can’t remember insurance ads using humor so effectively, or being so focused on a single benefit before Geico came along. Seems to me they’ve changed how the insurance industry thinks about advertising.


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