History’s Most Successful TV Ads (and Why They Worked)

by Brittany McSorley

new england social media marketingCape Cod social media marketing does not often call for writing and filming national television ads, but there’s still plenty to learn from history’s most successful TV spots. At KDC, we love digging into how and why certain marketing ventures go the distance, so we thought we’d share some of the most memorable television ads and just how they hit their mark. Feel free to take notes:


1959: The Trix Rabbit Debut

The first appearance of the famous Trix Rabbit was in a 1959 animated spot in which the poor creature explains that even though he’s supposed to like vegetables, he simply loves Trix. Pretty much immediately, a young boy and his little sister relieve the rabbit of his mistaken notion that he can have any of their delicious cereal. It’s cute, but the rabbit is sad, you guys. He’s genuinely upset.

Why it worked: Kids love exclusivity, because they are tiny, dangerous divas. Tell kids they’re the only ones allowed to have something, and they’ll probably go crazy for it.


1969: Alka Seltzer’s “Spicy Meatball”

A commercial within a commercial?! The ‘60s were wild. In this Alka Zeltzer ad, an actor filming a TV spot for spaghetti sauce keeps flubbing his line and has to film take after take, with a fresh bite of food accompanying each try. Coming to the rescue so he can soldier on is some Alka Seltzer to settle his too-full stomach.

Why it worked: The concept here, of an actor who can’t quite get his line out, is comedic and memorable, and so is the line itself when he finally manages it: “Mamma mia, that’s a spicy meatball!” This ad is hard not to parrot. Plus, discomfort from overeating is pretty relatable.


1974: The Meow Mix One . . . You Know the One

In this groundbreaking advertisement, a cat sings a little cat jingle. That’s it. The only words are “meow,” because the cat is a cat, and that’s what cats say. Subtitles are provided so we may understand that the cat is asking to be fed Purina’s Meow Mix.

Why it worked: This is the definition of catchy. Try as you might, you simply can’t get this tune out of your head once it’s there. In fact, it’s been reported that the CIA has used this song to torture prisoners. Marketing!


1979: Coca-Cola’s “Mean Joe Greene”

This popular ad aired throughout the 1979 football season. Mean Joe Greene, who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, hobbles off the field after a tough game. To be honest, it’s kind of depressing, and a young fan who takes notice of Greene thinks so too, because he starts managing this NFL star’s emotions like immediately. The kid basically tells Greene that he has value, then offers him his Coke so he can get his act together. One sip and Greene straightens up, perky and healthy, then tosses his jersey to the young fan.

Why it worked: Put anything in a wildly successful and famous person’s hand, and you’re pretty much good to go. Also, people love sugar. And children. And football.


1983: The Department of Transportation’s “Crashing Glasses”

Two wine glasses held aloft approach one another in slow motion. When the glasses touch, they both shatter. Two beer glasses follow suit. Two whiskey glasses are on the same path, when a third hand stops the collision. “Drunk driving kills friendships,” reads the on-screen text.

Why it worked: This ad was simple, honest, and scary.


1984: Apple’s “1984”

This spot aired just once, during the 1984 Super Bowl, but it was played over and over on news channels in the days following, making it one of the earliest viral advertisements. It announced that two days after the big game, Apple Computers would unveil its Macintosh model. Beginning with an unsettling realization of George Orwell’s “Big Brother,” the ad then promised the forthcoming computer revolution would prevent the year 1984 from looking like the book’s version.

Why it worked: Soothing a deep fear shared by all of humanity is usually a good marketing tactic. This ad’s fun to look back on, from your iPhone, while it’s listening to everything you say in order more easily sell you things.


1987: Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s “This Is Your Brain on Drugs”

This ad is 30 seconds long, and it’s one of the most referenced and parodied of all time. We begin with a close-up on a frying pan and a voiceover: “Okay, last time. This is drugs.” An egg is dropped into the piping hot oil and immediately begins to fry. “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?”

Why it worked: This ad is another perfect combination of simple visuals and a resonating message.


1989: The Energizer Bunny

In the first of many Energizer bunny ads, battery-operated drumming bunny toys are grouped together like a marching band. The lead bunny, powered by Energizer batteries, outlasts all the rest.

Why it worked: The visual of one holdout among many batteries that have failed to go the distance? It’s pretty compelling. Plus, bunnies.


1999: Budweiser’s “Wassup”

Football. Men. Beer. Need I say more? This unforgettable ad is about a group of dudes who share a house together but prefer to drink alone in separate rooms, even when there’s a football game on. This was back when landline phones were . . . the only phones, and you could pick up the extension in any room of the house to drop in on a conversation. And that’s all that happens! One by one, men drinking Budweiser pick up the phone and greet one another by asking “Wassup?” Hell if I know.

Why it worked: Absurd things are memorable, and this ad was no exception. The exaggerated greeting was begging to be recreated, and to be honest, it was a dark few years after this came out.


2006: Apple’s “Get a Mac”

What would become a huge TV campaign for Apple was launched in 2006 with a small number of ads. In each spot, actors Justin Long and John Hodgman appear in front of a white background. Long, representing Macs, is dressed in a cool, casual look. Hodgman, representing PCs, wears a forgettable, ill-fitting suit. They discuss the features of Macs and PCs, with Macs always looking like the better choice in the end.

Why it worked: The effectiveness of these commercials was striking. They were incredibly competitive, but the aggressive tactic was perfectly coated in playful humor. Well done, you sly devils.


2012: Procter & Gamble’s “Thank You, Mom”

This 2012 Olympics ad shows a montage of devoted mothers getting their kids to and from practices, meets, and games, dutifully watching from the sidelines as the children grow up to be Olympic athletes. “The hardest job in the world is the best job in the world,” the on-screen text reminds us. Then we all cry, because the Olympics make everyone a little fragile.

Why it worked: Moms are treasures, and we all know it. The ad played on a nearly universal sentiment, and reminded everyone with kids that they may be raising exceptional people who were only sticky little monsters right now.


2015: Always’ “#LikeAGirl”

This 2015 Super Bowl ad addressed how girls’ confidence takes a serious hit during puberty. Older girls and boys are asked to demonstrate running, fighting, and so on “like a girl,” and the results make fun of and insult the very concept of girlhood. When young girls themselves are asked to demonstrate, they are sincere and powerful.

Why it worked: This ad confronted us with an uncomfortable truth, then vowed to address it. Girl power is important.


You may not need to shoot a big-budget commercial for your business anytime soon, but these successful ads have plenty to teach marketers of all industries and influence about how to make an impact.