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The Best Ads of All Time and What We Can Learn From Them

The Best Ads of All Time and What We Can Learn From Them

Ah, advertising! The art of persuasion. The craft of capturing hearts, minds, and wallets with just the right blend of wit, wisdom, and well-timed pizzazz. Welcome to the delicious world of ad magic as we delve into the glorious realm of “The Best Ads of All Time and What We Can Learn From Them.”

Advertising is not merely about selling products; it's a mirror to society, reflecting our culture, desires, values, and even idiosyncrasies. It's storytelling in the fastest, flashiest form possible. If we look at the stats, it's staggering: in 2022 alone, worldwide ad spending reached an eye-popping $713.6 billion. That's more than the GDP of some countries! Yet, what's more, is that a mere 2% of consumers trust ads. That's where the real challenge — and thrill — of advertising lies.

In this piece, we're embarking on a time-travelling journey through ad history, celebrating those needle-in-the-haystack campaigns that didn't just resonate with audiences, but rocked their world. These ads defied the 2% rule, triggering a tidal wave of trust and leading to a surge in sales while having a profound societal impact.

We're not just here to admire these masterpieces, in any case. There's gold in them there ads! We will dissect them, explore their ingenuity, and extract actionable insights you can apply to your marketing strategies, even in this hyper-digital era.

So buckle up for a journey through time filled with jingles you can't forget, slogans that became everyday lingo, and ad campaigns that stirred conversations around the globe. We promise it's going to be one hell of a ride! Let's begin.

What Makes an Ad Great?

Before we dive into the list, let's take a quick detour to understand what separates a good ad from an iconic one. It's a mix of elements: brilliant storytelling, emotional resonance, attention to cultural context, and a clear, compelling message. They transcend the fundamental goal of selling a product or service, leaving an indelible impression on the viewer. They become cultural cornerstones, shaping conversations and influencing trends.

The All-Time Best Ads

Let's start with some timeless classics that have carved their space in the annals of advertising history.

Coca-Cola's “Hilltop” (1971)

This ad quickly became an iconic symbol of its time, perfectly mirroring the sociopolitical climate in which it was released. The world was yearning for unity and understanding during that period. People longed to end conflicts and divisions, and this advertisement beautifully tapped that collective desire.

When this ad hit the airwaves, it struck an emotional chord with viewers. It reminded us that despite our differences, at the core, we are all just human beings with the same basic hopes and dreams. We all crave a peaceful world where everyone can coexist harmoniously and share life's joys.

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The image of those young individuals standing together and singing in perfect harmony spoke volumes about the power of unity and the strength that comes from embracing diversity. It showcased that overcoming barriers, building bridges, and joining a global community is possible.

The impact of this ad was immense. It sparked conversations, inspired countless people, and left a lasting imprint on popular culture. It became a symbol of hope and a reminder that even in the face of adversity, we can strive for a better future. It stood as a beacon of light, reminding us of the importance of empathy, understanding, and the pursuit of peace.

Years later, this advertisement continues to hold its significance. Its message transcends time, reminding us that unity and peace are timeless aspirations. It serves as a gentle nudge, urging us to look beyond our differences and work together towards creating a world where everyone can live in harmony.

Apple's “1984” (1984)

Drawing inspiration from George Orwell's timeless dystopian novel “1984,” Apple took a bold step by creating an advertisement that was more than just a promotion for their products. It was a captivating story, a glimpse into a grim future where conformity and control reigned supreme, symbolised by a monolithic figure representing IBM.

But amid this bleak world, a glimmer of hope emerged—Apple. They positioned themselves as the bold, rebellious force challenging the status quo, the beacon of individuality and freedom. With striking visuals and an intense soundtrack, the ad transported viewers into a cinematic experience that left them on the edge of their seats.

The impact? It was nothing short of revolutionary. Within three months of airing that ad, Apple achieved something extraordinary—they sold a staggering 50,000 Macintosh computers. People were captivated, inspired, and intrigued by the vision presented in that one-minute masterpiece. Apple had successfully captured the imagination of the masses and created a buzz that resonated far beyond the confines of the Super Bowl.

This commercial solidified Apple's brand identity and marked a turning point in advertising. It showed that commercials could be more than just product showcases; they could be transformative, emotional experiences that leave a lasting impression.

To this day, that Super Bowl ad remains a touchstone of advertising excellence. Its legacy serves as a reminder that in a world dominated by conformity, the ones who dare to think differently, challenge the norms, and embrace the power of creativity that makes a difference. Apple's bold move during Super Bowl XVIII ignited a spark that continues to shape how we perceive and engage with advertising.

So, next time you watch the Super Bowl, take a moment to appreciate the profound impact that one-minute ad had on the world. It's a testament to the power of storytelling, the strength of a visionary brand, and the endless possibilities within the realm of imagination.

De Beers' “A Diamond is Forever” (1948)

Enter De Beers, the renowned diamond company that decided to take the engagement ring market by storm. They devised a simple yet powerful phrase: “A Diamond is Forever.” These four words had a monumental impact on shaping our perceptions and established diamond rings as an enduring symbol of love and commitment.

With this unforgettable slogan, De Beers solidified its position in the market and forever altered the social fabric surrounding engagement rings. Suddenly, diamonds became synonymous with an everlasting love and the ultimate expression of a lifelong commitment. It wasn't just a piece of jewellery anymore; it became a profound representation of an unbreakable bond between two people.

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This ad campaign successfully tapped into people's emotions and aspirations. It appealed to the deep-rooted desire for lasting love and the significance of marking such a commitment with a timeless symbol. The brilliance and beauty of diamonds perfectly aligned with the message of eternal love that De Beers wanted to convey.

As the campaign gained traction, it captured the hearts and minds of individuals across the globe. The idea of a diamond engagement ring became ingrained in popular culture, influencing couples and society. The impact was so profound that it forever changed how we perceive and celebrate love and commitment.

Today, thanks to this great advertisement, diamond engagement rings have become a near-universal expectation. Couples worldwide dream of the moment when a diamond ring is presented, symbolising an everlasting promise and a future together. It's incredible to think that a single campaign had such a profound effect on an age-old tradition.

Capturing Emotions

Brands have consistently utilised emotional triggers to connect with their audience. Here are some ads that mastered this art.

Budweiser's “Puppy Love” (2014)

What made this ad truly special was its ability to tap into our emotions. It's no secret that humans are suckers for heartwarming stories, and this commercial knew precisely how to tug at those heartstrings. It showcased the pure innocence and joy that can come from the most unexpected friendships, and it did so in an authentic and relatable way.

When the ad aired during the Super Bowl, nationwide viewers were instantly captivated. They couldn't help but smile as they watched the mischievous puppy and the gentle horse forge a bond that transcended their differences. A tale of unlikely companionship reminded us of the power of friendship and acceptance.

But what set this ad apart was its ability to leave a lasting impression. Long after the Super Bowl, people continued to talk about this commercial, sharing it with their friends and family on social media platforms. It became a viral sensation, with countless views and shares, further cementing its place in advertising history.

This ad is a powerful reminder to marketers and brands everywhere that emotional appeal can be the key to creating an unforgettable experience. By tapping into our emotions and connecting with us deeper, brands can leave a lasting impression far beyond a 30-second spot during a sporting event.

John Lewis's Christmas Ads

They have truly set the gold standard for capturing the essence of the holiday season. Every year, people eagerly anticipate the release of their Christmas ads, which have gained quite a reputation for their ability to tug at heartstrings and create a magical atmosphere.

One particular ad that still resonates with audiences today is their 2011 masterpiece, “The Long Wait.” This advertisement stands out for its brilliant storytelling and emotional depth. The ad takes us on a journey through a young boy's anticipation for Christmas morning, and it beautifully captures the joy of giving.

What makes “The Long Wait” unique is its ability to evoke many emotions. We can sense the excitement and anticipation in the young boy's heart from the beginning. The ad skillfully portrays his impatience and longing for the big day to arrive, which many of us can relate to from our childhood experiences.

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As the story unfolds, we witness the boy counting down the days, facing various obstacles. Yet, the real magic lies in the twist ending. Let's say the ad takes an unexpected turn that pulls at your heartstrings without giving too much away. It's a tearjerker in the best possible way, leaving viewers with a warm, fuzzy feeling and a renewed appreciation for the joy of giving.

John Lewis has truly mastered the art of storytelling through their Christmas ads. They understand that it's not just about showcasing their products or promoting their brand but about connecting with people on a deeper, emotional level. Their ads remind us of the true spirit of the holiday season, emphasising the importance of love, kindness, and generosity.

“The Long Wait” is just one example of John Lewis' incredible ability to craft narratives that touch our hearts. Year after year, they continue to surprise and captivate us with their storytelling prowess, leaving us eagerly awaiting their next masterpiece. It's no wonder their Christmas ads have become a beloved tradition for many, bringing people together and spreading joy during the most wonderful time of the year.

Challenging Stereotypes

Advertising has the power to challenge societal norms and break stereotypes. Let's look at some trailblazers in this domain.

Dove's “Real Beauty” Campaign (2004)

This campaign was a game-changer in the beauty industry, turning heads and sparking essential discussions about beauty standards that were long overdue. Dove took a bold step by featuring women of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities in their advertisements, breaking away from the narrow definition of beauty that had dominated the industry for far too long.

The campaign quickly became fresh air in a world saturated with unrealistic beauty ideals. By showcasing real women's diverse faces and bodies, Dove challenged the notion that beauty could be confined to a specific mould. It celebrated the inherent beauty found in every woman, regardless of her appearance, and that was truly revolutionary.

What made the “Real Beauty” Campaign even more powerful was its ability to bring inclusivity into the mainstream. It wasn't just a niche movement; it struck a chord with people from all walks of life. Suddenly, conversations about the unrealistic beauty standards imposed on women took place everywhere, from living rooms to social media platforms. This campaign catalysed change, encouraging society to question and redefine what beauty truly meant.

But the campaign's impact wasn't limited to changing hearts and minds. It also had a profound effect on Dove's bottom line. By embracing diversity and promoting a more inclusive definition of beauty, Dove saw a remarkable surge in sales. This success sent a powerful message to the beauty industry, and beyond embracing diversity isn't just ethically correct; it's also commercially rewarding.

The “Real Beauty” Campaign proved that people were hungry for more realistic portrayals of beauty. It showed that consumers were tired of being bombarded with airbrushed and unattainable images. Instead, they craved authenticity and representation. Dove tapped into this yearning and delivered a profound message resonating with individuals worldwide.

Always' “#LikeAGirl” (2014)

It came out in 2014; let me tell you, it was a game-changer! This ad took the phrase “Like A Girl,” which had been used as an insult for so long, and completely flipped it on its head. Instead of accepting it as an insult, they transformed it into a powerful complement that empowered young girls everywhere. It was brilliant!

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The impact of this ad was massive, and it resonated with people all over the world. It sparked a conversation about gender stereotypes and the importance of challenging them. By showcasing the strength and confidence of young girls, the ad shattered the notion that doing something “like a girl” was somehow inferior or weak. It was a powerful message encouraging girls to embrace their abilities and be proud of themselves.

And the recognition this ad received was well-deserved. It racked up an impressive list of accolades, including an Emmy, Cannes Grand Prix, and Grand Clio awards. These prestigious honours were a testament to the ad's effectiveness in changing perceptions and inspiring positive change.

But it wasn't just the awards that made this ad special; it was the genuine impact it had on people's lives. It sparked a global movement where countless individuals, organisations, and communities rallied behind the empowering message. People started challenging stereotypes, uplifting young girls, and supporting gender equality. It was truly remarkable to see the lasting impact of a single advertisement.

The success of “#LikeAGirl” showed the power of advertising to shape culture and drive social change. It demonstrated that a well-crafted message could break down barriers, inspire conversations, and empower individuals. Always took a simple phrase and turned it into a rallying cry for gender equality, showing us all the incredible strength and potential within every girl.

In the years since its release, “#LikeAGirl” continues to inspire and motivate. It serves as a reminder that words hold immense power and that we should be mindful of how we use them. It encourages us to challenge stereotypes, support one another, and empower the next generation of girls to be unapologetically themselves.

So, hats off to Always for creating an ad that captured our attention and ignited a movement. It's a shining example of how advertising can be a force for positive change, and it will forever be remembered as a groundbreaking campaign that empowered young girls everywhere to embrace their strength and redefine what it means to be “like a girl.

Leveraging Humour

Humour is a classic, irresistible tool in advertising. Here are a few ads that aced it.

Old Spice's “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” (2010)

Old Spice's groundbreaking advertisement, “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,” released in 2010, revitalised the brand's image and propelled it into modernity and sophistication. This iconic commercial marked a turning point for Old Spice, effectively shedding its outdated reputation and positioning it as the go-to choice for contemporary men.

“The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” captivated audiences worldwide with its brilliant combination of humour, wit, and a delightful twist. The ad featured a charismatic and suave protagonist, portrayed by the talented actor Isaiah Mustafa, who effortlessly showcased Old Spice's various grooming products. With his perfectly chiselled physique and smooth delivery, Mustafa instantly captivated viewers, presenting himself as the epitome of charm, confidence, and masculinity.

What set this advertisement apart was its ability to seamlessly transition from one setting to another, taking viewers on an unexpected journey. From a luxurious bathroom to a yacht, from a horseback ride on the beach to an extravagant shower scene, the ad artfully showcased the brand's line of products while simultaneously delivering a whimsical and humorous narrative. The cleverly crafted script, filled with clever one-liners and memorable catchphrases, added to its entertainment value, leaving a lasting impact on audiences.

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One of the defining features of “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” was its unconventional approach to advertising. The ad broke free from the traditional conventions and stereotypes of men's grooming products, presenting a refreshing and modern take on masculinity. By portraying the protagonist as desirable and approachable, Old Spice successfully connected with its target audience, challenging societal expectations and redefining what it meant to be a modern man.

The advertisement's impact extended far beyond its initial release, becoming a viral sensation that captured the attention of millions. Garnering a staggering 105 million views, it quickly became one of the most-watched and shared commercials ever. Its widespread popularity was primarily due to its ability to engage viewers on multiple levels. Whether it was the unexpected humour, the charming protagonist, or the seamless integration of product demonstrations, “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” managed to captivate and entertain a diverse audience.

In addition to its commercial success, the ad also sparked countless parodies, memes, and cultural references, further solidifying its place in popular culture. The campaign's impact went beyond just the brand, paving the way for a new era of innovative and unconventional advertising strategies. By embracing humour, surprise, and modernity, Old Spice successfully repositioned itself as a dynamic and relevant brand, appealing to new consumers.

Wendy's “Where's the Beef?” (1984)

Wendy's “Where's the Beef?” advertisement aired in 1984 remains an iconic moment in American advertising history. This commercial not only captured the nation's attention but also embedded itself in the collective memory of the American people. The genius of this ad lies in its ability to combine humour with a powerful message about Wendy's commitment to providing customers with bigger, high-quality burgers.

The catchphrase “Where's the Beef?” quickly became a cultural phenomenon, entering the American lexicon and sparking conversations nationwide. The ad featured three elderly ladies examining a competitor's hamburger, only to find a disappointingly small patty amidst a sea of oversized buns. Frustrated by the lack of substance, one of the women famously exclaims, “Where's the Beef?” This simple yet impactful question effectively conveyed Wendy's fundamental value proposition: serving substantial, satisfying burgers that left competitors in the dust.

The ad's popularity soared, resonating with viewers tired of being served underwhelming fast food. “Where's the Beef?” became synonymous with the need for substance in hamburgers and beyond. It encapsulated Wendy's commitment to delivering generous portions and struck a chord with the broader American public, seeking authenticity and quality in their everyday experiences.

The impact of this ad campaign extended far beyond the realm of fast food. “Where's the Beef?” took on a life of its own, permeating various aspects of popular culture. It became a cultural touchstone, referenced in sitcoms, late-night talk shows, and even found its way into political discourse. The phrase was adopted during the 1984 United States presidential election as a metaphor for questioning the substance and depth of political candidates' policies and promises.

Wrapping It Up

These are just a few of the numerous ingenious ads that have enriched the advertising landscape over the years. They testify to the power of creativity, empathy, humour, and cultural understanding in crafting memorable brand narratives.

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These ads have a common thread – they didn't merely sell a product; they told a story, evoked emotions, challenged norms, and connected with people. And that's the ultimate lesson for all advertisers – to create a meaningful, authentic connection with your audience. Because at the end of the day, people might forget what you said or did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

Whether you are a seasoned advertiser, a budding professional in the field, or just a curious observer, there's plenty to learn from these iconic ads. They urge us to push boundaries, think outside the box, and understand the audience's pulse. Here's to the power of great advertising!

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Stuart Crawford

Stuart Crawford is an award-winning creative director and brand strategist with over 15 years of experience building memorable and influential brands. As Creative Director at Inkbot Design, a leading branding agency, Stuart oversees all creative projects and ensures each client receives a customised brand strategy and visual identity.

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