Iconic TV Commercials

By Eric Goldman

I’m teaching Advertising & Marketing Law this semester, and I thought it might be helpful to start the semester by showing some TV ads. Remember that many of my students were born after the golden age of TV ads (i.e., a 23 year old 2L was born in, gulp, 1988), so they may have never seen some of the iconic ads of the 1970s and 80s.

Making a relatively short list of iconic ads, however, isn’t easy. First, there are big generational gaps in what people consider iconic. My list tends to emphasize ads mid-1970s to 1990, but that reflects my Gen X bias. Second, there are so many good and funny ads, but I was looking for ads that somehow transcended into pop culture.

My Choice for Iconic Ads

With that in mind, I came up with this short list of individual ads that I’ll show in class to illustrate iconic ads:

* Life Cereal, Mikey. Iconic dialogue. What ever happened to Mikey? Wikipedia has some clues.

* Oscar Mayer, Boy Fishing on a Pier. My iconic TV ad has a first name, it’s “C-U-T-E,” my iconic TV ad has a second name, it’s “K-I-D.”

* Wendy’s, Where’s the Beef? So iconic, Mondale invoked the phrase in the Democratic primaries against his rival, Gary Hart.

* Coca-Cola, Mean Joe Greene. After Mean Joe polishes off an entire bottle of Coke in one long drink without belching, he gives a kid his used sweaty uniform. Gee, thanks. Wikipedia has interesting factoids on how “Mean Joe” got his nickname as well as the burps that ended up on the cutting room floor.

* Coca-Cola, Beautiful Young Adults Singing on a Hilltop. My personal choice for the most iconic TV ad of all time. This ad is permanently seared into my brain.

Other iconic ads that just missed my cut:

* “This is your brain on drugs.” One of the most effective 10 second commercials ever.

* FedEx, Fast Talker. This ad was so effective at defining FedEx’s brand.

* Maxwell, The Usual? It’s hard to watch this commercial now and not think of Apocalypse Now.

* Hebrew National, Higher Authority. Does the FTC have to answer to a higher authority?

* Grey Poupon, Pardon Me? Could it be any more blatant than when the two Rolls-Royces pull up next to each other?

* Budweiser, Wassup? This one still works really well, even today.

The recent Old Spice campaign is a modern classic. I was riveted to the computer during the few days The Old Spice Man dynamically interacted with the world via YouTube and Twitter. Don’t forget the funny Sesame Street parody.

Although it’s not iconic, I’ll show an Epinions TV ad as a first-hand example of a legal task I encountered as in-house counsel in my first week on the job. As in, “so glad you’ve joined the company, we’re doing a multi-million dollar ad campaign that raises novel legal issues…can you bless these ASAP please?” I think I’ll do the minute-long “Alta” commercial, although the “IMac” commercial is pretty good too.

Iconic Campaigns

Examples of the many iconic ad campaigns:

* The Nestea Plunge.

* California Milk has two that make my list: Got Milk? and Happy Cows Come from California

* Budweiser Clydesdales

* Life Alert, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” In the same genre: the Clapper (“Clap On! Clap Off! The Clapper!!”)

* Joe Isuzu. I wonder if you could make these obviously lying commercials today. Modern plaintiffs tend to be very literal.

* Energizer Bunny. I always liked that little furry dude! He keeps going and going…

* Bartles & Jaymes. A true measurement of the ad campaign’s effectiveness: wine coolers were considered a drink of choice in the 1980s. It makes my stomach churn just thinking about it.

* California Raisins, Heard It Through the Grapevine

* Nike, Bo Knows

* Miller Lite, Tastes Great/Less Filling

* Mr. Whipple/Don’t Squeeze the Charmin

* The Maytag Repairman

* Madge, the Palmolive lady

* Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups: “You got your chocolate in my peanut butter….You got your peanut butter in my chocolate.” “Two great tastes that taste great together…Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.” This semester I used the example of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups when discussing non-obviousness in my IP course, i.e., after eating a cup, it’s obvious that peanuts and chocolate are a great combination, but the combination may not be obvious beforehand. I learned many of my International students had never heard of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, so I brought in a few bags for the class. I bet my International students will remember Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups much longer than they will remember any doctrinal material I covered in class.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Slinky commercials (e.g., this one).

Other Ads That Were Fun to Revisit

* Pepsi, Britney Spears. After everything that’s transpired in the last decade, it’s hard to imagine Britney Spears was once a hugely popular but barely-legal sexpot who could sell a lot of soda. Plus, Bob Dole shows his funny side, and Pepsi takes a gratuitous dig at Coke.

* Budweiser Frogs. The commercial consists of only three words, presented very effectively: Bud. Weis. Er.

* McDonald’s, Nothing But Net. Basketball superstars Jordan v. Bird in a fantasy game of horse, with the prize being fast food that no serious athlete should ever eat.

* Pets.com. Two of my favorites: Deliveries and Dog Park (“I love stuffed things!”). Too bad the company was doomed from the start. My wife and I both loved the sock puppet dog–we even purchased a stuffed version.

* American Tourister, Ape in the Zoo. They don’t make ‘em like this any more–either commercials or luggage (or zoos, for that matter).

* Keep America Beautiful, Crying Native American. I don’t think you can make an ad like this any more.

Not on my iconic list: Apple’s “1984” Mac Super Bowl commercial. I admit the commercial is legendary for its production expense, its director (Ridley Scott), its airing only once and its featured product (which really did revolutionize computing–a rare time when the product delivered on its advertising hype). However, the commercial makes zero sense, and I don’t think it has aged well.

Student-Referred Ads

A student sent me this really nice campaign (that I’d not seen before) by Jamba Juice for its “Cheeseburger Chill Smoothie” spoof. See the YouTube ad and then the website. It turns out that my IP final exam from last semester unintentionally bore a resemblance to this ad.

Another student sent me this Dylan-themed ad for Google Instant that I hadn’t seen before. Good ad. Imagine the rights clearances involved with that ad!

UPDATE: Advertising Age’s list of the Top 10 ad icons of the 20th century and Top 100 Advertising Campaigns