Advertisements can change the world. Whole ways of life now seen as staples, from diamonds in wedding rings to pink for girls and blue for boys to orange juice for breakfast to business casual…all were popularised through advertisements.
But some adverts are so well-received, so influential, that they surpass the medium of advertising and become known not only for the products but for the wider impact that they have had on the world.
Here are the five most impactful TV adverts ever created, measured by their lasting effect on culture, their influence and long-term significance on the world.
Most known now for being the advert which played as the closing scene to AMC’s hit drama, Mad Men, the 1971 ad for Coca-Cola has been in the cultural mindset before the character of Don Draper was first put to paper.
The advert opens with a blonde woman singing, then pans to young people of various different races, representing an array of different cultures all holding bottles of coke all singing an adaptation of a gentle hippie pop song on a hilltop in Italy. The opening lyric of this song is “I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love,” which sets the tone for the rest of the advert. The chorus of the song goes “I'd like to teach the world to sing//Sing with me in perfect harmony//I'd like to buy the world a coke and keep it company//That's the real thing.”
It’s syrupy, but struck a chord with the American public. Not only did the song prove to be incredibly popular, so much so that it was played on the radio, but it was an image which really spoke to people. The idea behind the advert came from its creator Bill Backer, when extremely heavy fog diverted his transatlantic flight to the small town of Shannon on the west coast of Ireland. He and the rest of the passengers were forced to spend the night, and some had been furious at the long delay. The next day at the airport, he noticed those same passengers joking about the situation together over bottles of Coca-Cola.
“So that was the basic idea: to see Coke not as it was originally designed to be - a liquid refresher - but as a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula that would help to keep them company for a few minutes."
In the previous decade, American society had been evolving towards a more progressive understanding of different races and cultures. It was only three years before in 1968 that the first black/white interracial kiss was broadcast during a episode of Star Trek. In the show, the kiss explicitly was not romantic and was in reality a form of psychological torture however it was still seen as being incredibly controversial to the point that the network did not want it to be shown on screen. However, that same year marked the assassination of Martin Luther King. It was in this cultural backdrop that Coca-Cola showed a future of optimism and unity between people of all races and nationalities. It has become so iconic in this right that it is still fondly remembered over fifty years since it was first broadcast.
One of the most well-known and famous advertisements of all time, which has since been parodied a few times over, 1984 served as the introduction of the Apple Macintosh. The advert, directed by Ridley Scott, heavily features imagery and motifs from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. In the advert, lines of grey-coloured, bald people in identical grey colouring march in unison through a tunnel as a Big Brother architype drones on in the background. This is intercut with a woman in bright orange and white sportswear running while carrying a sledgehammer while being chased by police in riot gear. She then runs into a hall where Big Brother is being beamed down to the masses and throws the sledgehammer through the screen, breaking it. A title card then appears saying "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984."
Nearly forty years later, this advert is still being discussed as the pinnacle of TV advertising and is still seen as a game changer even today.
To understand the true significance of this advert, it’s important to understand that Apple in 1984 was not the same ubiquitous, trillion-dollar corporation that it is today, and that by 1983 was facing heavy competition from IBM. While Apple was seen as the only real alternative to IBM, IBM dominated the personal computer market and Apple was regarded as the weaker company with a somewhat spotty product record. The previous year in 1983 Apple had released the Apple LISA which was a commercial failure, and IBM was set to take over the market.
Until this advert. It was fairly apparent that the film positioned IBM as being Big Brother (IBM’s marketing was also blue coloured, much like the blue tones in the advert) and the young woman represented Apple (the bright white and orange being the colours of the Macintosh). The advert also leaned in on a core tenant of American culture: the underdog. Apple, founded eight years previously by two men working out of their garage, taking on a well-established giant. Despite being on the bleeding-edge of modernity, it touched on the something which had sustained American culture for centuries.
This advert introduced the image of Apple which we know today. Following the ad, Apple sold 72,000 macintoshes in three days and Apple was launched to the forefront of the technology industry where it has stayed ever since.
Wilkins and Wontkins
Made for local TV stations in 1957 with ad slots only being ten seconds long there was very little time to make an impact, but they have remained in the public consciousness over fifty years since they were last broadcast.
The series of adverts for the now defunct Wilkins Coffee feature two puppets, one of whom (Wilkins) is a cheerful though psychopathic Kermit prototype, and the other (Wontkins) is a grumpy and dour muppet who hates Wilkins coffee. The adverts all follow a simple formula, Wontkins refusing to drink or being disgusted by Wilkins coffee then Wilkins merrily commences with some form of sadism.
One such advert would be of Wilkins and Wontkins fencing. Wilkins says “En garde, salute Wilkins coffee!” to which Wontkins says “but I don’t drink Wilkins.” Wilkins then unsheathes his sword, looks directly into the camera, and says “some learn. Some don’t.”
The snappiness of the advert, enforced by only having a few seconds of screen time, pushed the comedy to really stand out with the shock factor of the violence also there for extra impact. Decades before Vine and TikTok, these ads were ahead of their time when it came to video content. But they have a lasting impact beyond being remembered as a masterclass of puppetry, advertising and comedy. The creator of Wilkins and Wontkins was master puppeteer Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets who would later work on Sesame Street.
Part of the Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign run by Britain’s Department of Health and Social Security and voiced by John Hurt, this advert would have lasting effects on HIV and AIDS awareness in the UK as well as awareness surrounding STIs.
The advert, broadcast during the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1986, is dramatic and intentionally unsettling. It begins with a volcanic eruption which sends rocks falling under a dark sky. A worker then jackhammers into the rock, another is seen chiselling away as distorted bells ring with every hit of the hammer, the sound distorted choir behind that. John Hurt narrates that there is a new deadly disease which has no known cure is can be passed through having sexual intercourse with an inflected person, that anyone can get it and though it’s so far being confined to small groups, it’s spreading. The rock is then revealed to be a monolith (commonly read as being a tombstone) with AIDS written on it in large, bold type using a modern font. The monolith then falls over, a Don’t Die of Ignorance leaflet drops onto it, then someone throws on white lilies down.
The campaign, undoubtedly, saved lives. However, it may not have happened if Secretary of State for Health and Social Services, Norman Fowler, had not been convinced that action needed to be taken and pushed against others in the Thatcher government to get the message across. During the 1980s and 1990s, the attitudes that some officals had towards AIDS was that it was a “gay disease,” and public perception was that it targeted male homosexuals, drug addicts, sex workers, and criminals. The reaction that some governments had to the virus was lacking, slow, apathetic or intentionally negligent. However, Fowler had since said “some people thought anyone with HIV should be left to their own fate, and there were certainly people in government who felt uneasy about homosexuality. I thought – this is unjust.”
Careful measures were taken by the advertising agency TBWA to ensure that the advert would grab the entire nation's attention. The typography used in the campaign was modern to indicate that this was a new virus. While HIV and AIDS can be managed and treated today thanks to continuous advancements in medical understanding, in 1986 an AIDS diagnosis was terminal, and AIDS patients were often met with fear and prejudice even by medical staff.
The advert has gone down in cultural memory as being one of the scariest adverts ever made, but in the three years following the launch of the campaign rates of STIs dropped sharply in the UK. The number of diagnoses of gonorrhoea in England and Wales dropped from around 50,000 in 1985 to just 18,000 in 1988. Syphilis dropped from around 1500 annual cases in the mid-1980s to around just 150 in the mid-1990s. As for diagnoses of HIV, which were over 3,000 in 1985 dropped by a third in three years.
While this drop may also be attributed to various other factors, this advertisement succeeded in grabbing the attention of the nation by emphasising the peril of AIDS in a way which did not stagmise the communities in which the virus was raging through.
Norman Fowler has since gone on to campaign for LGBT rights and against serophobia (prejudiced and discriminatory views against people with AIDS/HIV), and in 2021 launched a campaign for the UK’s first National AIDs memorial.
Also known as “Peace, Little Girl” and broadcast in 1964, this was objectively one of the most influential political campaign ads of all time and permanently changed the American political landscape. The advert starts with a three-year-old girl sitting in a meadow, picking petals off a daisy and clumsily counting to ten. When she reaches nine, she looks up, suddenly fearful. The image freezes and zooms into her eye as a man’s voice counts down in the style of a missile launch. At zero, the film cuts to a nuclear explosion. As nuclear mushroom clouds, fire, and destruction fill the screen where the little girl had been, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s voice booms "These are the stakes! To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” Then a cut to “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd.”
The advert was made by a mid-sized and somewhat eccentric advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (the model for the AMC hit drama Mad Men, mentioned for the second time on this list), and it got Mac Dane put on Richard Nixon’s List of Enemies.
Up until this point, political campaign adverts had had a very positive approach, full of jingles and upbeat messages. For a reference, this was the advert for Johnson’s predecessor, John F. Kennedy which gives some context to just how much had changed in America between 1960 and 1964. After all, the reason why Johnson was the incumbent was due to Kennedy’s assassination. Johnson was running against Republican Barry Goldwater, who, among other policies, suggested that as president he may deploy nuclear weapons in Vietnam and had voted against the ratification of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
The advert was pulled shortly after its release, however it quickly became a national talking point and is a defining factor in Johnson’s landslide victory against Goldwater. It is believed that Johnson was always going to win the 1964 election, however he won by a margin larger than any other candidate this side of the nineteenth century.
The Daisy Advert forever changed election campaigns in America. The happy and bouncy campaign ads of Kennedy and before were gone forever, now negative advertising would dominate televisions every four years. For better or worse, elections have become far more emotionally driven over the years with Daisy right at the front.
Lyndon B. Johnson kept his campaign promise of not launching nuclear war, however once sworn in one of the very first things he did was to declare war…on poverty. He also launched a full-scale military expansion into Vietnam in support of South Vietnam against the communist North Vietnam. By the time the war ended in 1975 with the defeat of America and the South, nearly 60,000 American soldiers had been killed and 300,000 had been wounded in addition to the million Vietnamese that had died.
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