Advertising Age’s Best Commercials of 1990s
There’s no standard in weighing TV commercials, but some really do stand out as pure as gold. Ever since the Federal Communications Commission cleared the path for the development of commercial TV 50 years ago, marketers and ad agencies have been pursuing greatness in the art of television advertising.
TV viewers may sometimes wonder how far the ad world has really come, as the ratio of bad ads to good at times seems overwhelming. But for every annoying Noid there is a groundbreaking Speedy. For every actor who is not a doctor but plays one on TV, there is a real life chief executive like Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca. For every forgettable, mind-numbing, dust- gathering TV spot, there is another that becomes a part of the American scene: a “Where’s the beef?”; a “Just do it”; a “Yes, I am!”
For several weeks late last year, Advertising Age editors holed up in a windowless conference room reviewing hundreds of TV commercials from the past half-century. Just as agencies pursue greatness in their craft, we were pursuing the greatest of the great- the 50 Best TV spots of the past 50 years.
What does it mean to be great? There is no one standard. What was great 45 or 35 years ago might not hold the attention of today’s viewers, just as today’s fast-frame action-packed spots would have overwhelmed the TV audiences of yesteryear.
We judged each commercial in light of the production capabilities and creative standards of the time. While the Men from Texaco were so memorable they can be considered the epitome of the 1940s, the service-station singers likely wouldn’t fly on MTV.
Many of the 50 selected commercials are so exceptional they have transcended the times from which they emerged. Chanel No. 5’s surreal “Share the Fantasy” is as splendid a commercial by today’s standards as when it first ran in 1979. Maxwell House still uses the percolator mnemonic and its “Good to the Last Drop” slogan (recent commercials for the coffee brand have included footage from the early b&w spot).
In January 1984, Apple Computer and agency Chiat/Day launched a revolutionary new product with a groundbreaking commercial called “1984” that ran on a national TV just once and 11 years later may still be called the greatest ever made.
What makes these commercials the 50 most significant of all time? Like the Energizer bunny, they are durable; like the Marlboro cowboy, they have longevity; like Mean Joe Green and his young fan, they are lovable. Some are novel, some funny. Many moved viewers to buy, a good number moved them to tears. Each earned the mark of greatness in its own unique way.
- BUD LIGHT The spot that made “Yes… I AM!” the first big advertising catch phrase of the ’90s, this has a cheeky young man (Eddie Jemison) talking his way into a limousine reserved for a Dr. Galazkiewicz by claiming to be “Dr. Gally-WICK-its,” first making certain the driver had stocked the limo with Bud Light.
- HALLMARK Long a user of emotion-evoking advertising, Hallmark Cards pulled out all the stops in this 2-minute spot (from Leo Burnett USA) centered on a “surprise” 100th birthday party (she knows). Noteworthy, too, is the mainstreaming of the African American family; the appeal here is universal.
- LEVI’S FOR WOMAN Breathtaking painted-glass animation expressed a distinctly female perspective, and by the time women viewers filtered the message through their own psyches Levi’s for Woman was given credit for truly understanding them. Foote, Cone & Belding’s San Francisco office, which had done outstanding TV work for Levi’s 501 jeans the previous decade, here sets a tone for the ’90s.
- COCA-COLA It was advertising done by a Hollywood talent agency, Creative Artists Agency. It was computer-animated imagery such as never seen before. It was a heartstopper for Madison Avenue and a heartwarmer for American viewers. The Coca-Cola “Polar Bears” spot was a carbonated watershed, part of an “Always”-themed, logo-centered effort featuring on of the best jingles ever.
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