6 of the Best Ad Campaigns Ever Made (and What Made Them Timeless)
In early 2022, we asked 30 working experts in the advertising world to share their thoughts about the best ad campaigns of all time.
A few campaigns came up again, and again, and again...
Clearly, some campaigns are just unforgettable. They become, to those in the industry especially, cultural touchstones.
After all, a great campaign (like a great brand) is an idea. A little nugget of truth that speaks right to the heart of the issue. It ties the most aspirational goals of a brand to something important and aspirational in the heart of their customers.
And maybe that sounds like ad speak, but it works. It’s storytelling—wrapping something complicated and important into a digestible package for a wide audience. Can it be used for evil? Sure. But if your message is authentic and important, it can be an enormously powerful tool for good.
So, we can all benefit from understanding how to make a better campaign. And the best way to be better is to study the best.
Here they are:
1. Real Beauty Sketches | Dove
To really grasp the genius of Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, we need to appreciate the context it came from.
It’s easy to forget that not so long ago, beauty companies sold perfection. Almost exclusively.
Real Beauty was a response. It made waves around the world because it tapped into a nascient movement for body-positivity—a movement the mainstream beauty industry had so far ignored.
The most famous iteration of Real Beauty are the Sketches videos. They examine the divide between our perceptions of ourselves, and the perceptions of others. The ultimate message: that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And definition of beauty is as nebulous and varied and changing as an ocean.
As a campaign, Real Beauty was built around a brilliant core insight: people are too critical of themselves—and the rest of the beauty industry (Dove’s competition) is at least partly to blame.
The campaign was radically different than mainstream beauty advertising at the time. Intimate. Real. And entertaining in a visceral, surprising way.
No wonder, then, that Real Beauty Sketches as proved to be so popular and enduring. In the years since its launch, the various Sketches videos have amassed more than 200 million views.
And, in the end, the campaign made an impact on the bottom line. Since the campaigns launch in 2004, Dove's sales have almost doubled to $4 billion USD.
2. The Man Your Man Could Smell Like | Old Spice
Everyone's seen it. The Man Your Man Could Smell Like, particularly the original minute-long spot, was a viral sensation.
The core here is a simple observation: 60% of male body wash purchases were made by women. The goal? To prompt a conversation about Old Spice between couples.
It was a hit. AdAge would go on to name The Man Your Man Could Smell Like one the top marketing efforts of the 21st century.
3. Just Do It | Nike
Nike isn’t a perfect company. There’s plenty of valid criticisms of their business model—but you can’t deny their brand.
Just Do It is the core of that brand. And though now it's the slogan, back in 1988, it was simply their first, seriously successful campaign.
Just Do It is at the heart of what Nike is. Athletic achievement. Aspiration. Conquering adversity. It’s also plain catchy. Something that you’d actually say in conversation…which is just a small part of what it caught in the popular imagination. No one says, in the midst of a conversation “Walmart: Save money. Live better.” You might say, Just Do It.
The "Just Do It" campaign allowed Nike to further increase its share of the North American domestic sport-shoe business from 18% to 43%, (from $877 million to $9.2 billion in worldwide sales) from 1988 to 1998.
4. Stratos | Redbull
You could argue that this entry on the list doesn't quite belong.
After all, the Redbull Stratos Mission wasn't a marketing campaign in the traditional sense. It was an event—albeit a sponsored one.
As Redbull themselves put it:
On October 14, 2012, Austria’s Felix Baumgartner astonished millions watching live around the world with a parachute jump from the edge of space. That galvanizing moment was the culmination of years of work by an elite team determined to find ways to improve aerospace safety, and the mission’s legacy lives on.
So no, it wasn't a series of ads.
But when Felix Baumgartner jumped, and became the only human ever to break the sound barrier in freefall, it was news around the world. Every news outlet on the planet covered the mission. And plastered everywhere, from the corner of the video to the back of Baumgartner's helmet, was a little red bull.
5. Crazy Ones/Think Different | Apple
1984 may be the critic's darling (often named the greatest ad of all time), but it's Think Different that seems to have more deeply connected to our 30 industry pros.
What's the difference? Well, for one thing, you could argue Think Different's impact is still felt today. Almost 30 years after the launch, it's still the fundamental core of Apple's brand.
To understand the power of the campaign, what it meant to Apple, it pays to watch Steve Jobs himself introduce it:
Think Different was a call to arms. Not just a chance to bump up Apple's woe begotten market share, but an opportunity to speak to the people who worked there.
Like Just Do It, this was as much about self-realization for the company, as it was about sales.
6. The Marlboro Man | Marlboro
Smoking kills. Let's start with that. For decades, Marlboro has marketed a product that kills its customer.
And yet, the Marlboro man was, and is, legendary.
The Marlboro Man makes this list as a cautionary example that just because a campaign is great, doesn't mean its impact is good.
But it's impossible to argue that the campaign wasn't great.
To overcome the idea that a filter was for a woman, the Leo Burnett advertising agency decided to attack that stigma head-on, creating a campaign where the manliest of manly dudes would be depicted smoking a Marlboro.
The result would be nothing short of extraordinary, catapulting Marlboros from less than one percent of the cigarette market to the fourth-biggest brand in under a year, eventually becoming the top cigarette brand in the world.
As Brad Johnson, himself a former Marlboro Man, once put it, "The Marlboro Man was a fixture in American culture. For the longest time he was on the same level as 007."
On the same level as Bond. That's the impact Marlboro had. They didn't just create a mascot, they fashioned a cultural icon.