Ask ten people what they think the most effective form of advertising is. At least nine of them (except for disk jockeys, who have a professional self-interest in saying radio advertisements) will tell you it’s the television commercial. But the type of commercial is widely subject to debate.
There are many reasons why video production (in the form of the TV commercial) is an indispensable marketing tool. And one is their ability to become a timeless component of popular culture.
Take the example of the Super Bowl. A single 30 second spot costs an average of $4.5 million, for this is the admission price for eternally embedding your commercial within the American consciousness.
The Super Bowl is also a case in point for looking at the different types of commercials. For, there is more than one way to make your mark on advertising history. There is the commercial that makes you laugh and the one that makes you cry. There’s the commercial that makes you think and the one that makes you act.
Also, the type of commercial that fades away right after it airs. And then there’s the type that gets talked about for decades afterward. Here are some of the latter, those evergreen commercials, from each major category.
The Commercial That Makes You Smile
The best moments in life are accompanied by a smile. It’s that simple. That’s why one of the most iconic types of commercials is the type that forces a smile out of you.
These are the commercials that put you in a good mood even when everything seems wrong in life. They are the commercials that evoke the best in all of us: brotherhood, laughter, happiness, and friendship.
Coca-Cola’s Hilltop (a.k.a. “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”)
Probably the most famous of this category — and certainly one of the most famous commercials of all time — is Coca-Cola’s “Hilltop” commercial. In addition to being the first ad created in collaboration with the recording industry, “Hilltop” has become a timeless exhibition of everything good in humanity: peace, love, and goodwill.
It features a group of young people of different cultures and ethnicities. Implicitly, they are from different parts of the world and speak in different tongues, for each Coke bottle sports a label written in a different language.
These people, who would seemingly have nothing in common, have come together to rejoice and celebrate while drinking a refreshing coke. They are happy and at peace, and the message is obvious to everyone that sees it: you can feel this way, too (if you buy a Coke).
Why It Works
The backstory to this commercial is just as significant as the content itself. It was created by Bill Backer of Madison Avenue’s McCann-Erickson agency. Backer and two songwriters — who would come to write the jingle “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” — were stressed and irritated after facing a layover in their travels.
They noticed the good natured conviviality of some people nearby, and these people happened to be enjoying some Coca-Cola together. It was then that the idea struck Backer, whose agency handled Coca-Cola’s account: Coke has the power to bring people together and make them smile. On a napkin, he wrote “I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” and the rest is history.
What does this commercial represent? It takes place in 1971, during the height of the Cold War. Domestic unrest pervaded the country, nuclear holocaust seemed almost inevitable, and feelings of animosity and fear ran rampant. But Coke became the cure for all of this. It reminded people to join together and enjoy life — enjoy it, that is, while you enjoy a Coke as well.
The Commercial That Makes You Laugh
Then there’s the commercial that makes you do much more than smile: the types of commercials that make you laugh. In fact, the best of the best do more than make you laugh. They make your sides split, your jaw drop and your muscles ache.
Wendy’s’ Where’s the Beef?
There are a million and one ads that come out every year in this category. In fact, most TV commercials at least strive to be clever because it’s one of the most effective, time-tested ways to imprint your brand on the mind of the consumer.
So, at the risk of neglecting these countless ads that have tickled everyone’s funny bone, here’s a classic that spawned a catchphrase for the ages: “Where’s the Beef?” Here is a commercial that’s not only incredibly funny and memorable, but has become such a cultural chestnut that it once became part of a presidential campaign!
Why It Worked
As Adweek has declared, “grumpy old people and mild suggestiveness” are “comic staples on their own, [and] they worked even better together in this legendary spot.” The mere act or looking around and hollering this catchphrase over and over is, quite simply, hilarious.
In addition, what Wendy’s really did in this commercial is use comedy to communicate their own value statement. Wendy’s was deliberately taking a shot at their competition (McDonald’s, Burger King) and their signature hamburgers (the Big Mac and the Whopper, respectively).
The centerpiece of the commercial is an enormous bun with a rather small patty, which supposedly signifies the big buns that McDonald’s and Burger King were using. So, the customer rightfully asks “where’s the beef?” This is, after all, a hamburger.
By making their audience laugh, Wendy’s succeeded in not only winning over a large number of American consumers. They also made a joke of their competition.
The Commercial That Makes You Say WTF!?
“WTF!?” is the only thought you can process after viewing these types of commercials. Well, more specifically, “WTF did I just watch!?” Because it’s eerie enough to make your skin crawl, but it’s also enticing enough to make you interested in learning more.
The classic example of this kind of commercial is Apple Inc.’s groundbreaking “1984” commercial. Directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner — yes, that Ridley Scott), this ad seems like more of a sci-fi thriller than anything else.
It opens with an ominous, foreboding voice reciting propaganda to the brainwashed masses that march step-by-step in mechanical synchronicity. All sport bald, shaven heads and the same grey jumpsuits…except for one sledgehammer wielding woman who is running toward the scene.
The tension builds as she’s chased by the military police, and all the while the voice of Big Brother echoes through your eardrums and down to your spine. Then, at the climax, she throws the sledgehammer and the screen breaks. The old order is being destroyed. It’s time for something new: the Apple Macintosh.
Why It Worked
The commercial is an obvious reference to the nightmarish world of the future that George Orwell portrayed in his novel, 1984. The book tells the story of an all-powerful government and one man’s hopeless attempt at rebellion, much like Apple’s commercial.
Yet, the story that Apple tells is quite different. In this ad, they essentially say, “1984 is the world we live in today, but that world is no more. For, this year, we are introducing our first computer. It’s here to free you from the oppression of old technologies.”
This is how Apple chose to introduce their brand to the world: by not only comparing the competition (IBM, Microsoft) to the oppressive state that Orwell had forewarned of, but also by portraying itself as the lone savior that triumphs over evil.
Apple spared no expense conveying this message, and the commercial cost a whopping $1.5 million (over $3.4 million in 2015, adjusted for inflation). But there can be no doubt that it was worth it. The only reason you ever buy a Macintosh is because, in 1984, 77 million people stared at their TV screen for 60 seconds as their minds exploded in awe.
The Commercial That Makes You Dance
In the 30+ years since that commercial first aired, Apple has both grown as a brand and switched up the tone of their TV spots. It’s almost hard to believe that 1984 and the 2014 Macbook Air “Stickers” commercial really promote the same line of products.
But then again, the “Stickers” commercial is another one of those extremely effective types of commercials: the commercial that makes you dance. These commercials don’t have to literally make you get up and do the moonwalk, but they are always groovy enough to make your head bob, your finger tap, or your feet swing.
Truth TV’s Finishers
The commercial that makes you dance is not a new idea (Coca-Cola’s aforementioned ad spot could be categorized as such). However, its audience is almost always teens and young adults, and this demographic constantly changes with the times.
This breed of commercial has recently started to incorporate a distinct style that appeals to its target market. It features smash cuts and/or fast-paced cinematography, postmodern graphics and an electronic music score.
The “Finishers” commercial, part of Truth TV’s most recent anti-smoking campaign, is the quintessential example this type of commercial. Produced for millennials and by millennials, it comprises all the qualities of a hip ad that’s savvy to the artistic tastes of Generation Y. Anyone under the age of 30 has wanted to dance when they saw it. They may not have quit tobacco but they’ve certainly recognized the brand that is telling them to do so.
Why It Works
Let’s take a second look at what this commercial is, who it’s targeting, and the content it contains. The part that makes it dance-worthy is the musical backdrop, a song called “Revolusion” by electro-rapper Elliphant. And revolution is exactly the character of the content, which features graffiti, mobs rushing gates, and a hooded iconoclast standing with his fist up in front of what seems to be a protest.
This is a commercial made for young adults, i.e. millennials, the Occupy Wall Street generation. It’s the young smokers that they’re targeting. They are extremely clever in the way they choose to reach this audience. No one in their mid-20s is going to take a dull, dry ad about the dangers of smoking seriously. Regardless of how much truth it contains.
But when you frame the fight against nicotine addiction as a revolution, that’s an idea most millennials can get behind. There’s certainly a romantic aspect about “revolution” that this demographic appreciates, and Truth TV is milking it for all it’s worth. The song brings this advertisement full circle, for this kind of rebellion is not about just tear gas and smashing windows.
It’s about dancing, the purest expression of fun and freedom. One that signifies the joy and camaraderie of overcoming cigarettes together.
The Commercial That Makes You Take Action
Lastly, there is the commercial that motivates, the commercial that makes you get up off the couch and take action. This is the hallmark of, on the one hand, sports and sportswear commercials (e.g. Nike). On the other hand, it’s use is in recruitment campaigns, especially in the military.
U.S. Army, Legendary
The U.S. armed forces — whether it’s the army, navy, air force or marines — are somewhat famous for their recruitment campaigns. But one recruitment ad in particular tends to stand out: a commercial that ran in 2011, which is “Legendary.”
The “Legendary” spot is known for its statement that the uniform the soldiers are wearing is more than just a uniform. It’s legendary because it contains friendship, an education, and a sense of purpose.
Why It Works
The script here makes use of a rhetorical technique called anaphora. That is the repetition of words or phrases at the start of each statement. “This is a key,” “this is a diploma,” “this is a passport,” etc. — each “this is” focuses in on the army uniform and what it symbolizes.
So what does the army uniform symbolize? It symbolizes the degree and respect conferred on every West Point graduate. It symbolizes the “secret handshake” and the brotherhood felt among all men and women who have served together.
Most of all, the Army uniform symbolizes a promise. It promises that those who wear it will become stronger, wiser, and well respected. Essentially, the army promises that, by putting on this uniform and serving in this organization, you will become legendary.
And legendary is what this commercial has become, just as every commercial here has become legendary in its own right. That’s what a well-shot, well-scored and well-scripted commercial will always do. It will become more than a commercial. It will become a legend.