The ten best TV ads of the decade

Posted on Posted in How to Guide for Marketers

To be honest, it wasn’t our best decade for advertising. We saw way too many small tactical ideas trying to drive tranactions too fast. We saw way too many tweets, fake influencers, and boring digital ads. It seems appropriate we ended the decade celebrating a 4/10 gin TV ad that knocked a 2/10 Peleton TV ad. I was excited about the gin ad, until I saw it. Then I wished they spent a few more hours to actually come up with a script.

I come at advertising as a client-side marketer. While I could never make the work, I spent my career judging, deciding and paying for the work. When judging advertising, the most important thing I look for is to ensure the creative idea within the ad that drives the attention, tells the brand story, communicates the main benefit and sticks in the consumer’s mind. When you see a story, device, copy, or a visual that does not fit with the delivery, then you have a red flag. You run the risk that the creativity of the ad works against your objectives. 


Here are four questions to ask for judging ads:

  1. Does the ad earn the consumer’s attention?
  2. Is the creative idea helping to drive maximum brand involvement?
  3. Does the ad set up the communication of the main consumer benefit?
  4. Is the creative idea memorable enough to stick in the consumer’s mind and move them to purchase?

The best advertising must balance being creatively different and strategically smart. 

When TV ads are smart but not different, they get lost in the clutter. It is natural for marketers to tense up when the creative work ends up being “too different.” In all parts of the business, marketers are trained to look for past proof as a sign something will work. However, when it comes to advertising if the ads start too similar to what other brands have already done, then the advertising will be at risk of boring your consumers, so you never stand out enough to capture their attention. Push your comfort with creativity and take a chance to ensure your ad breaks through. 
When TV ads are different but not smart, they will entertain consumers, but do nothing for your brand. Your advertising must be smart enough to trigger the desired consumer response to match your brand strategy.

This is the type of thinking I use when deciding the ten best TV ads of the decade. 

Dollar Shave launch

One of the best viral TV ads is for Dollar Shave. The brand created a hilarious, edgy, low-budget YouTube-driven video, which has generated millions of hits. The tagline for the ad is “Our blades are f**king great,” which will undoubtedly alienate many people. However, it will inevitably make the younger male audience quickly love them. The ad tells a quirky story of why the brand doesn’t waste money like Gillette does, setting up the idea its razors are much cheaper than Gillette’s. The ad helped launch the brand, which Unilever bought five years later for $1 billion. One of the best ads of the decade. 

It's a Tide ad

I never thought during a Super Bowl game, I would ever say, “I’m looking forward to the next Tide ad” but that’s what I said when Tide created the perfect harmony of creative idea and media. Tide has always been one of the more trusted brands, but almost stoic and cold in their behavior. Fifty years of side-by-side demonstrations against every possible type of stain. With “It’s a Tide ad”, using the boring Tide brand added to the humor. With all eyes judging every Super Bowl ad, Tide decided to mock the typical ads, and surprise you that it was Tide doing so. Full marks for attention, brand link and stickiness. As Tide has 99% awareness for being the stain-fighter, they didn’t need to overly communicate much. Nice job P&G!

John Lewis "2011 Christmas ad"

John Lewis has been creating magical Christmas ads for a decade. To me, 2011 remains the best. The TV ad tells the story in a very emotional way and communicates the art of giving which is what the season should be about. With ads that jump off the screen each year, consumers began looking out of the latest John Lewis ad. Have a look: 

Nike "Colin Kaepernick"

The firestorm started with a tweet on a Monday night by Colin Kaepernick. Everything took off from there. In a decade of dumb, everyone took their own side, and the back and forth on Tuesday was a social media firestorm. The stock price fell 2-3% in one day.  

A the time, I said “Truth be told, the results of this stance should be judged 3-5 years from now, not 3-5 days later.” Many took joy in the stock falling. 

Nike definitely supports their athletes. These type of ads will get more high profile athletes to want to sign up with Nike….and over time the 15-year-old athletes will buy MORE Nike shoes ($200 shoes at a rate of 3 to 5 pair/year) offsetting the 55-year-old non-athlete boycotting Nike ($70 shoes at a rate of 1 pair/year). 

Not sure where they are now, but the Nike stock is up 25% 18 months later. The TV ad is high on attention and branding. Even if you take Kaepernick out of the ad, listen to the beauty of the copy. Twenty years from now, people will talk about this ad. That makes it one of the best of the decade.

Snickers "Betty White"

A great example of amplifying your consumer benefit is the Snickers Super Bowl ad with Betty White playing football with a bunch of college-aged guys. After a bad play by Betty, one of the buddies yells at her that she is “not playing like her normal self.” He then hands Betty a Snickers bar and Betty turns back into the college-aged football player. The ad uses the consumer insight of, “You’re not you when you’re hungry” to set up the consumer benefit of how Snickers satisfies your hunger. This technique is a great combination that would fit many brands.

Google India "Reunion"

Google India launched a beautiful viral ad, which earned millions of YouTube hits. The first time I saw the ad, I cried, even though I could not understand the language, I realized the great storytelling was obvious enough to follow. The TV ad starts with an elderly Indian man, who tells his granddaughter a story of how he lost touch with his childhood best friend after the partition of India in 1947. With the details of her grandfather’s story, the granddaughter locates his childhood friend in Pakistan and connects with the other best friend’s grandson, who is willing to help her to plan a surprise visit for her grandfather’s birthday. Every element of the search and the travel arrangement is done through Google. The brand weaves naturally throughout the ad.

Always "Like a Girl"

Most days I can safely say “we are just marketers,” but every once in a while, I see that we can have a cultural impact. We can use our platform to stand up for consumers, in this case, teenage girls, and in fact, all women will be moved by this video. 

The Always “Like a girl” campaign is an inspirational video that connects with true insight about the perception of how girls run changes as they hit puberty.  The ad starts by asking older teens and 20-somethings to run like a girl, and they depict a negative stereotypical overly feminine running style. Then, it asks 10-year-old girls to run like a girl, and they run in a highly athletic manner. It asks what changes to make the older girls see running as a negative. The ad challenges viewers to rethink their stereotypes. It inspires girls with an uplifting message to be themselves and encourages them to believe that, “running like a girl” is a good thing. The Always brand closely lines itself to the insights about the changes happening at puberty, just as moms and daughter will be choosing the feminine hygiene brand they will use. 

Nike "Find your greatness"

With “Jogger” from the 2012 London Olympics, Nike used a heavy-set kid jogging at 6 a.m., to show how not all of us are superstars and challenges the average athlete inside all of us.

Dodge Ram "Farmer"

While nearly every Super Bowl TV ad is loud and funny, Dodge Ram used a quietly dramatic ad, using Paul Harvey’s famous radio show recording called, “God created a farmer.” The ad is set against gorgeous photos of hard-working farmers, telling a classic working-class America story. It is a highly inspiring, optimistic story that will give you patriotic goose bumps.

Apple iPhone Christmas

Apple used a simple demo with their 2013 Christmas spot, about a young boy who appeared obsessed with his phone. It giving the perception that he was missing out on everything, while really, he was using his phone to capture everything about the holidays. This spot is one of my all-time Christmas favorites.

How to handle yourself at the creative meeting

To help you make better decisions, I have created a Creative Advertising Checklist. It won’t always help you make decisions, but it will certainly identify potential gaps with the ads you are seeing. 

creative meeting checklist

In your next creative advertising meeting, you should think fast with your instincts, while trying to represent your consumer. View the advertising through the eyes of your consumer. Try to see the work how they would see it. I would not even let my agency do a setup to the ads. I said, “Just show me the work as though I see it on TV.” I felt any setup or explanation clouded my judgment and impacted my instincts. 

As you are sitting in that decision-making hot seat at a creative meeting, here are challenging questions to ask yourself. 

What does your gut instinct say? You might be coming from a 3-hour meeting and it is not easy to change speeds as you head into a creative meeting. Relax, find your creative energy, let it soak in, and use your quick-twitch instincts. Do you love what the ad has the potential to do? Will you be proud of this ad as your legacy?

Does the ad deliver the strategy? Slow down with some thinking time after the meeting. In a quiet place alone, make sure it delivers your strategy. Does the ad match up to the objective in the creative brief? Does it achieve the desired consumer response? Will it have an expected market impact and brand performance? Don’t over-think and talk yourself out of a good ad that works.

Will the ad build a bond with consumers? Will it speak directly to the consumer target, leverage consumer insights to connect, deepen our bond with our consumers, or build memories and rituals?

Does the ad fit with the brand and distinguish it in the market? Will it deliver the brand idea, leverage your creative assets, and fit with the tone of the brand? Does it use the functional or emotional benefits to own a competitive space that is motivating to consumers and ownable for the brand? Is the ad different enough to capture attention within the clutter? Does the creative naturally set up the main message and move consumers to think, feel, or act? 

Read our article on how to manage the creative process:

This type of thinking can be found in my Beloved Brands book

Learn to think, define, plan, execute and analyze

  • You will find strategic thinking models and examples for each of the four strategic thinking methods, looking at core strength, competitive, consumer, and situational strategies. 
  • To define the brand, I will provide a tool for writing a brand positioning statement as well as a consumer profile and a consumer benefits ladder. I have created lists of potential functional and emotional benefits to kickstart your thinking on brand positioning. We explore the step-by-step process to come up with your brand idea and bring it all together with a tool for writing the ideal brand concept. 
  • For brand plans, I provide formats for a long-range brand strategy roadmap and the annual brand plan with definitions for each planning element. From there, I show how to build a brand execution plan that includes the creative brief, innovation process, and sales plan. I provide tools for how to create a brand calendar, and specific project plans. 
  • To grow your brand, I show how to make smart decisions on marketing execution around creative advertising and media choices. 
  • When it comes time for the analytics, I provide all the analytical tools you need to write a deep-dive business review, looking at the marketplace, consumer, channels, competitors and the brand. Write everything so that it is easy to follow and implement for your brand.

You will learn everything you need to know so you can run your brand. My brand promise is to help make you smarter so you can realize your full potential.

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