Advertisements usually reflect the attitudes of its audience in order to convince them to act in a certain way. But, there are a rare few that actually transform popular culture in the process. These groundbreaking advertising campaigns managed to do just that.
Volkswagen’s famous 1959 campaign ushered in a new era of advertising and received ample praise—it quickly became the gold standard of ad campaigns. Volkswagen had a near impossible task: sell a small, cheap, German car, on the heels of WWII, to an audience that had developed a taste for swanky Detroit automobiles. At this time, the U.S. economy was booming, which dramatically increased the number of products sold on the market. This forced advertisers to change their tactics in order to differentiate their clients’ products. Bill Bernbach, head of the Volkswagen campaign, approached this challenge head-on. He shunned rigid, research-based, and analysis-driven marketing techniques for interesting graphics and symbology. He wanted to create something much more akin to an art piece than an ad campaign. The final ad was honest and simple—exactly the words Bernbach wanted to emulate. The ad was mostly white space, with a small image of the Volkswagen car pictured off-center in the upper left-hand corner. Amidst the colorful, jarring, and busy advertisements of the sixties, this black and white image was immediately recognizable. And it has remained so for decades.
Nike spent an exorbitant amount of money on their 1988 “Just Do It” advertising campaign. This brilliant three-word campaign sent Nike spiraling past their greatest competitor, Reebok, as they increased their market share of the domestic shoe market to 43% ($9.2 billion). It was an instant hit—the slogan was short enough to be memorable while also engaging to audiences. It empowered everyone to “Just Do It”—from serious athletes to average folk looking for some fashionable new kicks.
A sure sign of an incredible marketing campaign is if it bleeds into popular culture. Budweiser’s 1999 commercial shows a group of pals on a multi-way phone call. As they’re watching a football game, someone yells “wassup”, and it picks up until all four guys are absurdly shouting “wassup” into the phone speaker. This campaign became a cultural phenomenon—tv talk show hosts yelled the slogan, comedians parodied it; people everywhere couldn’t get enough of it. Budweiser instantly became more appealing to consumers. August Busch IV, CEO of American Brewing company Anheuser-Busch, remarked that “we’ll never see so much value created from a single idea.”
Train safety is not a joke, not even when you create a catchy song for an adorable lineup of animated dancing characters. These characters die in various hilariously agonizing scenarios, such as dressing up as moose during hunting season and taking their helmet off in space. All of these situations are a set-up—these characters will ultimately achieve the dumbest ways to die, which all involve ignoring train safety regulations. This ad performs many vital tasks which make it successful—it’s funny, memorable, eye-catching, and gets a clear message across without nagging the viewers. Its success goes beyond most other ad campaigns: the cartoon has been viewed over 175 million times on YouTube, and after its release, accidents nearby train stations fell by 20%.