14 of the Best Advertising and Marketing Campaigns of All Time

I’ve always been a little leery of proclaiming anything “the best.” I never declared anyone my best friend as a kid because I was afraid my other friends might assume I thought less of them.

So it was a little difficult for me to come up with just one “best” marketing campaign of all time — which is why there are 14 in this post instead.

Why are these marketing campaigns some of the best of all time?

Because of the impact they had on the growth of the brand, and because they manage to hit on some universal truth that allows us to remember these campaigns years after they first began. In fact, some of us might not have even been alive when these campaigns first aired.

But first … 

And now, without further do, here they are, in no particular order (but feel free to let us know which one is your favorite in the comments): 14 of the best marketing campaigns of all time, and the lessons we can learn from them.

14 of the Best Ad & Marketing Campaigns (And What Made Them Successful)

1) Nike: Just Do It.

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Source: brandchannel

Did you know that, once upon a time, Nike’s product catered almost exclusively to marathon runners? Then, a fitness craze emerged — and the folks in Nike’s marketing department knew they needed to take advantage of it to surpass their main competitor, Reebok. (At the time, Reebok was selling more shoes than Nike). And so, in the late 1980s, Nike created the “Just Do It.” campaign.

It was a hit.

In 1988, Nike sales were at $800 million; by 1998, sales exceeded $9.2 billion. “Just Do It.” was short and sweet, yet encapsulated everything people felt when they were exercising — and people still feel that feeling today. Don’t want to run five miles? Just Do It. Don’t want walk up four flights of stairs? Just Do It. It’s a slogan we can all relate to: the drive to push ourselves beyond our limits.

So when you’re trying to decide the best way to present your brand, ask yourself: What problem are you solving for your customers? What solution does your product or service provide? By hitting on that core issue in all of your marketing messaging, you’ll connect with consumers on an emotional level that is hard to ignore.

2) Absolut Vodka: The Absolut Bottle

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Source: Burning Through Journey Blog

Despite having no distinct shape, Absolut made its bottle the most recognizable bottle in the world. Its campaign, which featured print ads showing bottles “in the wild,” was so successful that they didn’t stop running it for 25 years. It’s the longest uninterrupted ad campaign ever and comprises over 1,500 separate ads. I guess if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

When the campaign started, Absolut had a measly 2.5% of the vodka market. When it ended in the late 2000s, Absolut was importing 4.5 million cases per year, or half of all imported vodka in the U.S.

So what’s a marketer’s lesson here? No matter how boring your product looks, it doesn’t mean you can’t tell your story in an interesting way. Let me repeat: Absolut created 1500 ads of one bottle. Be determined and differentiate your product in the same way.

3) Miller Lite: Great Taste, Less Filling

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Source: BuildingPharmaBrands blog

Think it’s easy to create a whole new market for your product? The Miller Brewing Company (now MillerCoors) did just that with the light beer market — and dominated it. The goal of the “Great Taste, Less Filling” campaign was getting “real men” to drink light beer, but they were battling the common misconception that light beer can never actually taste good. Taking the debate head-on, Miller featured masculine models drinking their light beer and declaring it great tasting.

For decades after this campaign aired, Miller Lite dominated the light beer market it had essentially created. What’s the lesson marketers can learn? Strive to be different. If people tell you there isn’t room for a product, create your own category so you can quickly become the leader.

4) Volkswagen: Think Small

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Source: design shack

Many marketing and advertising professionals like to call Volkswagen’s “Think Small” campaign the gold standard. Created in 1960 by a legendary advertising group at Doyle Dane & Bernbach (DDB), the campaign set out to answer one question: How do you change peoples’ perceptions not only about a product, but also about an entire group of people?

See, Americans always had a propensity to buy big American cars — and even 15 years after WWII ended, most Americans were still not buying small German cars. So what did this Volkswagen advertisement do? It played right into the audience’s expectations. You think I’m small? Yeah, I am. They never tried to be something they were not.

That’s the most important takeaway from this campaign: Don’t try to sell your company, product, or service as something it’s not. Consumers recognize and appreciate honesty.

5) Dos Equis: The Most Interesting Man in the World

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Source: The Open Field

You know who he is. He smokes Cuban cigars, is always surrounded by beautiful women, and — most importantly — he drinks Dos Equis beer.

A key component of a strong campaign for an indulgent vice — like beer, desserts, or luxury items — is to make it cool. And when it comes to The Most Interesting Man in the World, he’s one of the coolest commercial guys there is.

And at the end of every commercial, he says: “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis. Stay thirsty my friends.”

The hilarious hyperbole employed in this campaign makes it memorable the next time viewers head out to buy some beer. And even though Dos Equis recently replaced The Most Interesting Man with a new actor, he is forever immortalized in meme culture and in liquor stores due to this short, sweet, and memorable tagline — and the cool dude vibe it makes viewers harken back to.

6) California Milk Processor Board: Got Milk?

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Source: Broward Palm Beach New Times

Thanks to the California Milk Processor Board’s “Got Milk?” campaign, milk sales in California rose 7% in just one year. But the impact ran across state borders, and to this day, you still can’t escape the millions of “Got [Fill-in-the-Blank]?” parodies.

Note, though, that the ad didn’t target people who weren’t drinking milk; it instead focused on the consumers who already were. The lesson here? It’s not always about getting a brand new audience to use your products or services — sometimes, it’s about getting your current audience to appreciate and use your product more often. Turn your audience into advocates, and use marketing to tell them why they should continue to enjoy the product or service you are already providing for them.

7) Metro Trains: Dumb Ways to Die

Yes, you read that right: Dumb Ways to Die.

In Melbourne, Australia, Metro Trains wanted to get across a simple message: No horsing around near train tracks. Disorderly conduct could lead to injuries, or even death, but instead of typical warning signs or announcements inside train stations, Metro Trains came up with Dumb Ways to Die, a song that has garnered 157 million YouTube views since it debuted in 2012.

The song is about dumb ways to die — for example, by poking a grizzly bear with a stick, or taking your helmet off in outer space — and it features a catchy little chorus you won’t be able to stop humming to yourself (because singing it is a little morbid): “Dumb ways to die, so many dumb ways to die.”

At the end of the video, after you’ve watched adorable cartoon characters dying in the dumbest of ways, you get to the moral of the story: There are many dumb ways to die, but the dumbest possible way would be if you died while standing on the edge of a train platform, drove through a railroad sign, or tried to cross over a train track.

This beloved, now-famous campaign communicates a simple idea in a creative and memorable way — and you don’t feel like you’re being nagged, the way some public service announcements do. If your subject matter is grim or boring, consider using creativity to get your message across.

8) Apple: Get a Mac

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Source: Fox News

While there have been many great Apple campaigns, this one takes the cake. The Mac vs. PC debate ended up being one of the most successful campaigns ever for Apple, and they experienced 42% market share growth in its first year. The campaign tells Mac’s audience everything they need to know about their product without being overt — and in a clever way.

A key takeaway here? Just because your product does some pretty amazing things doesn’t mean you need to hit your audience over the head with it. Instead, explain your product’s benefits in a relatable way so consumers are able to see themselves using it. 

9) Clairol: Does She or Doesn’t She?

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Source: Current360

The first time Clairol asked this question in 1957, the answer was 1 to 15 — as in, only 1 in 15 people were using artificial hair color. Just 11 years later, the answer was 1 of 2, according to TIME Magazine. The campaign was apparently so successful that some states stopped requiring women to denote hair color on their driver’s license. When your ad campaign starts changing things at the DMV, you know you’ve hit a nerve.

Clairol did the opposite of what most marketers would do: They didn’t want every woman on the street running around saying they were using their product. They wanted women to understand that their product was so good that people wouldn’t be able to tell if they were using it or not.

The lesson here: Sometimes, simply conveying how and why your product works is enough for consumers. Showing becomes more effective than telling.

10) De Beers: A Diamond is Forever

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Source: BBC News

In 1999, AdAge declared De Beers’ “A Diamond is Forever” the most memorable slogan of the twentieth century. But the campaign, which proposed (pun very much intended) the idea that no marriage would be complete without a diamond ring, wasn’t just riding on the coattails of an existing industry. De Beers actually built the industry; it presented the idea that a diamond ring was a necessary luxury.

According to the New York Times, N.W. Ayer’s game plan was to “create a situation where almost every person pledging marriage feels compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring.”

The lesson here? Marketing can make a relatively inexpensive product seem luxurious and essential.

11) Old Spice: The Man Your Man Could Smell Like

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Source: Coloribus

The very first part of Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign, created by Wieden + Kennedy and launched in February 2010, was the following commercial. It became a viral success practically overnight:

That video has over 51 million views as of this writing. Several months later, in June 2010, Old Spice followed up with a second commercial featuring the same actor, Isaiah Mustafa. Mustafa quickly became “Old Spice Guy,” a nickname Wieden + Kennedy capitalized on with an interactive video campaign in which Mustafa responded to fans’ comments on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media websites with short, personalized videos.

In about two days, the company had churned out 186 personalized, scripted, and quite funny video responses featuring Mustafa responding to fans online. According to Inc, these videos saw almost 11 million views, and Old Spice gained about 29,000 Facebook fans and 58,000 new Twitter followers.

“We were creating and sending miniature TV commercials back to individual consumers that were personalized, and we were doing it on a rapid-fire basis,” Jason Bagley, creative director at Wieden + Kennedy and a writer for the campaign, told Inc. “No one expects to ask a question and then be responded to. I think that’s where we broke through.”

The lesson here? If you find your campaign’s gained momentum with your fans and followers, do everything you can to keep them engaged while keeping your messaging true to your brand’s voice and image.

12) Wendy’s: Where’s the Beef?

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Source: AdSoft Direct

Is it enough to say this campaign was successful because it featured a giant hamburger bun and a cute set of old ladies? No? I didn’t think so.

Wendy’s took a more gutsy approach in this marketing campaign: It targeted its competitors. The simple phrase “Where’s the beef?” was used to point out the lack of beef in competitors’ burgers — and it quickly became a catchphrase that encapsulated all that was missing in their audience’s lives.

While you can’t predict when a catchphrase will catch on and when it won’t, Wendy’s (wisely) didn’t over-promote their hit phrase. The campaign only ran for a year, and allowed it to gently run its course. The lesson here: Be careful with your campaigns’ success and failures. Just because you find something that works doesn’t mean you should keep doing it over and over to the point it’s played out. Allow your company to change and grow, and you may find that you can have even greater success in the future by trying something new.

13) Procter & Gamble: Thank You, Mom

I’ll give you a minute to dry your eyes after that one.

Seriously — you wouldn’t expect a household and cleaning products company commercial to pull at the heartstrings like that, would you?

And that’s because P&G identified the story behind the story of Olympic athletes — the stories of the supportive moms who pushed these world-class athletes throughout their entire lives leading up to that crowning moment. And yes, who probably had to do a lot of laundry and cleanup along the way — presumably using P&G products.

Emotional and nostalgia marketing are powerful tactics to get people to make buying choices, so if there’s a bigger, more universal story behind your product or story, tap into it — and showcase it front-and-center.

14) Chick-fil-A: Eat Mor Chikin

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Source: NPR

Chick-fil-A launched this campaign all the way back in 1995, and it still makes me do a double-take whenever I see those cows wearing sandwich boards, encouraging people to eat chicken — presumably, instead of the beef in hamburgers to save their own skins.

The juxtaposition is what makes this campaign so quirky and effective. You don’t usually think about cows as pro-chicken advocates, but it makes sense in the context of Chick-fil-A, a restaurant that specializes in fried chicken. Try juxtaposition in your next campaign to draw people’s eyes — and make them want to figure out what your quirky ad is all about.

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