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What Makes Brand Advertising Iconic?

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Many of us who started in advertising did so I imagine because we saw an ad or a series of commercials that made us dream of creating something that good, something that a whole culture talked about. Recently, the people at Hubspot reached back, took five of the great campaigns and had them reimagined for today.

It was an intriguing exercise. But while the creatives seemed to focus for the most part on how much the channels had changed in the time since the campaigns were forged and the implications of that for execution and campaign distribution, I thought it would be interesting to look at what some of these iconic ad campaigns did that made it possible for them to have such a deep cultural impact in the first place.

What’s clear is that iconic status is not about the nobility of the product. As CNBC observed, AdAge refers to its selection of the top advertising campaigns of the 20th century as including: “two air polluters, nutritionless sugar water, one reviled carcinogen, two companies infamous for the use of virtual slave labor, one purveyor of savory cardiovascular time bombs, two booze peddlers and one cosmetic product preying on the vanity of women.”

Nevertheless, the campaigns are considered paragons of advertising. Why? And more particularly, what can we learn from the success of those campaigns?

Many of the great brand campaigns have nudged the social boundaries in one way or another. But the push-back to prevailing attitudes is contextual, often far from aggressive and pitched as much as a social message as an advertising one. Clairol for example didn’t just promote hair coloring, they made it the most natural thing in the world (in every sense), even using the suggestive headline “Does she … or doesn’t she?”. At one level Clairol’s campaign offered women options, but at another, the campaign challenged the very definition of femininity, adding fun, cheekiness and a modicum or three of impropriety. Two decades later, the infamous Brooke Shields’ Calvin Klein campaign carried that same risque suggestiveness. Later, the infamous “Hello Boys” ad featuring Eva Herzigova for the Wonderbra would literally stop traffic.

A number of the iconic campaigns didn’t just offer an alternative action, they also made the product the absolute symbol of that rebellion. Volkswagon’s “Think Small” campaign was the antithesis of everything that post-War America treasured: a car that was small, fuel efficient, affordable and foreign. Portraying the vehicle this way was a prompt to those for whom consumerism held no attraction to register their protest against such pressure on the road. Equally, the Avis campaign dared to challenge the very definition of corporate success by making second-best a desirable place to be – because, according to Avis, being number 2 was the greatest incentive the company had to try harder. In each case, the advertisers took a potential product weakness and, by actually highlighting it, transformed it into a celebration that challenged deeply pervading beliefs of success.

Some iconic advertising literally invented need, then promptly installed the product at the head of the category. DeBeers, as we all know, made a diamond a symbol of romance with its “A Diamond is Forever” campaign. As Bob Garfield observed, “Now, thanks to the simple audacity of the advertising proposition, the diamond engagement ring is de rigueur virtually worldwide, and the diamond by far the precious gemstone of choice.” Federal Express made overnight delivery into an industry with their promise to get the package to its destination when “It absolutely, positively has to get there overnight.” Other campaigns have sought to create categories, with varying degrees of success. The DeBeers and the Federal Express campaigns were so successful because they found intriguing ways to turn ideas into mainstream rituals (giving a ring, preparing and sending something overnight) and to link their brands to those rituals in ways that made a substitute feel like a compromise. Once again, they challenged the accepted way of doing things.

Others introduced phrases that became memes, long before memes were even recognized as such: “Plop plop, fizz”, for example, “Where’s the beef?” or the infamous “Wazzup”. These quickly worked their way into the vernacular. Or they introduced characters into the culture who became personalities in their own right – the fast-talking FedEx guy, the Marlboro man and of course that guy with the infamous eyepatch in the Hathaway shirt.

The world has seldom wanted for campaigns that were recognisable or clever. For me, the true icons of brand advertising though have been those campaigns that were about much more than just publicity or sales. In each case, iconic campaigns locked the brand itself to a change in the collective mindset. They instigated challenges to how people felt or what people did or how people expressed things, tying them to images, ideas and phrases that people were bewitched by, so that the brands were linked to those changes in attitude. Perhaps it’s no surprise after all that many of these products had few natural attributes to work off. Perhaps that lack of innate reason to buy inspired creators and approvers alike to push the boundaries. So much of today’s advertising seems to be missing that gentle bite. It may be cool and smart, but it often lacks a beguiling sense of subversion.

The iconic brand campaigns told stories – and those stories were always human. To a certain extent, it could be argued they were often simpler ads for simpler times, but I think far more importantly people recognised, and identified with, the integrity of what they read or saw. They believed the characters. Perhaps, more advertising should be more stark, more frank – less polished, less technical, more down to earth. Perhaps as Leo Burnett himself did with the Marlboro Man, writers need to develop icons who feel real rather than wheeling in celebrities or mouthpieces who just sell.

With the notable exception of the Apple ad, campaigns were onscreen or in print for many years. People had time to get used to them, to read things into them, to accept them. After a time, the ads stopped feeling like marketing; they became encounters that viewers and readers were relaxed with and that they looked for. It was a slower pitch, a more measured pitch. Sadly, that long, slow boil now feels as good as gone. Campaign gives way to campaign, with little sense of continuity and often with wildly divergent strategies. The discipline of a strong message, well delivered, time and time again seems to have deserted both marketing managers and advertising creators. Everyone it seems wants to tell the next joke, try the next technique, employ the latest channels. Too many advertisers have forgotten that people forget. As a result, too many ads are now just part of the noise rather than part of the culture.

So while there are reasons to suggest that the days of iconic advertising may be over, the lessons from iconic brand advertising should still be teaching brands and brand owners a thing or two.

Are these your 10 Best Ad Campaigns of All Time? If so, why? If not, what’s missing?

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