7 Famous Ad Campaigns And Why They Worked

Albert U
Hire Albert

What is it about famous ad campaigns that make them stand out?

Ad campaigns come and go. The most famous of them seem to stick around for a while. They not only inspire, but provide lessons and examples for us to follow.

The following ad campaigns span many industries and years, some lasting decades. Some became a part of our culture. All of them had different levels of success that generated revenue to benefit their companies.

Let’s look at these seven famous ad campaigns to see why they worked, and what you can take away from their success.

The Wall Street Journal: A Tale of Contrasts

The sales letter, “The Tale of Two Young Men” stands out among famous ad campaigns for going 28 years largely unchanged. Running from 1975 to 2003, The Wall Street Journal sold $2 billion worth of subscriptions through direct response.

What made this campaign so successful?

First, this letter draws in new prospects with a story. It introduces two college graduates about to get started on their careers. They lived quite similar lives when starting out, and continued to be quite similar many years later.

Then the letter sharply contrasts the two graduates. One became more successful professionally than the other. What made the difference?

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), of course. The story presents a WSJ subscription as what separates success from mediocrity. The reader gets the message: A WSJ subscription could help them to be like the successful businessman and escape the fate of the mediocre one.

The key takeaway? Your company could attract new customers with a story that presents your offer as making a difference.

Avis: As the Underdog, We Try Harder

Paula Green, copywriter for the Avis car rental campaign, wrote, “Avis is only No. 2.... We just can’t afford dirty ashtrays. Or half-empty gas tanks. Or worn wipers. Or unwashed cars... we can’t afford to take you [the consumer] for granted.”

And they couldn’t. In 1962, Avis was losing money. Hertz was beating Avis in market share 61% to 29%. Avis couldn’t boast of newer cars, more locations, or better rates. So why would anyone choose them over Hertz?

Avis set themselves up as nimble underdogs and poked fun at a bigger, slower, more complacent Hertz. This was summed up in a slogan that they used for 50 years. “We try harder.”

The results? For the first time in thirteen years, Avis turned a profit, going from a loss of $3.2 million in the previous year to a gain of $1.2 million. Over the next few years, its market share would rise from 29% to 36%. Hertz, with their market share dropping from 61% to 49%, was forced to create ads in response to Avis’s growing strength.

Avis created one of the most famous ad campaigns by showing themselves off as the underdog. In a culture that celebrates the David versus Goliath story, presenting your company as the underdog can get people cheering for you.

This can change how your market sees both you and your competitors, giving you a chance to lead the industry.

Old Spice: A Tale of Successful Rebranding

In 2010, Old Spice was in trouble in a competitive space. Luckily, their market research discovered something that they could use to change their fortunes.

Women bought almost 70% of men’s bathroom products. This was a space where advertisers sold to men, often in ways that ignored or alienated women buyers.

This was what Old Spice needed to rebrand. They launched one of the most famous ad campaigns on February 4, 2010, days before the Super Bowl.

The first video got 5.9 million YouTube views on day 1, and the company became the most viewed brand on YouTube within a month. Everyone was watching it, talking about it, and watching people talk about it on shows like The Ellen Show.

As for sales, Old Spice sales were up 60% for April/May 2010 versus the same time a year ago. Then they followed up on this success with personalized video responses by the Old Spice Guy to social media comments. As a result, its June/July 2010 sales were up 125% compared to the same period in 2009.

Old Spice went from a losing position to the #1 brand for men’s body wash. But you don’t have to be in dire straits to learn the lessons from this campaign. If you can market to your target audience, you can have more confidence in your results.

Apple: Get a Theme

Famous ad campaigns can be built on a long list of reasons why your product is better and your competitor’s product is worse.

From 2006-2009, Apple ran a campaign of 66 ads that did just that. These ads used humor to contrast actors playing the cool Mac and the nerdy PC. Each ad focused on one major PC problem on a clean, white backdrop and against light, upbeat music.

Microsoft didn't have a solid rebuttal to this barrage of sharp teasing. That allowed Apple to continue sharing its story - that Microsoft was buggy and hard to use, while Mac ran cleanly and easily.

Over the course of this ad campaign, Apple went from shipping 1.3 million Macs in Q3 2006 to 3.05 million Macs in Q4 2009. This is even more impressive when you think about the economic conditions in 2009.

Apple made a variety of focused, on-message, easy-to-understand commercials based on a single theme. How could you share your core message in different ways to achieve this same level of success?

Nike: Just Do It

Back in the 1980s, Nike was competing with Reebok to sell athletic shoes. Reebok had the upper hand, and Nike had just laid off 20% of its staff after the company’s first drop in sales.

In response, Nike decided to expand its market from elite athletes to the general public. Scott Bedbury, Nike’s Director of Advertising, put it this way:

“We need to grow this brand beyond its purest core…we have to stop talking just to ourselves. It’s time to widen the access point. We need to capture a more complete spectrum of the rewards of sports and fitness.”

Jerome Conlon, Nike’s Director of Marketing Insights & Planning, echoed this idea. “Nike at this point in time had an opportunity to become the protagonist of all that was great and uplifting about the experience of sports and fitness.”

In 1988, Nike launched their “Just Do It” campaign, focusing their ads on customer aspiration more than the product. Nike wove celebrity appearances, everyday people, daily activities, and a touch of humor into their ads.

The result? Over the next decade, Nike would 10x its worldwide sales from $800 million to $9.2 billion. Their “Just Do It” slogan inspires people to reach for their hopes and dreams to this day.

Nike tapped into positive customer emotions with its slogan. Now, they can make uplifting, challenging, or even controversial ad campaigns and still be on brand. That’s the power of a great tagline.

Dove: Real Research

Dove made one of the most famous ad campaigns by really speaking to the fears and concerns that its customers had. How did they do that? With research, research, and more research.

Dove’s PR agency studied 3200 women in ten countries to learn about their perceptions of beauty. What did they find out?

Only 2% of women describe themselves as beautiful and 40% of women were actually uncomfortable being described as beautiful. Most tend to see themselves as average in beauty or physical attractiveness. Almost half of all women rate their body weight as too high.

Knowing this, Dove put up billboard photos asking the public to judge a model’s beauty. These ads, along with the released study, gained media exposure thought to be worth over 30 times paid media space.

Dove followed up with videos over the next ten years talking about perceptions of beauty. The most famous of these encourage customers with the title, “You’re more beautiful than you think.”

The six-minute version of this video gained 9.5 million views and over 100,000 likes. Commenters shared that they felt just like the women who sat for the sketches. They also felt that strangers described the models more accurately - and as more beautiful - than the models did themselves.

And what happened to the sales figures? From 2004-2014, sales increased from $2.5 billion per year to $4 billion.

Dove had connected with their audience. Companies that do the right research can connect this deeply as well.

How can you dive deeper into your customers' thoughts and feelings?

De Beers: Evoking an Emotion

What if your ad campaign worked so well that you rescued an entire industry and became its leader for eighty years?

That’s what De Beers did with diamonds, despite increased supply, decreased demand, and poor economy in the years leading up to World War II.

In 1938, De Beers hired N.W. Ayer to conduct deep research on people’s feelings about diamonds. From there, Ayer began long-term, wide-reaching emotional-based marketing.

What emotion did Ayer focus on? Love. Diamonds would now become a gift of love: the better the diamond, the greater the love.

Their now-famous ad campaigns used all forms of media. Ads were in photos, radio shows, magazines, newspapers, and motion pictures. Celebrities, movie stars, and even Queen Elizabeth would wind up influencing the public.

By 1941, US diamond wholesale figures jumped by 55% from the 1938s to $23 million. In 1947, the slogan “A Diamond Is Forever” was born, linking eternal love with diamonds. By 1951, eight out of ten US brides received a diamond engagement ring.

This strategy worked around the world as well. Similar, less famous ad campaigns created new markets in Japan, Germany, and Brazil.

Back in the US, wholesale diamond sales grew to over $2.1 billion in 1979. That was nearly a 100x growth in sales from 1938.

De Beers’ ad campaign created its own industry by evoking emotion in a cold audience. Where might your company find or create new, untapped markets?

Takeaways from Famous Ad Campaigns

There are many ways to create ad campaigns that create lasting stories that connect you to your customers. You can:

  • Do your research

  • Find your perfect audience

  • Work from a common theme

  • Use stories

  • Create contrast

  • Be the underdog

  • Inspire people

Which strategies are right for your next campaign? If you want to create a lasting impression with your customers, book a consultation to see what our copywriters can do for you.

Albert U

Albert is a certified copywriter at Copywriters.com. Albert’s focus on the relationship between business and storytelling draws from, and is inspired by, his own life experiences. He has experience as a solopreneur, in the aerospace industry, and emergency health services.

Hire Albert

Ready to find the top Copywriters?

Get Started