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The Best TV Adverts of the Past 50 Years

I recently wrote an article discussing the big three reasons why television adverts, despite their age and restriction in format, remain a powerful marketing tool for businesses. It was pointed out to me, however, that my big picture approach left little room for specific examples of the adverts that continually push the medium forward. In this blog, I'll be weaving a historical retrospective of the television adverts that, in my view, act as solid proof that, no matter how much things change, the allure of the TV advert will stay the same.


Coca Cola - I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke - 1971

The story behind this advert alone justifies its place on this list. Bill Backer, creative director of the Coca-Cola account at McCann Erickson, was stuck at an Irish airport on his way to London. Passing time in the cafe with his fellow stranded passengers, he noticed that many of them were bonding over their common predicament; sharing snacks and drinking bottles of Coke. This whole experience gave Backer a revelation: More thank just a drink, Coke is:

"... a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula that would help to keep them company for a few minutes."

With this little nugget of inspiration, Backer worked with the New Seekers, and the video production might at McCann, to produce an earth-shatteringly good film, bolstered by a hit song and iconic visuals, that captures the earnest and universal warmth of the Coke brand.


Hovis - Boy on the Bike - 1973

Before Ridley Scott made Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator, he produced incredible TV adverts; eventually working with Hovis, the bread company, to craft what is perhaps the most wholesome TV advert ever made. Showing a boy delivering bread to people all across his small village, the film uses a homely aesthetic, wrapped in a Dvorak's nostalgic 'New World' symphony, to create an endlessly warm and comforting picture of simple village life.

"As good for you today as it's always been."

The advert has only become more beloved with age and, despite his illustrious film career, Scott still talks fondly about the success of the advert. As a perfect testament to its enduring legacy, the BFI restored the film in 2019 -- bringing the power of the advert to a whole new generation.


Apple - 1984 - 1984

It is somewhat ironic that Apple, the biggest of big tech companies, originally promoted themselves as the break from conformity; but this by no means undermines the sheer power that this TV Advert had back when it was released in the mid 80's. Steve Jobs, Apple's loudest voice, was determined to show audiences that the MacIntosh is more than just a computer: it's an attempt to break from old ways of creating technology and worn out ways of thinking. An attempt to show that the future need not be a place where tech monopolies impose uniformity and snuff out freedom and creativity.

“On January 24th Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”

The advert was conceived by Steve Hayden, Brent Thomas and Lee Chow at Chiat/Day. Ridley Scott, dropping his Hovis wholesomeness, sat in the director's chair. And while it may be increasingly ironic in light of Apple's market dominance, this film set the stage for Apple's best practices. Tim Cook's drive to make privacy a central feature of Apple products, for example, shows that freedom still factors into their innovation.


Guinness - The Surfer - 1999

Perhaps the most signature aspect of ordering a Guinness is that, no matter what, you're going to have to wait for it. David Abbott, a creative director at AMV BBDO, worked with Guinness, Jonathan Glazer and Nick Morris to craft an advert that would capture the anticipation and, from it, satisfaction that comes from every pint that's poured. The film that that emerged from this collaboration is, as you can see above, a work of art; with the sharp script, escalating music and shadowy visuals encapsulating perfectly how it feels to experience the famous Irish stout.

‘He waits... That’s what he does... And I’ll tell you what; tick followed tock followed tick followed tock followed tick’ .

The advert is often touted as one of the best marketing films ever made; with Cinematica awarding it third place on its list of the best ten. Guinness has put out some amazing adverts over the years, but no other film has so powerfully captured the stout's fundamental message: good things come to those who wait.


IKEA - Lamp - 2002

Before Pixar made us feel for abandoned inanimate toys in Toy Story 3 (2011), IKEA managed to make us care about a lamp who, after being replaced by a newer model, is left to rust out on the street. Conceived at the Crispin Porter + Bogusky advertising agency and directed by the always incredible Spike Jonze, the incredibly powerful advert makes you want to treasure all your otherwise meaningless home fixtures. The sad tale was, thankfully, followed by a happy ending in 2018. Also, both adverts have surprisingly funny endings that they probably could have done without.

"Many of you feel bad for this lamp. That is because you crazy. It has no feelings, and the new one is much better."

Although IKEA soon moved away from this furniture guilt concept to focus more on the design virtues of their products, this advert has found an enduring legacy in the people who regularly recall the impact it had on them.


Honda - Cog - 2003

Cog takes the cake as simply the most inventive television advert ever made. Conceived by the Wieden+Kennedy creative agency and directed by Antione Bardou-Jacquet, the film takes the parts of a Honda Accord and lays them out in precisely crafted, domino-style arrangement which, once set in motion, unravels in a perfect sequence. Finishing off with a catchy beat and Garrison Keillor's croaky narration, the film masterfully sold the idea that Honda is powered by dreams.

'Isn't it nice when things just work?"

Campaign listed Cog as one of the most imitated marketing films of all time, and its not hard to see why. It's an effortlessly clever concept executed entirely without the use of CGI or any other ocular effects -- and it retains a large presence in popular culture despite being nearly 20 years old.


Cadbury - In the Air Tonight - 2007

Did you really think I was going to leave this one out? Cadburys' In the Air Tonight is an unquestionable masterpiece. No other piece of marketing has had such a pervasive impact both within the advertising world and in popular culture. Full-service advertising agency Fallon London teamed up with Cadbury's in the wake of what can only be described as a public relations nightmare with a simple pitch that was radical at the time: let's create an entertaining film that, aimed at everyone, drops the industry's tired seriousness and reaches for something viral.

“The brief I gave the agency was: Eating Cadbury’s chocolate makes you feel good.”

With this simple but controversial premise, Juan Cabral, the jack of all trades behind the production, worked meticulously to bring the idea to life. Wrapped in Phil Collins' powerful ballad In the Air Tonight, the advert crashed onto people's screens in 2007 to universal acclaim. Sales for Dairy Milk climbed by 9% compared to the previous year and a YouGov poll found Cadbury's garnered 20% more favourability amongst the public. It also won a ton of awards, including a Gold at the 2008 Clio Awards. Nothing like it had been done before and, despite hundreds of attempts, no advert with so much impact has been created since.


John Lewis - Monty the Penguin - 2014

John Lewis have made it a tradition to release heart wrenching TV adverts. And, although there have been quite a few good ones, nothing pulls those delicate little strings better than Monty the Penguin's longing for love. It's a much simpler than some of what came before and since, but the themes of childhood care, love and wonderment unraveled in the friendship between Monty and Sam make for an advert that, at least for me, captures the essence of what Christmas is all about.

"Give someone the Christmas they've been dreaming of".

Adam&Eve DDB were the creative advertising agency behind the heartfelt film, and the results more than prove that they were the right choice for the job. Sales were up 5.5%, compared to a market increase of 1.5%, and John Lewis raked in £175m in a record breaking sales week following the adverts release. If nothing else, this advert shows that telling good stories is fundamentally good for business.


That's a Wrap

This list is, of course, not meant to be an exhaustive history of TV advertising; but I hope you enjoyed this brief retrospective nonetheless. Now that you've come this far, though, maybe you're willing to go a little further. We are strong believers in the power of television adverts, so feel free to get in touch. We'd love to hear from any and all businesses open to the idea.