Cover image for The 100 best TV commercials-- and why they worked
The 100 best TV commercials-- and why they worked
Kanner, Bernice.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Times Business, [1999]

Physical Description:
xvii, 252 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 27 cm
General Note:
Includes indexes.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
HF6146.T42 K36 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Who cares about commercials? All of us, that's who. The television commercial has become a part of the American narrative, as important a signifier of our times as a great work of literature or a blockbuster motion picture. Indeed, we often care more about the commercials than we do about the programming itself (ask any Super Bowl aficionado). The ad is art . . . and some of the art is brilliant.         The hundred commercials in this book are brilliant. They were selected by a team of experts at the Leo Burnett Company, creators of Tony the Tiger and the Maytag Repairman, in collaboration with dozens of advertising pros from around the globe and throughout the industry. Their choices represent the very best that the advertising world has to offer. Together, they portray a half century of human hopes, wishes, and dreams.         Bernice Kanner, whose "On Madison Avenue" column in New York magazine was required reading for more than a decade, has taken each of these small masterpieces and analyzed what made them work, why they so successfully moved us, and how they broke through the clutter to become a part of the cultural landscape.         From the Marlboro Man to the Energizer Bunny, The 100 Best TV Commercials provides a hundred important lessons in how we communicate and persuade today. It is vital reading for those who create our commercial culture . . . and those who live in it.

Author Notes

Bernice Kanner wrote the "On Madison Avenue" column for New York magazine for thirteen years. Her first-person adventures as a cabdriver, traffic cop, Tiffany's temp, Wendy's counterman, and census taker are among the magazine's most celebrated pieces. She has been a marketing correspondent for CBS News, a marketing commentator for Bloomberg News (print, radio, and television), and a columnist for Working Woman magazine. Her previous books include Are You Normal?, Lies My Parents Told Me, and three children's books endorsed by the National Center for Family Literacy. She lives in New York City and Bridgewater, Connecticut, with her husband, son, and daughter and a menagerie of animals.



In May 1989, in the pale pink conference room at Saatchi & Saatchi's New York headquarters, I was a guinea pig in a psychological probe. While research types sprawled in swivel chairs behind a two-way mirror, a clinical psychologist quizzed me about how I felt when my hair looked great -- and when it didn't. At his suggestion, I conjured up hair-care fairy tales and cast parts like genie, savior, and Tinkerbell (sprinkling handfuls of gold dust) in a dream-play about shampoo and conditioner. In the course of this inquiry, my interlocutor scuttled down path after mental path to learn not just how I felt when my hair looked great and when it didn't, but about any vestigial feelings I had about those locks. I did not feel repelled by this cultural anthropologist, as he later identified his profession, nor by the advertising for Helene Curtis shampoo that later incorporated his findings. But I've little doubt that Vance Packard (and those he influenced) would have been outraged. In his 1957 bestseller, "Hidden Persuaders," Packard compared this kind of motivational research to witchcraft that exploited consumers' frailties and fears, manipulated their minds, and demonically created a hunger for new products without regard to people's real needs and desires. Rather than seeing commercials or the research that shapes them as insidious, I confess, I see them as artful -- a no-bones-about-it reflection of our times. And I see myself as an advertising anthropologist. I've never watched an episode of ER or Seinfeld all the way through, but I could probably describe all the ads that ran on them. My addiction is not that of an ad-world insider, nor that of a layman looking for laughs between program segments. Instead, I watch because I am mesmerized by the advertising's innards, the veins and sinew that give the work strength and body. How did that ad reach out and touch me? How did it  get me to buy? I wasn't always eager to dissect advertising. When I began writing about the industry, first at Advertising Age and then the "On Madison Avenue" column at New York Magazine, it was a good job, but it blossomed into a passion, partly fueled by the enormous impact the industry I followed had on our culture. Nick at Nite has scored with its advertising favorites from old. People watch the Super Bowl as much for the ads as for the action. And, recognizing that the advertising is often every bit as vital as the programming, in 1998 the Emmys bestowed their first award on a prime time TV commercial. The conundrum has always been whether advertising leads popular culture or reflects it. To my mind, however, the point is moot, like the chicken and the egg. Whichever comes first, the next follows so quickly and so inexorably that the two are incomprehensibly intertwined in an eternal pas de deux. More than movies or TV programming, advertising holds a mirror up to show us who and what we are -- or long to be. The language of advertising becomes our vernacular; their dress, our wardrobes, their mores, our customs, (albeit sometimes exaggerated). So when representatives from Random House's Times Books and Leo Burnett asked me to chronicle the evolution and impact of this mother of all advertising reels, I considered it Christmas come early. Here was an opportunity to do vocationally what I'd been doing avocationally for years, and with a greatly expanded base -- the world, from the earliest days of TV to now. That this assortment was selected from the industry-wide Great Commercials Library and winnowed down by creative directors practically guarantee what I'd be slurping was cream. Much of this cream I'd never seen before, and probably most Americans won't have either. Only forty-two winners on the list were made in the USA. (Dozens more made the semi-finals. I couldn't let some slip by unacknowledged, so I've tipped my hat to them in the final chapter.) The second largest group (twenty-eight) came from the U.K., followed by France (eight); Japan and Spain (each with four); Norway and the Netherlands (each with three); Sweden and Brazil (each with two), and one each from Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Germany. So this was for me both a walk down memory lane and an introduction to a whole new world of advertising. Rather than serving them up chronologically, the ads are categorized by technique, proof positive there are many ways to tell a story and coax a smile. Legendary adman David Ogilvy once listed ten kinds advertising approaches that are uncommonly good in changing people's brand preference. Donald Gunn, now head of the International Advertising Festival, who as senior vice president and worldwide creative director of creative resources at the Leo Burnett Company in London was the architect of the list, came up with his own more contemporary categorizations. This list honors aesthetics more than effectiveness in moving product, but this was no conventional beauty contest. Gunn said these ads expand our mind and deflate our ego and maybe change the way we think about advertising. They took a strong selling proposition and did more than just communicate it. They translated it, enhanced it, served it to customers in a fresh, engaging, surprising, and unusually persuasive way. They moved us. These commercials have been admired and envied as breakthroughs, not just in their category but in all advertising, worldwide. In short, they've commandeered a place in our psyche. And they've done it by being both artful and artistic. Indeed, the ads contained in this book may be to coming centuries what Giotto's paintings were to the Renaissance, the glimmering of a bold new way of expression. For most of my life, I shrank from the prospect of selling. It was seemed debasing. Two decades of writing about advertising -- and of living life in the modern world -- has convinced me otherwise. Life today is about selling: selling products, selling ideas, selling ourselves. Selling is the language of our time and advertising is its boldest manifestation. Like it or not, it is a pure expression of the world we live in today. If Michelangelo were alive today, he'd probably be working on Madison Avenue. Bernice Kanner March, 1999 Cokes' tear-jerker is a touchdown in cynical times Coca-Cola, "Mean Joe Greene," McCann Erickson, USA, 1979 Just as Marlboro owned macho cowboys, Coca-Cola thought it could own "the world of smiling Americans," said Bill Van Loan, then vice president of marketing operations at the soft drink giant. Unlike Pepsi advertising, which invited people "to join some mythical group, Coke spots featured product as hero, causing the smile," he said. America ranked "Mean Joe" as the most popular commercial of its time, just as it had "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" years earlier. Van Loan said the seemingly realistic, honest exchange between two people was saved from being melodramatic or overly sentimental because it didn't over promise. The advertising recognized that Coke is only a soft drink -- the pause that refreshes. It won't change the world or heal Mean Joe's injury, but it can -- and did -- restore his spirit and smile. And the transition from "Mean Joe" to "Nice Joe" also brought a smile to potential consumers. (The client originally wanted Dallas Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach; Roger Mosconi, who art directed the spot, insisted on Greene as more dramatic and emotional.) Director Lee Lacy shot "Mean Joe" at a high school in New Rochelle, New York, rather than a pro stadium, to emphasize Greene's 260-pound muscularity. The shoot took three days because the boy, ten-year-old Tommy Oken, was so awed by Greene that he kept missing his lines. On the last day, Greene had to gulp eighteen 16-ounce Cokes. Penny Hawkey, who wrote the spot, said she wanted to do something different from the happy jingles and well scrubbed folks working up a thirst that had characterized most Coca-Cola advertising. She thinks the unironic emotional spot wouldn't work in more cynical times. It sure worked then. The top brass at Coke hadn't expected to get it on the air so soon, but after presenting it to its bottlers, they demanded it be aired immediately and Coke poured it on. The sixty-second spot aired in seven other countries, with Brazil and Thailand re-shooting it with local soccer stars in the starring role. George Wallach produced a TV movie, "The Steeler and The Pittsburgh Kid" for NBC on what happens after. The boy (played by Henry Thomas) feared that the loss of Greene's jersey would sap his strength the way the loss of Samson's hair neutralized him, so he set out on an adventure to return it. Coke was never mentioned in the movie, which supposedly was shot in less time than it took to film the commercial. Soon after, rival Pepsi came out with a hip spoof aimed at making "Mean Joe" seem mawkish. Basketball giant Shaquille O'Neal asks a seemingly gullible boy for his soda, but his boy won't part with his Pepsi. Two years after "Mean Joe" first aired, a new management team canceled the "Coke and a Smile" campaign, calling it pleasant but ineffective in the face of the Pepsi Challenge. During its tenure, Coke's market share held steady while Pepsi's climbed. In supermarkets, where customers had a choice, Pepsi had begun to outsell Coke. Cold War propaganda from a scrappy burger contender Wendy's, "Russian Fashion Show," Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, USA, 1985 Wendy's chairman, Dave Thomas, said he founded the company because he was "tired of going into fast service restaurants where the pickle was bigger than the hamburger. I wanted to know where the beef was." With just $8 million to spend on media -- less than a tenth what rivals McDonald's and Burger King were shelling out -- Wendy's created a national anthem with "Where's the Beef?" The commercial implanted a slogan in people's minds and communicated clearly and directly a key sales message -- that those who demand quality and search for it, will find it at Wendy's. The catchphrase seared its way into the American vernacular, becoming a national password, an instant way to say relief. Preschoolers and sports teams taunted each other with the question. The slogan was emblazoned on T-shirts. Johnny Carson used the line in his monologues and Walter Mondale to advance his Presidential candidacy over rival Gary Hart. Even a competitor's marquee paid homage by blaring: "The beef is here." Two years after Clara Peller uttered those immortal words, Freeman and Sedelmaier struck again with "Russian Fashion Show." Linda Packer, Wendy's director of marketing, said the chain made its point about freedom of choice by taking the stereotype of Soviet society to a ridiculous extremes. The implication, absurd as it was, was that Wendy's, with its many menu choices, is all-American. Its rivals were the dark hats. The commercial, called the best Cold War spoof since Dr. Strangelove, first aired during the week of the Reagan/Gorbachev Geneva conference. Viewers flooded the company's Ohio headquarters with complaints that it could jeopardize the peace process. ("People don't really take commercials like these seriously," director Joe Sedelmaier said, "They recognize it's all in the spirit of fun." The commercial was inspired by the classic movie "Ninotchka," in which Greta Garbo was supposedly amazed by the freedom of choice Americans enjoyed as contrasted with the limited choice Russians have. The model in the spot, which cost $250,000 to make, was actually a man, Howard Fishler, whom Sedelmaier had used to play a woman once before in an Alaska Airlines spot. They shaved Fishler's eyebrows off and put a wig and glasses on him. (Originally, Sedelmaier sought three models but on the day of the shoot he decided to use one and have "her" wear the same thing each time.) "Russian Fashion Show" was shot at the South Shore Country Club in Chicago; its great Byzantine columns creating the aura of an old tsar's palace. Russian lettering on the banner around the promenade actually said "keeping your teeth clean at all times is important." Sedelmaier said his only complaint was that it took Wendy's so long to run the spot, which was completed long before there was even any talk of a summit meeting. (The delay occurred because Wendy's changed the product. It ran in test markets originally with the accent being on a whole menu of choice. Then the foodery switched it to a choice of toppings.) The original plan didn't call for subtitles, but in editing Freeman and Sedelmaier decided that the commentator's thick accent made some remarks hard to inderstand. They added subtitles that say exactly what viewers hear in the same language -- there's no translation. Ultimately, Wendy's went a more traditional route using chain founder and chairman Dave Thomas as spokesperson, framing him in humorous situations. To date, Bates USA, Wendy's current ad agency for Wendy's, has run more than five hundred commercials featuring Thomas. Once ridiculed as a steer in half sleeves, the spots with Thomas have cut through because of their genuineness and honesty and resulted in record-setting gains. Excerpted from The 100 Best TV Commercials: And Why They Worked by Bernice Kanner All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Michael Conrad
Aknowledgmentsp. vii
Forewordp. ix
Introductionp. xv
Chapter 1 Show and Tellp. 3
American Tourister, "Gorilla"
Araldite, "Hammer and Nail"
Cheer, "Diva"
Matsushita Electric, "Little Fireman"
Timex, "Acapulco Diver"
Union Carbide, "Chick"
Volkswagen, "Snowplow"
Chapter 2 The sound of Musicp. 15
Chevroler, "Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie"
Coca-Cola, "Hilltop"
Courage Best, "Gertcha"
Kellogg, "Vesti"
Heineken, "Blues Singer"
Levi's, "Launderette"
Solo, "Singer"
Chapter 3 Lip Servicep. 29
Crest, "Goodbye, Harold (the Bad Tooth)"
Federal Express, "Fast-Paced World"
Heineken, "Water in Majorca"
Mates Condoms, "Chemist Shop"
MCI, "Parents"
Parker Pen, "Finishing School"
Chapter 4 Dreamscapesp. 43
Benson and Hedges, "Swimming Pool"
Chanel Egoiste "Balconies"
Chanel No. 5, "Pool"
Dunlop, "Tested for the Unexpected"
Hovis, "Bike Ride"
Jeep "Snow Covered"
Marlboro, "Foggy Morning"
National Lightbulbs, "Menu of Lights"
Nissin Cup Noddle, "Moa/Winterelium"
Perrier, "Le Lion"
Smirnoff, "Message in a Bottle"