History’s 10 Most Innovative TV Ads

Are they the 10 best TV ads of all time? That's open to debate. But there's not questioning that these 10 television commercials marked a change in advertising convention. George Orwell called advertising "the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket," and there's scant doubt that the industry has to answer a few serious charges. For one, it can only serve its purpose – to arouse your appetite for goods – if you notice it. And this gets harder as people become numb to the messages advertising carries.

Are they the 10 best TV ads of all time? That’s open to debate. But there’s not questioning that these 10 television commercials marked a change in advertising convention.

George Orwell called advertising “the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket,” and there’s scant doubt that the industry has to answer a few serious charges. For one, it can only serve its purpose – to arouse your appetite for goods – if you notice it. And this gets harder as people become numb to the messages advertising carries.

So, while no one celebrates radio spots, which blare and grate, some television commercials from the past thirty years have so toyed with the convention, or so altered the way we view advertising, that we think they deserve special mention.
 


 
 

10. Burger King  – Subservient Chicken (2008)


Recalling Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram’s frightening 1961 experiments about obedience and authority, Burger King’s innovation is to prove that we all have a deep-seated capacity for sadism – and, perhaps, a deep-seated desire for the BK Tendercrisp. As you issue increasingly demeaning orders to the chicken, remember that there’s a real person inside the suit.


 
 

9. Canon – Digic (2005)


It’s all in the details, from the faux-retro digital interface to the utter believability of the rodeo clown’s pained expression to the way the pixilated interface hammers home the brand message. Watch as Canon’s Digic brings the Lego guys into sharp focus.
Thanks @glasfurdwalker


 
 

8. Calvin Klein Jeans – Calvin Klein Banned Ad (90s)


From the So Bad It’s Good department: before there was Marky Mark in his tighty-whiteys, there was Brandon from Kentucky. How Calvin Klein got away with these kiddie-porn-inflected, voyeuristic, and excruciatingly awkward TV spots is anybody’s guess. Actually, he didn’t: the spots were pulled after an ad-standards uproar.


 
 

7. Calvin Klein Jeans – Calvin Klein Natural Selection (1980)


The innovation of CK’s advertising exists mainly in its ability to discomfort and arouse – often simultaneously. Before there were young, lithe jeans models interviewed in some creepy guy’s rec room, there was a young, lithe Brooke Shields (all of 15 years, in fact) teaching us about evolution and how to put pants on. Edgy stuff for 1980.


 
 

6. Barack Obama Campaign – Yes, We Can (2008)


Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am gives Barack Obama’s Yes We Can mantra the musical mash-up treatment, with guest appearances from a who’s-who of R&B stars (and Scarlett Johansson), taking the soon-to-be US president’s speech to dizzying new emotional and oratorical heights.


 
 

5. Nike – Swing Portrait (2005)


Very few firms – and Nike is surely among them – can turn a three-second commercial into a sixty-second one, and only Tiger Woods can cream a golf ball like that. Watching the swing of the world’s best golfer rendered in super-slow motion and super-high definition is mesmerizing, something approaching art.


 
 

4. Dove – Evolution (2006)


The Dove ads – and we have two on this list – are extremely sophisticated emotionally. In this one, Dove taps in to the cynicism that many women feel for the merchants of female beauty (and, of course, beauty products), and, in winning their confidence, sells them a ton of soap.


 
 

3. Dove – True Colors (2006)


Dove’s Real Beauty campaign does it again, affecting an earnestness not seen outside the distended bellies and flies of a World Vision infomercial. The genius of this ad is in its sleight of hand: while seeming to subvert the entire premise of advertising (i.e., “buy this stuff because you’re deficient without it”), Dove preaches a sermon of acceptance and self-love – and still hawks the product.


 
 

2. Apple – 1984 Macintosh (1984)


Ads and Superbowls go together like chips and salsa, and Apple’s famed 1984 Superbowl ad for the Macintosh personal computer is the granddaddy of them all. This symbolism-heavy cinematic masterpiece, directed by Ridley Scott, asserts that Apple is the Ministry of Awesomeness of the computer realm — and puts a modern spin on our Orwellian fears of the telescreen.


 
 

1. Wendy’s – Where’s the Beef? (1984)


This memorable spot, also from 1984, was special for two reasons. With advertising the province of the young and beautiful, it was the first to effectively use elderly people in a sales pitch. It was also the first spot to have its tagline (as distinct from a jingle) become a term of currency in popular culture. Thanks @thunderjon.