Feature Story: The Greatest Ads of All Time

COM alums spill the secrets behind ads that changed the industry forever

By Andrew Thurston

You’re not easily swayed. And your DVR has a well-worn fast-forward button. But every so often, you let your guard down. An ad slips through.

The jingle turns into a weeklong earworm—whether you want it to or not. You usually grab brand ‘X’ in the store without thinking, but somehow brand ‘Y’ lands in your cart. Your Monday morning blow-by-blow recall of that terrible Super Bowl play is postponed while you chuckle about movie star Seth Rogen plugging Samsung.

The greatest ads work in a moment and stick with us for decades. And many of the best were created by COM alums. Here, we share the secrets of some of these ads, from why they work so well to how they changed the world of advertising.

Terrifying Teens

Alum: JD Beebe (’07), creative director at Noise
Client / Agency / Year: Doritos / Goodby, Silverstein & Partners / 2008

The ad: A full-on frightener of a Halloween promotion, Hotel 626 could only be played at night. Thanks to embedded Twitter messaging in this branded, interactive online game for teens, five million signed up and freaked out. Doritos confirmed itself as the bold snack.

Why it worked: “This ad worked because people were actively searching it out, sending it to friends and playing it over and over. The agency had spent all the money on production and had no media money to help gain exposure. An open call went out to the agency and I suggested—this was 2008, so it was more novel then—we involve the user in spreading the message. As users went through the game, the site would send out macabre messages to their Twitter friends, begging for help against the maniacs they were facing in the hotel.”

How it changed the world: Hotel 626 pushed the boundaries of how a player could interact with technology. It delivered an experience that people wanted to participate in versus trying to push a product. Overall, it understood its audience better than most other projects or ads I’ve seen. The simple insight of ‘kids like to be scared’ resulted in an amazing execution. Doritos wasn’t concerned with deals or awareness; it just wanted amazing, holy-hell-that’s-awesome branded experiences.”

Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and B-Reel

Mixing Up the Super Bowl

Alum: Edward Boches (’76), COM advertising professor and chief innovation officer at Mullen
Client / Agency / Year: Monster / Mullen / 1999

The ad: The Super Bowl spot that showed innocent kids aspiring to dead-end jobs and thrust employment website into the national consciousness. More than a decade later, it’s still ranked as one of the 10 best Super Bowl ads of all time.

Why it worked: “It broke all the conventions of a Super Bowl ad. It was ironic, not outright funny. It was shot in black and white, not color. It was a manifesto, a promise and a call to action all in one beautiful, simple, 30-second execution.”

How it changed the world: “It ­resonated. Just like Nike told ­consumers they could be athletes, just like Apple said we could all be creative, declared that we have an inalienable right to a fulfilling career.”

The hallmark of a great ad: “Simple. You have to do three things: respect your viewer, connect on an emotional level and entertain. People hate to be advertised to, but they love to watch great advertising.”

When I Grow Up // First air date: Super Bowl 1999 // Advertiser: Monster // Agency: Mullen // Production company: Hungry Man

Saving Marriages

Alum: Kathleen Van Hoff (’96), writer/creative director at McCann
Client / Agency / Year: Visa / BBDO / 1997

The ad: Busted! He seems a nice enough guy, but he’s forgotten his anniversary. On the spot and on the phone with his wife, he draws inspiration from his office, using the sight of takeout boxes and a model train to come up with the idea for a surprise vacation on the Orient Express. Fortunately, he has a Visa card to pay for “the trip you never thought you’d take.”

Why it worked:Orient Express is a fantastically produced spot about one of life’s great and tragic truths—no matter how happy the marriage, most men, especially those left unaided by hints or even overt reminders, will forget their anniversary. The Visa campaign at the time was about accessing the common experiences that we all have—both good and bad—and somehow tweaking those experiences to make them funny. Even though it’s about a guy who forgets his anniversary, the emotion of being busted and then trying to cover for it carries universal appeal. Visa ended up running the spot for two years, and I think in that time it got a lot of husbands off the hook by making light of a bad experience.”

What I learned from making this ad: “What was wonderful and unusual about BBDO and its creative management back then was that everyone got to work on almost every project. If you had a good idea, you could do great work; it didn’t matter if you were a new hire or had been there 30 years.”


Click on the image to watch the ad. Image courtesy of Eric Steinman

Kicking It Old-School

Alum: Chris Wooster (’91), executive creative director at mcgarrybowen
Client / Agency / Year: Turner Network’s GameTap / Mullen / 2005

The ad: Remember when Internet ads just flashed at you? The campaign for GameTap, a streaming service for classic video games, heralded a new era: the interactive online ad. Users clicked onto a turntable to “scratch” and remix old-school game soundtracks. When the music triggered happy memories of teenage years spent with a controller in hand, they’d click through to play the video games of their youth.

How it changed the world: “In 2005, digital advertising was still very push-focused—two frames and a ‘Click Here’ button. Too many digital ads were more like billboards, begging you to pull off the interstate based solely on a clever line. This ad was among a movement that believed, correctly, that digital ads earned a click by means of a consumer value exchange. As consumers have become more sophisticated online animals, the idea of value as a persuasive technique has become central to successful digital advertising.”

Why it worked: “It was singularly about play, which was the core of the brief. I’ve heard (ad agency) R/GA’s Creative Director Nick Law speak of the vitality of ‘play’ as both motivator and as an engaging brand space. This occupied that land. It celebrated our love for these games by allowing you to remix and ‘re-love’ them. The sounds of Pitfall! and Centipede and Dig Dug are nostalgically wired into our target [audience]; this ad lets you roll around in that wonderfulness. Make no mistake, this is an ad. But its playfulness and empathy with those who experience it instantly disarm and convert.”

My advertising golden rule: “A great ad solves a problem. That problem can be awareness or sales or ‘X,’ but every ad must address the issue presented in the brief. If it’s trying to do anything else—like winning awards or filling portfolios—it’s failing as an ad.”


Click on the image to view the ad. Credit: Mullen for Turner Network’s GameTap; Art director: Christine Pillsbury

How to Make a Great Ad

David Lubars (CGS’78, COM’80), chairman and chief creative officer at BBDO, shares his secrets.

AT&T, FedEx, GE, PepsiCo, Starbucks. He has the clients everyone else wants and an awards cabinet that’s the envy of Madison Avenue. His ads range from Larry Bird throwing high fives for AT&T to Betty White eating dirt for Snickers. David Lubars, ranked by influential Directory editor Patrick Collister as the world’s top creative leader, is the head of an agency that’s won the most ad awards six years running. Here’s his advice for getting to the top—and staying there.

Quit lecturing and tell a story: “I believe creativity is a real economic multiplier; I think it really does amazing things for clients; it’s not just nice to have. You have to believe that to do this well. Good advertising is storytelling: it’s magic; it touches some kind of a human, universal truth; it treats the viewer with respect and intelligence; and it humanizes a product or company in a way that’s special. Humans respond to storytelling, not just to telling—nobody wants a finger poked in their chest. Doing that well and telling a great truth about a brand or a product is the secret; it’s that easy and that difficult.”

Don’t settle: “In life, 95 percent of stuff is usually not that great—books, movies, music, your relatives—and the same thing is true in this, but if you’re in that 5 percent, 1 percent really, and you try to stay there, that’s when you bring in value to your clients because the ad becomes more than just a good message; it becomes part of the culture, it becomes the zeitgeist, it becomes the touchstone.”

Keep your edge: “No matter what titles you get or how many people you’re managing or what parts of the world you touch, you always have to stay in touch with the craft. You can’t just become some overseer or manager.”

Snickers Ad

In this popular Super Bowl ad (Snickers–“Betty White”), a young man plays football “like Betty White” until eating a Snickers bar restores him to his more athletic self. Photo courtesy of BBDO

3 Comments on Feature Story: The Greatest Ads of All Time

  • What a great article. And for those of us who had the inspiring professor Walter Lubars, it is indeed fun to see the lessons his son learned from his dad as well.

    • Are you the cute, smart, sweet Susan Levy who took some of my classes a million years ago, and lived most of the time in rainy Spokane? If so, please email and tell me all about your life since we last connected.

      Walter Lubars

      P.S. Thanks for the nice comment.

  • Wow! Nice post it was thanks for the beautiful post. All the details are too good to read. Good job from you keep it up.

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