100 Best TV Commercials

By Kanner, Bernice | Chief Executive (U.S.), June 1999 | Go to article overview

100 Best TV Commercials


Kanner, Bernice, Chief Executive (U.S.)


What makes a commercial great? Whimsy, Unconventional thinking. A touching tale. And sometimes, as these eight ads show, CEO involvement.

By one estimate, the average American watches some 24,000 commercials a year and advertisers plow some $200 billion into airtime running them. That makes for a crowded adscape. Ads included in The 100 Best TV Commercials and Why They Worked (Times Books, July 1999) recognized fresh concepts that were superbly executed, cut through clutter, and snagged viewers' attention, all the while raising the bar on what advertising could be.

These ads represent various times and techniques and provide proof that there are many ways to tell a story and coax a smile. Some were whimsically seductive, others uproariously funny. Some broke the rules and overturned conventions. Still others played by the rules, albeit ingeniously.

Although many sold the goods, they were honored for the aesthetic way they took a strong selling proposition and enhanced it, serving it to customers in a fresh, engaging, surprising, and unusually persuasive way. They reached out and touched us.

Sometimes CEOs were directly involved with the advertising or the process; sometimes they put their careers on the line to run it. And sometimes, winners ran despite them-or got pulled because CEOs got cold feet. Here are eight top spots where CEOs called the shots.

Federal Express

A baldish, mustachioed actor named John Moschitta conducts a work day in fast forward-spewing into the intercom at 450 words-a-minute, hiring a job seeker in a nanosecond, and gushing travel plans at roughly three times the normal speed of speech to demonstrate that when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight, FedEx is the way to send it.

The "Fast-Paced World" ticker, as well as the client-agency relationship that produced it, almost didn't happen. In the early 1970s, Federal Express invited agency Ally & Gargano to Memphis to hear about a scheme for a fleet of jets that would fly in the dead of night, take little packages from around the country to a central hub, and dispatch them again on outbound planes. The company had only $150,000 to spend on advertising, and the idea hadn't even gotten off the ground yet, so Carl Ally was set to turn the assignment down. But a mutual friend persuaded him to reconsider. Ally and Emil Gargano met FedEx's founder and CEO, Fred Smith, talked to him for 15 minutes, and accepted the assignment.

Initially, ads aimed at middle and senior management, not at mailroom supervisors or back office workers who could change suppliers but were limited in their powers to initiate drastic changes. Then the target expanded to workers in every department, including secretaries, mailroom personnel, and trainees. Smith heard the agency describe an intense, splenetic character who strings together dialogue at a racy clip to demonstrate the urgency of package delivery and gave thumbs up. "Absolutely, Positively" was more than a gimmick. It was a slogan that made anxious people wonder what's a little money next to peace of mind, that built the company, and that made us all believe that nothing is certain except death, taxes, and FedEx deliveries.

Nike

Since Philip Knight, a one-time University of Oregon track star, abandoned his accounting career 30 years ago to form a company that imported running shoes to the U.S., he's been associated with marketing campaigns built around popular sports heroes. Under his microscopic scrutiny, legendary ads painted Nike as the brand of athletic performance and redefined the notion of celebrity.

By 1976, Nike was outpacing even the frenzied jogging craze, as demand for glitzy, pricey "sneakers" soared. By 1980, when it went public, Nike was the top selling athletic shoe in the U.S., with revenues of $270 million. But seven years later, with jogging fever subsiding, Nike had stumbled, overtaken by Reebok.

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