Long before streaming, we used to sit through commercials while watching TV. It was actually fun to watch ads in the 80s and 90s since they were funny and often had catchy jingles you couldn’t get out of your head.
The world of entertainment is pretty different today. 8 out of 10 households in the U.S. pay for at least one ad-free streaming service. We just don’t like our entertainment to be interrupted anymore.
If you’re of a certain age, you may still have room in your heart for good commercials. Here is a list of famous ads that redefined pop culture and have earned their place in advertising history.
Ready to dive in? Take a look at the top best commercials of all time!
Top 10 Greatest TV Commercials
Ready to dive in? Take a look at the top best commercials of all time!
Watch this video about the best TV commercials ever made!
What Are the Best TV Commercials Ever?
Some commercials are more than just brief interruptions of your favorite shows. They’re mini masterpieces. Here are the ads that make you laugh, cry, think, and feel.
1. Apple – “1984” (1984) Top
People all across the nation started talking after this Apple commercial aired in 1984. The ad, directed by Ridley Scott (the same guy behind Alien and Gladiator), showed a scantily clad woman fighting a brainwashing machine, inspired by George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel “1984.” The futuristic society depicted was condemning a bunch of drones to a life based on the “Unification of Thoughts.”
This popular ad fired on all cylinders – it was intelligent, original, and above all, daring. Customers flooded electronics stores, going on to purchase $155 million worth of Macintosh computers three months after the ad debuted. That’s pretty amazing for an ad that only aired once before it was pulled for being too controversial.
2. Tootsie Pop – “How Many Licks?” (1968) Top
A little boy asks a cow, fox, turtle, and owl how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. The world may never know, and they may also never know why we still love and talk about these famous commercials to this very day.
Tootsie Pop revolutionized the power of a good ad with this classic campaign. It was created by an ad agency named Doner who hired Paul Winchell (best known as the voice of Tigger in Winnie the Pooh) to voice the wise old owl. The “How Many Licks?” commercial is one of the longest-running ad to date, and it lasts only between 15 to 60 seconds.
3. Coca-Cola – “Meet Joe Greene” (1979) Top
In 1979, Coca-Cola and the NFL teamed up to bring Mean Joe Greene into America’s hearts. This ad has gone on to become one of the most famous commercials in Super Bowl history. It has also won several advertising awards including a Clio and a Cannes Gold Lion.
This iconic commercial stars Joe Greene who at the time played defensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the ad, a young boy selflessly shares his bottle of Coke with Greene who is clearly down about a rough game. Touched by this offer, Greene tosses the kid his jersey with the classic line, “Hey kid, catch!” The famous TV commercial took a lot of work to be made. In fact, Joe Greene reportedly had to drink 2.25 gallons of Coca-Cola before he got the line just right. It was worth the effort since we still talk about the ad to this very day.
4. Budweiser – “Whassup?!” (1999) Top
Budweiser’s “Wassup?!” was inspired by a short film created by Charles Stone III. Both the film and the commercial starred Stone and his friends who all grew up together in the Philadelphia area.
“Wassup?!” may have been spoofed in the original Scary Movie, but its impact is no laughing matter. According to The New York Times, Budweiser’s sales grew from 2.4 million barrels to 99.2 barrels the year after the ad was on TV. “Wassup?!” resonated with the target audience of 20-something men, and you’ll still hear the tongue-wagging greeting by those who remember these popular commercials.
5. McDonald’s – “The Showdown” (1993) Top
Two of NBA’s greatest, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, play HORSE with a Big Mac and fries as the prize. They start with easy shots and gradually get more complicated. This funny premise was enough to cement the commercial as one of the best in pop culture history.
The iconic ad was created by an agency called Leo Burnett, and it aired during Super Bowl XXVII. The phrase “nothing but net” came from the commercial, and it’s been used ever since. McDonald’s struck gold with “The Showdown.” 90 million viewers watched the commercial when it was released, and it’s still talked about among sports fans.
6. M&M’s – “They Do Exist” (1996) Top
You know the holiday season is approaching if this iconic ad is on TV. In fact, it has re-aired annually for over 25 years. Few TV commercials have that kind of staying power!
The cozy ad shows the red and yellow mascots creeping around on Christmas Eve with a bowl of M&M’s to leave out for Santa. They accidentally stumble on old St. Nick, and both are shocked to see that the other exists. The commercial is only 15 seconds long and even inspired a sequel released in 2017.
7. Old Spice – “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” (2010) Top
Old Spice’s commercial achieved viral fame in 2010. The ad shows an attractive man (commercial actor Isaiah Mustafa) targeting women to claim that he’s superior to their boyfriends, especially since he smells so good with Old Spice.
The self-aware, funny commercial quickly became a hit with the viewing audience. Thanks to these popular commercials, ad agency Wieden+Kennedy helped Old Spice achieve an 11% increase in sales. There is clearly power in smelling like the man your man could smell like!
8. Always – “Like a Girl” (2015) Top
There is a lot of talk about what it means to be a “girl” versus a “boy”. Tired old phrases such as “you throw like a girl” or “quit whining like a girl” perpetuate the idea that women are not as strong or as emotionally stable as men. Always, a feminine care line, rightfully believes that has to change.
The “Like a Girl” ad aired during Super Bowl XLIX. The commercial shows a group of kids and teenagers getting asked questions like “What does it mean to do X like a girl?” The campaign sent a strong message and made viewers question their thoughts and attitudes. Always also dared to air the commercial during a predominately male-driven event.
9. Life Cereal – “Mikey Likes It” (1978) Top
The most effective commercials are relatable. Millions of viewers saw themselves or their kids reflected in Mikey, the star of these famous TV commercials for Life Cereal. The popular ad went on to win a Clio Award and be inducted into the TV Commercial Hall of Fame.
John Gilchrist who starred as Mikey retired from acting after starring in more than 250 commercials, but Life Cereal is still going strong. 6.5 million Americans enjoyed 1 to 4 servings in 2019. If you’re a Gen X’er, you are likely thinking “Mikey Likes It!” with every bite!
10. Nike – Hare Jordan (1993) Top
The “GOAT,” Michael Jordan, deserves to be on the list of best TV commercials more than once. Not only did he star in “The Showdown,” but he also starred alongside Bugs Bunny in “Hare Jordan” in 1993 to promote the Air Jordan.
“Hare Jordan” cost Nike $1 million to make, but it was worth every penny. Follow-up commercials were released, and Warner Bros. was inspired to make Space Jam, which earned $230 million at the worldwide box office. Nike, meanwhile, sold millions of Air Jordans throughout the 90s.
- Apple – “Mac & PC” – (2006)
- Calvin Klein – “Obsession” (1980)
- Dos Equis – “The Most Interesting Man in the World” (2006)
- Pepsi – “New Generation” (1984)
- Snickers – “Betty White” (2010)
- State Farm – “Jake, From State Farm” (2011)
- Wendy’s – “Where’s the Beef?” (1984)
What is the Most Popular Commercial Today?
According to Forbes, marketers spent over $160 billion on digital ads in 2021. Companies are just not investing their precious ad dollars in commercials anymore.
There were still a few popular commercials that were released in the last decade. Some standouts include: Gillette’s “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be,” Amazon’s “Alexa Loses Her Voice,” and GrubHub’s “Delivery Dance.”
What is a Bad Commercial?
For every good commercial on the list, there are a few epic fails. A bad ad is one that doesn’t work, causes offense, or is entirely forgettable. You want your commercial to sell something and that will only happen if it’s good.
Here are five of the worst TV commercials ever created!
1. Kmart – “Giffing Out” (2013)
Kmart is the place your dad went to buy his white sneakers, but now there are only 3 stores left in the United States. The store filed bankruptcy in 2002 and has since been trying to get their groove back. One of the terrible choices they made in this effort was this bad ad, which shows a GIF on loop. It seems like this ad was written by the same uncool dad who bought those sneakers.
2. Education Connection – “Waitress Jingle” (2012)
If you were a 2000’s kid, you might remember these terrible commercials for Education Connection. These cheesy, cringey ads are around 1 minute long, which doubles the average running time of a commercial. Today, the company is still making painfully long commercials marked by original songs. You can watch each one on their website!
3. Popchips – “Dating Video” (2012)
2012 was the year for bad commercials as it gave us not only Education Connection’s misfire, but also this Popchips bomb. This commercial, which stars Ashton Kutcher, was criticized for being racist and stereotyping Indian culture. Kutcher even went as far as to paint his face brown for the commercial. No, we have not all been “Punk’d.” This ad was real.
4. Snickers – “Mechanic Kiss” (2007)
Snickers is known for good TV commercials, but even the greats make mistakes. Just look at this offensive ad from 2007! Two men are in the ultimate battle of manliness after their mouths accidentally touch. This commercial, which aired during the Super Bowl, comes across as homophobic rather than comical. No wonder it was immediately pulled.
5. Quiznos – “Spongemonkeys We Love the Subs” (2007)
Cover your ears! In 2007, Quiznos released this irritating commercial that had creepy, weird sponge monkeys singing about a new low price on sandwiches. The song is the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard, and the horrible mascots will haunt your dreams long after the ad is over. It’s so bad that it’s actually kind of hilarious.
What is a Good Commercial?
If you want to create a good commercial that stands the test of time, you need to follow the right formula. Your ad should have the following:
The more relatable your commercial is, the more impactful it will be with the viewers. 55% of consumers are more likely to buy a product and 44% will share it with others if they engage with the brand story.
According to research by the University of Southern California, 31% of ads with emotional pull succeed vs. those that are more “rational” in nature. It’s not so much about selling the product as it is about appealing to human nature. A good commercial should make you laugh, cry, or feel inspired to take action.
The average commercial is 30 seconds long. Short, sweet, and to the point will stick in your audience’s brains. Who knows? If your ad is good enough, you might be able to make a movie later! Just look at the success of “Hare Jordan,” which inspired Space Jam.
Slogans or jingles can transform an ad and make it stand the test of time – think Budweiser’s “Wassup?!” or Life Cereal’s “He Likes It!” Your company has 3 to 10 seconds to get a customer’s attention, and short, quippy taglines are an easy way to make it happen!
And there you have it! Some of the greatest commercials of all time are funny, insightful, and create movements. There are advertising products created in their name, like “Where’s the Beef?” t-shirts or Mr. Owl lunch boxes, and they inspire follow-up campaigns and even feature films!
Popular TV commercials are everywhere, so keep an eye out next time you are watching! These famous ads prove with a good enough idea, you can make a phenomenal impact.
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