- Advertisements exist to sell us things, but sometimes they can change the way we think.
- The reason we have diamonds on our engagement rings, or why we drink orange juice each morning, or even our idea of Santa Claus can be traced back to iconic ads.
- At its best, advertising can become part of the zeitgeist, like Rosie the Riveter or the Marlboro Man.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The first newspaper ad in America appeared back in 1704 when someone was trying to sell a house on Long Island.
Since then, the advertising industry has undergone a huge transformation.
Over the years, we have seen dozens of ads that have done much more than just persuade us to buy a product or service. The very best campaigns have affected the way we communicate and interact with one another, from the coffee breaks we enjoy, to the clothes we wear to work, to the videos we share online.
With that in mind, we gathered 17 ads that have shaped our culture.
Aaron Taube contributed to a previous version of this article.
1907: Sunkist orange juice
In the early 1900s, orange growers in California had a major problem: They were picking way more oranges than anybody wanted to buy.
So in 1907, the California Fruit Growers Exchange went to see Albert Lasker at the Lord & Thomas advertising agency to see what he could do.
His solution was to rebrand the California growers under one name, Sunkist. More importantly, he helped them popularize a new use for the fruit: orange juice.
Soon, Sunkist was teaching people how to squeeze the juice out of their oranges and selling them juicers to do it. Today, the product is an instrumental part of breakfast across the United States.
1916: “I WANT YOU”
- IWM/Getty Images
Uncle Sam motivated young Americans sent off to fight in World War I.
The name “Uncle Sam” as a personification of the United States is believed to have originated sometime during the War of 1812, but the image most of us still think of is James Montgomery Flagg’s sketch originally published as the cover of the July 6, 1916, issue of Leslie’s Weekly.
The image of the white-haired, bearded, and bow-tied man in a patriotic top hat above the words “I WANT YOU” proved to be so popular that it was printed as a poster that became ubiquitous during wartime. The Library of Congress says that over four million copies were printed between 1917 and 1918.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt even brought it back for World War II, and Flagg met the president to present him with his own copy.
1929: Guinness is good for you
Guinness, that beloved Irish beer, also has a beloved advertising campaign that dates back to 1929.
Before then, the Dublin brewery relied on word of mouth to spread its product. However, in 1929, it released a print ad with the tagline “Guinness is good for you.” And doctors really did think it was a healthy drink. In fact, they’d pour some for new mothers in the hospital just hours after they’d given birth.
For the next three decades or so, Guinness, through ad agency SH Benson, would roll out slogans like “Lovely day for a Guinness” and “My goodness – my Guinness!” featuring illustrations by SH Benson art director John Gilroy.
1931: Coca-Cola — “The pause that refreshes”
It’s a common misconception that Coca-Cola invented our modern idea of Santa Claus through its marketing: the red suit, the jolly demeanor, and even the love for Coke (though most children prefer to leave out milk and cookies for St. Nick).
The truth is, Santa had always looked somewhat like he does today, but Coke managed to get all the ingredients right.
The first depiction of Santa as we know him today can be traced back to Thomas Nast, the Civil War cartoonist whose Santa wore red and even smoked a pipe.
The first Coca-Cola Santa was painted by Fred Mizen for a 1930 ad. The painting depicted a department store Santa enjoying a Coke as children looked on, but this Santa was not as jolly as ad executives would have liked. So they hired Haddon Sundblom to create the iconic Santa we know today.
1942: “We Can Do It!”
Sometimes an ad campaign can take on a life of its own, gaining significance well beyond what it was originally intended for.
That’s what happened to Westinghouse Electric’s “We Can Do It!” ad featuring a now-iconic image of a strong, muscular woman taking her spot in the workplace.
The poster was originally used only as an internal morale boost to female workers at Westinghouse factories producing helmet liners during World War II. In fact, the poster was not even supposed to be connected to Rosie the Riveter, a mostly fictitious factory worker character used to recruit women for the war effort.
It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that the image began to gain traction with feminists as a symbol of female empowerment. Since then, it has been used by everyone from Clorox to Beyoncé to communicate the idea that women are strong, independent people capable of rolling up their sleeves and getting the job done.
1947: “A diamond is forever”
- De Beers
We use a diamond to propose marriage because of De Beers.
By 1938, De Beers, the diamond mining and manufacturing cartel of companies, was having a difficult time selling its gemstones. Sales had been declining for two decades, but once the Great Depression hit, few wanted something associated with only the wealthiest of people, according to the Washington Post. So they hired ad agency N.W. Ayer to find a way to re-package diamonds for the average American.
In 1947, Ayer creative Frances Gerety suggested the slogan “A diamond is forever.” Both she and her colleagues weren’t too excited by it, but they eventually used it in a campaign the next year. It immediately clicked with the American people, who soon began associating the gemstone with a fitting symbol of a promise of eternal love, rather than just an extravagant luxury.
“A diamond is forever” has appeared in every De Beers ad since 1948, and Ad Age named it the best slogan of the 20th century.
1952: “Give yourself a coffee break!”
In the mid-1950s, a Pan-American Coffee Bureau ad campaign encouraged workers to find some midday relaxation with the line, “Give yourself a ‘Coffee-break’ – and get what coffee gives to you.”
“Despite the fact that the copy itself is somewhat awkward, the notion took hold fast,” writes food blogger Erin Meister. “Before long, morning and afternoon breaks became commonplace, even occasionally protected by law.”
The break became something people bargained for: In 1964, the United Auto Workers Union threatened to go on strike unless the coffee break was written into their contract.
1954: The Marlboro Man
The Marlboro Man cemented Marlboro’s red label cigarettes’ reputation for being the smoke of choice for cool, rugged men everywhere. And that’s why you may be surprised to find that Marlboro was originally known as a woman’s cigarette.
In the 1950s, new evidence on the harmful effects of smoking pressured the tobacco industry to develop filtered cigarettes, which were intended to appear as healthier alternatives. Philip Morris & Co. needed a way to sell these filtered alternatives to men, and the “Mild as May” slogan it used for its Marlboro offering was certainly not going to do the trick.
So in 1954, the tobacco company unveiled the Marlboro Man, the creation of ad agency Leo Burnett Worldwide. Now insecure men could feel tough smoking a Marlboro, because it was the smoke of choice for a weathered, cleft-chinned cowboy. Sales spiked from $5 billion in 1955 to $20 billion in 1957, AdAge reports.
However, that success has had its critics. By the late ’90s, Marlboro’s ads were so effective and pervasive that one study showed that nearly 90% of schoolchildren recognized the cigarette-toting cowboy. The Marlboro Man was eventually retired in 1998 following a settlement by the major tobacco companies that they’d avoid using humans and cartoons to sell their products.
1959: “Think small.”
Volkswagen’s “Think small” campaign, from powerhouse ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, revolutionized how corporations speak to consumers and gave voice to the public’s growing dissatisfaction with the mass consumerism of the 1950s.
Where other car manufacturers blithely boasted of spoiler fins and other luxury features, Volkswagen focused on the utility of its smaller, more durable cars in a series of simple ads that openly acknowledged their purpose as a sales tool.
And while competitors made grandiose, unbelievable claims about how their products would transform customers’ lives, Volkswagen’s voice was personal and self-deprecating, calling one car a “lemon” because its glove compartment was blemished.
Soon after, advertisers began moving away from over-hyped sales pitches in favor of more playful campaigns that acknowledged consumer skepticism of advertising and presented consumption as a means of expressing individuality rather than fitting in.
- Tony Schwartz/YouTube
In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson was running for the White House against republican Barry Goldwater.
Johnson wanted to paint Goldwater as pro-war while Cold War tensions – and fear of the nuclear bomb – continued to escalate.
So his campaign ran what became known as the “Daisy” ad, where a little girl innocently playing with flowers in a field looks up and sees a mushroom cloud.
Johnson’s voice boomed:
These are the stakes! To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.
The result: Johnson won by a landslide. And the attack ad became a part of American culture.
1980: Absolut vodka
In 1980, Swedish vodka brand Absolut sold 10,000 cases of its vodka in the US. By 2000, however, that number had grown to 4.5 million cases, thanks in large part to its advertising campaign, which featured Absolut’s signature bottle in a number of surreal images.
Whether the bottle had a halo, was made of stone, or was just an outline of trees on an alpine ski slope, consumers loved finding one of the 1,500 ads in magazines and on billboards.
There are so many ads, in fact, that a site called Absolut Ad took it upon themselves to collect them all.
To date, Absolut’s bottles are the longest-running continuous ad campaign (1981 to 2005) of all time.
1983: “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.”
In 1983, the Ad Council released a Public Service Announcement that quickly became a part of culture: Friend’s don’t let friends drive drunk.
It was a different time in America. Having “one for the road” meant that you drank a beer while driving home, which sounds nuts today.
1984: Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl ad
Apple chose to introduce its Macintosh personal computer during the 1984 Super Bowl with a visually stunning ad, which claimed that unlike George Orwell’s dystopian vision, the actual 1984 was a time when technology would be used as a revolutionary tool for people to express their individuality.
In the ad, directed by Ridley Scott, a woman in a white tank top and orange shorts runs through a room full of people wearing the same clothes. She tosses a sledgehammer through a big screen on which their leader is speaking to them.
In doing so, the woman hinted at the freedom the personal computer would bring to users and inspired a generation of tech leaders to see the computer as a creative force for good.
1988: “Just do it.”
Nike’s first “Just do it” ad showed 80-year-old jogger Walt Stack trudging across the Golden Gate Bridge during his daily 17-mile run.
The message was simple beyond explanation, and it quickly became a rallying cry for people who wanted to push themselves to new heights.
The slogan is now more than 25 years old, and to this day, it convinces people that they, too, can be athletes if they choose to.
All they need to do is pick up a pair of running shoes and “just do it.”
1988: Joe Camel
- RJ Reynolds
Joe Camel became a main rallying point for severely restricting tobacco advertising.
The tobacco company RJ Reynolds wanted to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its Camel brand of cigarettes in 1988 with an eye-catching ad campaign. It found inspiration in a British Camel ad from the 1970s, featuring a cartoon version of its camel mascot.
Anti-smoking advocates accused RJ Reynolds of blatantly targeting underage smokers. California attorney Janet Mangini argued that teenage smokers accounted for $476 million of Camel sales in 1992, up dramatically from $6 million in 1988.
Whatever Joe Camel’s actual influence on hooking young teens on cigarettes, he was retired in 1997. And under the Tobacco Master Settlement that became American federal law in 1998, all cartoon mascots for tobacco products became illegal, among other restrictions.
1992: “A Guide to Casual Businesswear”
- Levi Strauss & Co. via Marketplace.org
Levi Strauss & Co. defined “business casual” for Americans.
Ditching suits for casual clothes had been a quirk of the US tech industry since the 1950s, but it began to seep into other industries sometime in the 1980s amid reports that a relaxed dress code at least once a week (i.e. “Casual Fridays”) could lead to happier and more productive employees. But many companies began to regret their decision when employees would come to work dressed in sloppy shirts, torn jeans, and flip-flops.
Clothing company Levi Strauss & Co. found a perfect business opportunity. In 1992, it launched an extensive ad campaign sent to HR directors around the country with “A Guide to Casual Businesswear,” a pamphlet illustrating clean and professional looks that subtly featured Levi’s jeans and its Docker’s brand khakis.
Throughout the early 1990s, Levi’s was getting calls from companies around the country asking for dress code consultation. In 1995, it had record sales of $6.2 billion, and “business casual” was no longer an excuse to show up to the office in sweatpants.
2012: Red Bull Stratos
- Red Bull
In October 2012, Felix Baumgartner jumped to the Earth from 24 miles into space as part of a Red Bull promotion.
In one fell swoop, Baumgartner became the first person to break the sound barrier without any vehicular help – and Red Bull took over the internet, with a full eight million people watching live and blowing up the social networks.
The stunt marked a new era in advertising history: the commercial didn’t interrupt the event, it was the event.