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Back in time: learning lessons from past campaigns

Every once in a while, it is nice to deviate from marketing nuts-and-bolts, and simply relate a few narratives from advertising’s past. Many brainologists will tell you (in addition to telling you that “brainologist” is not a word) that some people learn more effectively through narrative, assuming there is a lesson to be learned.

In that spirit, I offer the following two true stories of famous advertising experiences. I’ll let you pick out the lessons to be learned. E-mail me at tim.mask@mwb.com with your best guess.


Anyone who has ever worked in, around or near the marketing industry is familiar with Apple computer’s “1984” commercial. More than 22 years after it debuted in Superbowl XVII, 1984 is almost universally considered to be the most memorable, most effective and overall “best” commercial ever produced. An entire generation of business people can relive the ad scene by scene and discuss the symbolism depicted in the story — the business world as a drab society void of individualism; Big Brother (or Big Blue) leading a mindless flock of followers; the world freed by the female athlete — the only person in vibrant color — representing Apple’s new computer innovation, the Macintosh.

Do a quick Google on “1984 Superbowl.” Eight out of 10 of the top returns are about the Mac commercial, not the game.

In practically every list of expert rankings I have ever scene, 1984 is tops. Two years ago, during the 2004 Superbowl, a flurry of news articles were written to recount the anniversary of 1984. What other commercial can you name that garners media attention 20 years after it first aired? Without a doubt, Apple’s 1984 commercial is the most successful commercial in history.

And it almost didn’t happen.

Apple’s ad agency at the time understood the importance of breaking through the advertising clutter. The Macintosh was a revolutionary product that flew in the face of “the establishment,” so they thought the advertising should do this, too. While it seems like common sense today, we have to remember the standard in those days was to have a celebrity pitchman and a jingle. But 1984 was a commercial that didn’t show the product, spent 75% of its airtime telling a story that didn’t tout product features, and didn’t even give a phone number to call for more information. This made Apple executives very nervous.

Even after approving the concept, hiring Ridley Scott as director (just after he finished “Bladerunner,” nonetheless) and finishing the actual commercial, the company was ready to back out. Apple ordered their agency to scrap the ad, and sell the airtime they had bought in the big game. As fate would have it, there were no takers. Apple couldn’t sell their space, and with no other options, they reluctantly allowed the commercial to run.

1984 ran once — and only once — in the third quarter of Superbowl XVIII. What followed was critical acclaim, a mesmerized public and a media frenzy. In fact, it has been calculated that Apple’s one-time paid advertisement ($800,000) has resulted in public relations exposure valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

And the moral, anyone?

Buy the world a Coke

By the time the company launched the “Buy the world a Coke” campaign, Coca-Cola was already among the most established, successful brands in history. Coke was the dominant soft-drink in the world, and their name had more recognition across the globe than the president of the United States.

As it happened, by the late 1960s, Coke’s advertising was a victim of the product’s success. How can advertising be kept fresh and interesting for a product everyone already knows EVERYTHING about, while concurrently keeping your message relative to the product? Such was the charge of the creative director over the account at Coke’s ad agency.

This particular creative director (or “CD”) was on an overseas business trip, and had his plane grounded due to a particularly British fog. During the delay, the CD observed, as one might expect, many disgruntled passengers. Everyone was told to stay close to the terminal, as there was no definitive answer to when the grounding would be lifted. As you might imagine, this just aggravated the situation. As time passed, the CD noticed a natural congregation of passengers in one of the nearby snack shops. He also noted that passengers were somewhat docile, engaging in polite conversation, getting to know one another. And a majority of people were sipping on Coca-Colas. An epiphany struck — in a crowded terminal full of angry, delayed travelers, people who would have otherwise remained perfect strangers were talking, laughing, generally having a good time and a break from the grind of the outside world. And they were all drinking Coke. The beverage was the common denominator that had brought them to this snack shop, and the reason everyone was taking a break. Coke brought people together.

The rest is history. From this idea — scrawled out on a cocktail napkin, nonetheless — was born the famous Coke “mountaintop” ad. “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.” This strategy proved so engaging and moving, that in 2005 Coke commissioned an updated version of the spot — albeit this time with young urban hipsters gathering on a building top.

I hope you enjoyed these tales from advertising past.

Tim Mask is vice president of brand planning and development at Maris, West & Baker advertising in Jackson. He can be reached at tim.mask@mwb.com.


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