It might seem hard to believe for many people, but commercials are a cherished part of the pop culture landscape. As much as viewers are willing to pay extra fees to stream movies and television shows without ad breaks, commercial compilations are still extremely popular on YouTube and catchphrases from them are as likely to enter the zeitgeist (“Where’s the beef?”) as anything from the best programming. The sheer amount of market share or public interest that they can generate when they’re done right is staggering. The commercials here might not be some of your favorites, but for the companies behind their creation, they were golden geese. Sometimes that was the case for years, or even decades.
10. GEICO Cavemen
In 2004 the auto insurance giant GEICO aired a commercial where the joke was that an announcer said saving money with their insurance was “so easy a caveman could do it!” This offended the caveman that was working with the crew for the shoot as a boom operator, causing him to yell “not cool!” and storm off the set. As the concept of political correctness was at the time, and continues to be, a hot button issue, the small joke struck such a chord with audiences that variations on the premise of easily offended, urbane cavemen were made by GEICO for the next three years even though the initial plan for the campaign was to only make three commercials about offended cavemen.
They became such runaway successes that in 2007 Joe Lawson, the writer that started the whole phenomenon, joined forces with directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck to sell ABC on a series for the cavemen. The series was not a hit with critics or audiences, but it was still much more than a one-off joke that you’d expect to be skipped or fast-forwarded through could ever reasonably hope for.
9. Erin Esurance
In 2004, with a fairly meager budget of $60,000 (in an industry where commercials average about $350,000), a marketer named Kimberly Brewe hired three independent animators to create a female agent for auto insurance who fought thugs on rooftops and infiltrated secret headquarters. Within five years she had been featured in 30 commercials on national television and made the up and coming Esurance a household name even though there’d been no brand awareness of Esurance before that ad campaign.
Esurance received actual fan mail for the character almost immediately after test broadcasts were made in Sacramento. It was a strong indication of just how much the cartoon character connected with audiences since, in 2004, action heroines were more of a novelty. Unfortunately, some would argue that she ended up connecting with audiences a bit too much. Foremost among those making that argument would be Esurance itself, whose management cancelled the character in 2010 when it was learned that she was a popular character in online pornography.
8. “It’s Only a Movie…”
Wes Craven’s 1972 debut film Last House on the Left is one of the most influential, if not really celebrated, horror films ever made. It was a mainstream success with more graphic, disturbing content than almost any film from its time and ushered in a wave of more intense horror movies, even though it’s so badly made that Craven disowned it after moving on to hits like Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. What really made Last House on the Left a hit was its memorable ad campaign, with a trailer that told the audience that to avoid fainting they would have to tell themselves, “It’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie, only a movie” while showing relatively little footage.
As film critic Joe Reid explained, it was an especially effective ad because of a combination of sheer confidence in telling the audience that they’d need to “distance” themselves from the action onscreen to be able to keep watching it at all, and the lack of information about the plot left audiences more intrigued. Shame it couldn’t have been used in the service of promoting a better movie.
7. Carl’s Jr.’s Racy Ads
In one of the highest profile examples of the notion that there’s no bad publicity in advertising, Carl’s Jr.’s sexually provocative Super Bowl ads began in 2006 with an ad featuring Paris Hilton washing a car and quickly got more ridiculous. This promotional campaign has been a boon for supermodels such as Kate Upton and Charlotte McKinney, who owed much of their subsequent careers to pretending to eat burgers in a suggestive manner or while dressed in very revealing ways. It’s also been a source of considerable irritation for people who believe the ads demean women.
CEO Andy Puzder claimed that the publicity brought by the commercials saved a fast food company that, before the sexual ad campaign, was on the brink of bankruptcy. Puzder also pointed out that the ads are no more graphic than the covers of magazines. Whatever the truth of that, in March 2017 Carl’s Jr. so completely changed their marketing campaign that they made a commercial explicitly denouncing their previous advertisements. Allegedly the change in direction was because Millennials are more concerned by the healthiness of their food than they are titillated by relatively tame commercials when the internet exists.
6. Verizon’s Test Man
There may be no statement that seems less likely to launch someone to fame than, “Can you hear me now? Good.” Still, in 2002, cell phone coverage was limited enough that being unsure about getting reception depending on where you were standing was a sentiment the average telecommunications customer understood. So when Verizon began airing commercials that year featuring Paul Marcarelli just repeating that same question and answer over and over in a variety of locations to illustrate how thoroughly Verizon was allegedly expanding its coverage, people responded to it in a big way. USA Today reported in 2004 that the campaign had aided in a 10% boost to Verizon’s customers the first year and a 15% one on the second. It even was credited with dropping their customer turnover rate by over 25%.
For all that, it was a very mixed blessing for Marcarelli himself. Since he was famous almost exclusively for asking the same question over and over (despite being a successful screenwriter) inevitably people on the street hounded him over it for years, even at a funeral. In 2016 he went over to the rival telecommunications company Sprint in commercials that claimed that basically all carriers offered equally good services. It must have been very gratifying for him to be allowed to say anything other than the same six words.
5. Maytag Repairman
It’s amazing how long a simple joke can play out in the world of television commercials with very minor variations. In 1967, Jesse White played a senior repairman for Maytag appliances dressing down his trainees. The joke of the commercial was that they never got any work in their jobs because Maytag products never needed to be repaired. It’s at least good for a smirk, but audiences so enjoyed it that White played the part 60 times over the next 22 years. The role later went to Gordon Jump, famous for his role on WKRP in Cincinnati and that one episode of Diff’rent Strokes in which he played a pedophile. Yeah, that happened. Jump played the role of the Maytag Repairman from 1989 until 2003.
Somehow, interest in the Maytag Repairman built back up until the character was resurrected, played now by Colin Ferguson, who you may recognize as the star of Eureka or from his role on The Vampire Diaries, and who took up the mantle in 2014. A study by the Maytag company found in 2011 that 85% of those surveyed recognized the character and 18% considered him one of their favorite characters, demonstrating just how much the simplest ideas can be the most successful.
4. The Most Interesting Man in the World
In 2006, Jonathan Goldsmith was hired to promote Dos Equis brand beer. He didn’t so much play a character as he embodied a persona: A man who was the embodiment of worldliness, sophistication, and experience to such an absurd degree that his life experiences became wordplay (e.g. the commercial’s narrator saying that “his two cents is worth $37.”) He went truly viral on sites such as Reddit. Thousands of posts were made of an image of him with text superimposed over it that paraphrased his catchphrase “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.” The campaign meant four straight years of growth for Dos Equis, including one year where it shot up 26%.
Touchingly, Goldsmith was able to parlay his internet appeal for very noble causes. In 2014, he reached out to Reddit, among other sites, to promote efforts to remove landmines from Cambodia. Other charities he has supported include Free Art for Abused Children and the tiger protection group the Sabre Foundation. Maybe this doesn’t make him the most interesting man in the world, but it sure doesn’t hurt.
3. Speedy the Alka Seltzer Boy
You might think an anthropomorphic Alka-Seltzer tablet or a customer with indigestion would be the ideal mascot for the antacid. Indeed, one commercial featuring a man yelling “Mamma mia! That’s a spicy meatball!” spawned an enduring catchphrase. But Alka-Seltzer’s first approach was to make a cherub-faced, red-headed child named Speedy in 1952. By the time the character’s initial run ended in 1964, he had been featured in 212 commercials and appeared opposite such stars as silent film legend Buster Keaton, rendered both in 2D and in stop motion.
But the character seemed to keep coming back. In 1980 he was featured in a commercial for the Winter Olympics. Then the character was rebooted in 2008 because he was “retro cool.” Oddly, the publications the ads were featured in were skin magazines Maxim and Playboy, which don’t feel like the most natural fit for this kind of character.
2. How Many Licks
If you are a television viewer of a certain age, it’s pretty much impossible for you to have not seen this cartoon commercial that first aired in 1969. In the initial, minute long version, a human boy walks up to three animals and asks them how many licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop before being told to ask the owl. As you know, the owl licks it three times, then bites it before concluding the answer is “three.”
Instead of being remade or having spinoff commercials, the cartoon itself was so popular that rather than remake it or do variations, it was merely shortened to just a turtle and the owl and then rerun for decades. The silly central question was so firmly imprinted on the public consciousness that several colleges, such as New York University, and independent study groups found time to determine the answer for themselves. The current accepted answer is approximately one thousand.
1. Honda’s Cog Commercial
Not many commercials have ever instilled a sense of wonder in viewers. In 2003 Honda pulled it off with an elaborate commercial for their Accord model that featured a very elaborate Rube Goldberg machine that had audiences everywhere saying, “that had to be fake.” But the truth was that aside from digitally cutting two takes together, it was completely live action. It just happened to take six months of planning and a week-long shoot with a staggering six hundred takes to get every extremely precise reaction right.
The doubtless extremely frustrating work paid off handsomely when the commercial quadrupled Honda’s web traffic and tripled outreach to their contact center. This was in no small part because there was so much controversy over whether the commercial was done for real or not that Snopes had to write an article vouching for it. But good luck convincing any company to not do something like this with CGI today.
Dustin Koski will now use this byline as a commercial for his hilarious and exciting fantasy novel.