Lessons From the Greatest 20th-Century Ad Campaigns

By Brian Carey

3 min read

In 1999, Advertising Age published a list of the top ad campaigns of the 20th century. Although these pitches may seem like ancient history, their underlying strategies can be used by modern small-business owners to mount successful campaigns today. Here are four examples of greatness with takeaways for entrepreneurs.

1. “Just Do It” (Nike) — To say that this campaign, launched in 1988, was “successful” would be a gross understatement. The whole point of the campaign, developed by advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy with Nike employees, was to generate mass appeal for the company’s athletic shoes. It worked: Nike’s market share increased from 18 percent to 43 percent over the next decade.

Takeaway: Mass marketing isn’t always as effective as target marketing, but it often works well for small businesses at the community level. Look for ways to promote your products or services to a wider audience by, say, running ads in a local newspaper. Viral video campaigns can also help you reach a broader base of prospective customers in the 21st century.

2. “You Deserve a Break Today” (McDonald’s) — In the early 1970s, McDonald’s was looking to move in a new direction with its advertising. The fast-food purveyor secured the services of Needham, Harper & Steers, which developed the “You Deserve a Break Today” strategy. The campaign ran aggressively for four years with ads like this one, and McDonald’s continued to reference the famous line in its television ads as late as 1982.

Takeaway: McDonald’s famous line embodied escapism, a concept that has nearly universal appeal. Service-oriented consumer businesses (especially those in the food service, travel, and hotel industries) can emulate this approach by adopting a marketing strategy that empathizes with people who lead busy, hectic lives and appeals to their longing for relief. Cognac maker Courvoisier recently adopted a creative escapist strategy that boosted its market share.

3. “Tastes Great, Less Filling” (Miller Lite) — Miller Lite’s “Tastes Great, Less Filling” slogan was so effective it became part of our collective consciousness: A Google search for the phrase today returns all sorts of references to it that have nothing to do with beer. The campaign started in 1973 and ran for 20 years. The idea behind it was to explain Miller Lite with a debate over the product’s two most valuable qualities. It succeeded, as Baer Performance Marketing notes, because its clever approach and often quirky commercials created a whole new product category.

Takeaway: Small businesses should look for brief, memorable lines that succinctly describe their products or services. Tourism Queensland in Australia did just that with its 2009 “best job in the world” campaign, which featured a video ad that went viral.

4. “We Try Harder” (Avis) — In a stroke of advertising genius, ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach created the “We Try Harder” campaign for Avis in 1962. The idea behind it was to embrace the fact that Hertz was the #1 rental car company — and use it to promote Avis. The end result was ad copy that read, “When you’re only #2, you try harder. Or else.” Within a year, Avis went from losing $3.2 million one year to earning $1.2 million the next.

Takeaway: Craft a campaign that doesn’t shy away from the realities of your small market share and/or company size. Acknowledge those facts in your advertising and marketing materials, and make the case that you excel in other areas, such as customer service, to be competitive. For example, Allegiant Air has enjoyed per-customer profit margins well above the industry average because the budget airline offers a service others don’t: direct flights from small cities (like Asheville, N.C.) to resort destinations (like Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.).

Information may be abridged and therefore incomplete. This document/information does not constitute, and should not be considered a substitute for, legal or financial advice. Each financial situation is different, the advice provided is intended to be general. Please contact your financial or legal advisors for information specific to your situation.

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