5 ad campaigns that changed the world

There was a time in the early 2000s when it was common to hear somebody answer the phone using the following greeting: 'Whasssssuuuup?!' For a while – far too long, actually – this tagline from a Budweiser commercial became more than a tool to sell beer. It became part of our culture. It changed the world – in it's own, small, weird way.

Few industries have more access to our everyday lives than advertising. A lot of it – radio spots, TV commercials, billboards – is background noise (although see our list of the best billboard advertising for print ads that got it right) . But every now then an ad cuts through that noise and becomes, if only briefly, something greater than a tool to sell stuff.

Below are five ads that did exactly that. Because really good ads make people answer the phone differently. But really great ads make people think differently. 

01. Think Small (1959)

It's not long after World War Two, and Americans are driving big muscular American-made cars. German company Volkswagen wants to break into the US market… with a car commissioned by Hitler. It's a tough sell – one of the toughest sells of all time. But DBB came up with arguably the greatest ad all time…  The Think Small campaign showed a lot of empty space and a tiny VW Beetle. The followup, Lemon, took the piss out the Beetle as much as it bigged it up. Another ad promoted the Beetle as America's slowest car. 

The campaign was so layered, so full of cultural and historical subplots, that it featured in an episode of the most layered, most metaphorical TV show of all time, Mad Men. There was advertising before Think Small and there was advertising after Think Small. It changed things. It changed how ads were made. It changed the way ads were received. Ad Age voted it the greatest ad of the 20th century. It's also recently been repurposed for a new era of electric cars (see below).

Volkswagen campaigns contrasted

Then 1959 Lemon campaign compared to 2019's Lemonade ad [Image: Volkswagen]

02. Surfer (1999)

Certain directors – Roy Andersson, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze – prove advertising can be a proper art form. Admittedly, it's an art form trying to persuade you to buy deodorant or biscuits, but that shouldn't detract from the work itself. Jonathan Glazer is another one of those directors. His ad 'Surfer' looked like no ad you'd ever seen. It was about surfers. The breaking waves were horses like in Walter Crane's painting Neptune's Horses. The narration was inspired by Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick (the surfer is monomaniacal about surfing like Melville's character Ahab is monomaniacal about killing the white whale). And it was soundtracked, devastatingly well, by British band Leftfield. 

This was an ad for stout that looked cooler than a French art house film and had better special effects than most blockbusters. Some called it pretentious. But, to this day, I watch it and the hairs go up on the back on my neck. 

Interestingly, research suggested audiences wouldn't get it. But ad agency BBDO and client Guinness held their nerve. And it paid off. Surfer won all the big awards in 1999 (Clio, D&AD, Cannes Lions) and won best ad of all time in a 2002 poll by Channel 4 and The Sunday Times. Love it or hate it, Surfer changed things by proving the humble TV commercial could be a proper art form.

03. Whassup? (1999)

The first Budweiser Whassup? ad aired during NFL game one Monday night in December 1999. DDB's concept was deceptively simple: it was bunch of mates who liked talking on the phone, watching the game, having a Bud, and saying 'What's Up?' in increasingly daft ways. (The ad was based on a short film written and directed by Charles Stone III). 

But it did the thing ad agencies dream of: it took on a life of its own. There is a whole generation of people who at one time or another answered the phone using the ad's slurred, tongue-out tagline. The ad wasn't out to change minds. It didn't right any wrongs. But for a year or two, it became part of everyday language all over the world. You can count on one hand the number of ads that have done that. It was a campaign that knew it's target audience. 

Whether you like the ad or not, Whassup is one of the most successful, most memorable taglines every written. Whassup? won the Cannes Grand Prix and the Grand Clio and loads of other awards. In May 2006, the campaign was inducted into the Clio Hall of Fame.

04. Campaign for Real Beauty (2004-present)

Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty aimed to change the way we think about body image. The campaign started with a billboards asking passerby to decide whether the women pictured, who weren't professional models, were 'flawed or flawless?' It was the beginnings of a movement in advertising to use men and women with normal bodies – as opposed to models or athletes with unusually thin or unusually muscular bodies. The project grew to take in everything from short films to workshops. 

Advertising isn't exactly known for being a tool for social change. Out of the project came the top five Campaigns of the Century, as rated by Advertising Age, and increased sales from $2 billion to $4 billion in three years. Critics said it still focused to much on surface appearances. But this campaign admitted advertising had to be more responsible when it came to portraying body image. It was a step in the right direction. 

Nancy Vonk put it best. She was part of the creative team at Ogilvy, Toronto, who worked on the campaign in the beginning. Vonk said: "Would I say it’s changed the world? No. "Would I say it’s had an impact? Yes."

05. Meet the Superhumans (2012)

Marshall McLuhan (the philosopher who coined the phrased "the medium is the message") said this: "Historians and archaeologists will one day discover that the ads of our time are the richest and most faithful daily reflections any society ever made of its whole range of activities." If those historians were to watch 'Meet the Superhumans' then they would see a society trying to right some wrongs that had gone on far too long. 

Channel 4 won the UK television rights to the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London, and it launched a big campaign about the Paralympics being a major event in their own right – not tacked on to the preceding Olympic Games. Part of this campaign showcased the superhuman abilities of Paralympic athletes. It was the start of a movement – that included everything from women's football to modest sportswear – that aimed to change our perceptions of what an athlete is supposed to look like. It's both a tearjerker and a fistpumper… And yet 4creative somehow missed on the Cannes Lions Grand Prix, which went to that irritating Dumb Ways to Die infomercial.

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Gary Evans is a journalist with a passion for creative writing. He's recently finished his Masters in creative writing, but when he's not hitting the books, he loves to explore the world of digital art and graphic design. He was previously staff writer on ImagineFX magazine in Bath, but now resides in Sunderland, where he muses on the latest tech and writes poetry.