Barbara Lippert’s Game Changers

In the past 30 years, there’s been plenty of great advertising, but only a handful of campaigns truly changed the rules. Here are three of them: one from the ’80s, one from the ’90s and one from the current decade. This is work that got the industry thinking about creativity in new ways, and moved the sales needle as well. And if anything ties the three very different campaigns together, it’s that they all generated tons of buzz, whether or not the Internet was around to help them out.

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1980s: NIKE

Has there ever been a better advertising tagline than “Just do it”?

Those three simple words, written by Dan Wieden in 1988, originally punctuated Wieden + Kennedy’s hilarious cross-training campaign for Nike and athlete Bo Jackson. But it came to stand for much more than what Bo knows. An existential ode to clarity and practicality, the simple and powerful slogan crossed over from the world of “physical fitness,” as it was called, antiquely, in the 1980s, and came to represent a mantra for forward movement — not just for athletes, but for anyone with a vision.

Nike is the poster child for how great brands can be built through marketing. Indeed, its growth was explosive during the ’80s. It went public, signed Michael Jordan to an endorsement contract, and saw sales exceed $1 billion. For this, the Nike campaign, created in the ’80s by Wieden and Chiat/Day, is my choice for the game-changing ad campaign of the decade (although the work continues to astonish and revolutionize the industry two decades later).

Nike’s ascent began in the summer of 1984, when minimalist Nike billboards with oversized athletes and undersized logos hit the streets of Los Angeles, tied to the Summer Olympics. Some ossified creatives in the big New York agencies sniffed that this was not “advertising.” And they were right — it was branding, and it paved the way for the advertising of the 21st century. It stripped away everything — most of all the idea of selling a certain sneaker for a certain price. This was about selling emotion, allegiance and identification with a brand — an authentic brand with impeccable roots.

At the time, the accepted wisdom was that billboards polluted and uglified the environment. No one expected the next creative breakthrough to happen outdoors. Created by Chiat L.A., the city walls and boards had the oversized scale of contemporary art and the superrealist clarity of fine-art photography. Three-quarters of the Carl Lewis billboard was heavenly blue sky and cottony clouds. Showing incredible beauty of form, Lewis jumped off the corner of the ad, his foot thrusting beyond its left border, a red Nike shoe pushing into the L.A. air.

Nike was not an official sponsor of the Games, but Chiat blanketed the city with the ads anyway. Intense TV companion pieces showed the never-identified athletes working and sweating; there was only natural sound, their own voices, and a tiny swoosh cut in before the fadeout. One spot showed Jordan slam-dunking in slow motion on an outdoor court with a chain net on the basket. His dunks sounding like howitzer hits, Jordan was recorded sweetly asking, “Who said man was not meant to fly?”

Shortly after the Olympics, the account returned to Wieden, the Portland, Ore., agency whose history with Nike dated to 1982. Creating work that was brilliant and passionate, Wieden and Nike flew along with Jordan. As the first ad agency to use the Beatles’ original recording of “Revolution,” to introduce the Nike Air Max, Wieden not only commented on pop culture, it created it. Later, the agency brought a new kind of mainstream celebrity to Nike’s carefully handpicked athlete-endorsers, humanizing them by poking light fun at their subtle vulnerabilities. In the “Bo Knows” commercials, for example, football and baseball star Bo Jackson was shown golfing, fishing and looking up from a bike, asking, “Now, when’s that … that Tour de France thing?”

Spike Lee made a series of hilarious commercials with Jordan in which Lee played the messenger character Mars Blackmon and called Jordan “Money.” (He also famously asked, “Is it the shoes? Is it the shoes? … It’s gotta be the shoes.”)

Yup, it was the Nike shoes — and philosophy — that sparked the most innovative advertising of the ’80s. Indeed, Nike just did it.

1990s: BUDWEISER/BUD LIGHT

Three frogs sitting on lily pads, croaking out a brand name, do not a revolution make. But Budweiser’s amphibians, burping out their single syllables, were so original — funny, blank and startling — that they killed, as comics like to say, and immediately became part of the cultural vernacular of the mid-’90s.

The frogs, from DDB Chicago (picking up on an idea from D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles), debuted on the 1995 Super Bowl. Three syllables (warts and all) can get limiting, of course, so in ’99, Bud upped the ante and introduced an angry, jealous and paranoid lizard family from another part of the pond (and another agency, Goody, Silverstein & Partners) to provide color commentary (and put out a Sopranos-like hit) on the frogs.

“How’s that supposed to sell beer?” a lizard asks at the end of one spot. Well, it sure did. Together, the Budweiser swamp things provided the most memorable and influential (if not the most downright hilarious) ads of the decade. They foreshadowed everything from the dot-com animal parade to Geico’s gecko, and set the stage for the kind of self-referential advertising that favored sophisticated consumers who were happy to be in on the joke.

Bud also finished off the ’90s with a flourish: the “Whassup?” campaign, which first aired in December ’99 and became a pop-culture (and viral) sensation. And sister brand Bud Light launched “Real Men of Genius” in ’99 — perhaps the best radio campaign ever.

For these multiple campaigns (and catchphrases) that modernized the brands in a pitch-perfect way, Budweiser and Bud Light get my nod for game-changing advertising of the ’90s-advertising that became one of the ineffable ingredients of the product.

Remember Johnny? Starting in 1995, he was the Bud Light guy who had to be all twisted up inside, not to mention drunk, to say, “I love you, man.” The “Whassup?” guys were more relaxed. The word itself was fun enough to say (and draw out into many syllables), but people also sensed a magical connection among the guys — the camaraderie of watching sports on TV together through the phone, claiming they were chillin’ while also maniacally calling each other.

It became more than a cultural catchphrase; it was one of the first mainstream campaigns in which the players were black or Latino but represented America. And it became an Internet sensation, with countless parodies, even back in the Cro-Magnon days before YouTube, MySpace, or Facebook existed.

Eight years later, Charles, Dukie, Paul and Fred reconvened for a pro-Obama video. Within days, the spot received over 3 million views on YouTube. Naturally, some tuned in for the politics. But no doubt a great many also felt nostalgia for just “watching the game, having a Bud.”

With a long-tail effect like that, no advertiser changed the game more in the ’90s.


2000s: BURGER KING

In the beginning, there was man. In a chicken suit. With garters. In a funky room, taking orders. And it was good, because it was 2004, still a relatively new time in the digital space, and millions of people were going online to check out the creepy thing with the odd chicken feet, and asking him to do things like “moonwalk!”

Many thought it was a live feed. In fact, the Subservient Chicken was programmed to respond to 500 commands. The average interaction between Sub and human lasted seven minutes. The site cost about $50,000 to build. Thus, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, with help from The Barbarian Group, created advertising’s first bona-fide viral phenomenon-simple, interactive and fun. And it kick-started what would become, in my opinion, the game-changing ad campaign of the current decade, and a new era for Burger King.

The fast-food chain had been through numerous agencies and created many expensive, unmemorable commercials, most of them focusing on how the meat was grilled. CP+B did more than create a few ads — it changed the brand’s DNA. Using quirky ad characters, wacky plot lines and every medium imaginable — an 11-minute chicken fight on pay-per-view, a line of original BK video games sold with

Value Meals — the agency made Burger King modern and culturally relevant to its young consumers.

“It started as a project,” creative director Rob Reilly explains. “Burger King approached us to bring back ‘Have it your way.’ We wanted to make it more of a cultural thing-a way of life and a philosophy rather than ‘I can just customize my Whopper.’ “

Crispin moved quickly beyond TV, repurposing all the packaging with cool, cohesive designs and funny dialogue and copy. If you happened to eat alone at BK, you could have a fine time just reading your cup. Then, with the King, the agency created an enduring pop-culture character (and blew the lid off creepy). Given the chain’s name, the agency thought there ought to be an actual king, and so it created one, based on an actual promotional head from the ’80s that Alex Bogusky found on eBay. With his giant plasticized-mask face and velvet-frocked human body, the King was terrifying and ironic — an appeal to childhood nostalgia with a sassy coating aimed at adults.

He behaved oddly — introducing a breakfast sandwich to an unsuspecting customer in his bed — and disturbed many people, going against the conventional wisdom that icons should be adorable, or at least likable. But despite (or because of) his “special” mien, the King became a true celebrity-appearing on Jay Leno, crashing football games with his Deion Sanders moves, even appearing in faux paparazzi photos with his “girlfriend,” Brooke Burke. (The photos got picked up by actual gossip sites, adding still more irony to the mix.)

But the biggest freakout would come when the agency caught unsuspecting consumers on hidden camera being told the Whopper had been discontinued. The customers grieved — for real. Way beyond a testimonial, taking away the Whopper proved to be a great way to document a powerful connection to a beloved food. It also spurred thousands of parodies online. “Whopper freakouts/ghetto” alone got 2 million views.

In the four years since that first Crispin project, BK has enjoyed 15 straight quarters of sales growth — proving that this is creativity at the very top of the pecking order.

–Barbara Lippert is Adweek’s advertising critic.