‘Perception vs. Reality.’ A Look Back at Rolling Stone’s Greatest Ad Campaign Ever

Joe Alexander picks his favorite ads of all time

Fifty years after its founding, Rolling Stone magazine just put itself up for sale. But while it’s clearly the end of an era for the venerable music publication, it’s not its first identity crisis. Just look at what it went through in the mid-1980s.

At that time, the brand still had a large and engaged audience of readers, but ad buyers tended to dismiss them as dope-smoking hippies who weren’t a valuable target for ads. The publication disputed that, beginning in 1985, with a series of print ads from Fallon themed “Perception vs. Reality.” The idea was to generate more advertising revenue by using visual metaphors to show who the typical Rolling Stone reader actually was—not who he was thought to be.

One ad features a man with long, flowing locks standing naked (he’s even got a tattoo on his left butt cheek) on the “Perception” side of the ad. The “Reality” side shows a wealthy-looking, well-dressed man.

“For a new generation of Rolling Stone readers, expressing your individuality does not mean wearing your birthday suit to a rock festival. During the past 12 months, Rolling Stone readers purchased more than 80 million items of apparel, setting the trends and shaping the buying patterns for the most influential consumers in America. Your media buy looks conspicuously naked if you’re not exposing yourself in the pages of Rolling Stone,” the ad reads.

The ads were a huge hit for the brand. In their book 2006 book Juicing the Orange, Pat Fallon and Fred Senn said Rolling Stone’s print ad revenue increased 47 percent in the first year alone.

The campaign is a classic, and was one of three favorites chosen by The Martin Agency’s chief creative officer, Joe Alexander, who sat down with Adweek recently for our “Best Ads Ever” series. “It was such a simple idea,” he said. “My favorite thing about the campaign is that they did maybe 50 of them, and every one of them was really incredibly executed and surprising.”

See a bunch more executions below.

Another favorite for Alexander comes from advertising darling Volkswagen. Doyle Dane Bernbach created Alexander’s favorite spot, “Snow Plow,” in 1964. It’s all about how the man who drives a snow plow is able to get to that snow plow early in the morning.

The spot is black-and-white with very little voiceover, but the beautiful construction and direction of the spot makes it a favorite for Alexander. “One of the reasons I love advertising is that when it’s at its best, it’s a piece of art, in a way. It’s a persuasive piece of art,” he said.

His final favorite, “Subservient Chicken,” came from CP+B and Barbarian Group in 2004 for Burger King. Alexander said he admired how the campaign was able to take a “staid business” like “set media plans and blow it up and saying, ‘What’s the best way to communicate this out to the world?'” outside of TV, print or radio. For CP+B, that was the internet.

For the full “Best Ads Ever” series, click here.