It’s been a year of difficulty and strife, but also of remarkable creativity that leaned into those tensions and tried to resolve them—or at least, to inspire a way forward.
Adweek’s 10 Best Ads of 2017 tackled plenty of challenging themes—among them, journalism and politics; race and bias; and social causes including anti-bullying and gender equality. The list also includes horror and humor (in the same spot); a celebrity endorsement; a meta defictionalization of a failed 1960s ad pitch; a sports initiative that was more a test of human potential than an advertisement; a beautiful campaign from a leading social platform; and a work of art that happened to be one of the most effective PSAs ever made.
These ads didn’t save the world. But each, in its own way, made it a better place. Congrats to all the winning marketers and agencies.
10) Halo Top “Eat the Ice Cream”
Agency: Lord Danger
Director: Mike Diva
The end of the world was on everyone’s mind in 2017. And advertisers were right there with us—in epic spots like “Last Days” from Jose Cuervo and “Christmas 2117” from Edeka. But Halo Top, the ice cream brand, beat them all with its grimly amusing, Kubrick-esque robot apocalypse spot, directed by YouTuber Mike Diva.
The scene of an elderly prisoner being force-fed ice cream by a bot overlord, as a kind of postwar olive branch, was at once horrifying and hilarious—the perfect primer for horror-movie audiences who saw it before screenings of It, among other films.
The ad wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but Halo Top CEO Justin Woolverton’s instinct to try something different paid off. And so did his choice of Diva as director, a master of crazy visuals (who told Adweek he was hopped up on Four Loko when he dreamed up the plot).
“Everyone you love is gone,” the bot tells the woman, in the year’s most unexpected laugh line. “Originally it was supposed to be ‘Everyone you love is dead,'” Diva said. “Which is way more hard-core.”
9) Nespresso “Comin’ Home”
Agency: McCann New York
Director: Grant Heslov, Untitled
Nespresso turned out the year’s best celebrity spot, getting longtime spokesman George Clooney to deliver one of his best commercial performances to date—without saying a word.
The Oscar winner flees a rain-drenched movie set to rendezvous with Andy Garcia for a cup of Nespresso in some cloudless paradise, and along the way pops up in classic Hollywood road-trip scenes, from Psycho to Seabiscuit. (Clooney helped choose the movies himself.) The visual trickery, by director Grant Heslov and Framestore, is seamless. And the storytelling is charming, from Clooney’s wordless reaction shots to the goofy but winning twist at the end.
Broadly appealing and meticulously crafted, it was one of the great delights in a stellar year for McCann New York.
8) Procter & Gamble “The Talk”
Agency: BBDO New York
Director: Malik Vitthal, The Corner Shop
P&G and BBDO delivered one of corporate America’s most evocative statements on race with this two-minute spot, in which black parents through the years are seen having “the talk” with their children about the difficulties and dangers of growing up black in the U.S.
The attention to detail is remarkable, the acting sublime, and the emotions—from fear to pride—come through crystal clear.
P&G framed the ad not as a political statement but as a reflection of real life. These are, after all, conversations black families have been having for generations. Still, the goal was to expand the talk about bias beyond the black community, and inspire a world with equal voices, equal representation and equal opportunity for success.
“Great advertising opens hearts and changes minds, but doesn’t have to stop there,” a P&G rep said of the work. “We believe great advertising can inspire real, lasting change. That’s the aspiration behind ‘The Talk.'”
7) Heinz “Pass the Heinz”
Agency: David Miami
Creative Director: Don Draper
One of the 10 best ads of 2017 was created in 1968—at least, fictionally speaking.
That year, within the world of AMC’s Mad Men, Don Draper presented a campaign for Heinz ketchup that didn’t show the product at all—just close-up images of food practically begging for ketchup. “Pass the Heinz,” said the headline. This audacious idea to sell something through its absence came a full 25 years before Jeff Goodby dreamed up “Got Milk?”
Heinz rejected Don’s ads on the show, but David Miami convinced the client to run them exactly as Draper had envisioned them—a meta exercise in defictionalization which, though the ads were 50 years old, couldn’t have felt more fresh and modern.
David painstakingly re-created the work from scratch. But chief creative officer Anselmo Ramos joked that he’d gotten Draper (who would be 91 today) to cough up the real thing. “We had a couple of Old Fashioned’s,” Ramos said, “and he gave me the mechanicals.”
6) Burger King “Bullying Jr.”
Agency: David Miami
Director: Henry-Alex Rubin, Smuggler
David Miami also had an incredible year on Burger King, including the Cannes Grand Prix-winning “Google Home of the Whopper” and “Burning Stores” campaigns. But it was “Bullying Jr.” that felt most broadly effective—a hidden-camera experiment that made a surprisingly poignant statement about bullying.
Perfectly on brand, with the product at the core, the spot was expertly crafted (by “Evan” director Henry-Alex Rubin) and cleverly called out not the bullies but the bystanders—showing the simple steps that can put a stop to bullying in the moment.
The spot is being shown in schools, and Kim Kardashian (and thousands of others) tweeted about it—revealing the high-low nature of its appeal. Purpose-based advertising at its best.
5) The New York Times “The Truth Is Hard to Find”
Agency: Droga5 New York
Director: Darren Aronofsky, Chromista
In a year of taunts about fake news, journalists memorably advertised their search for the truth. Michael K. Williams starred in the artful and intense “Am I Typecast?” short film for The Atlantic, by Wieden + Kennedy, about asking tough questions. But it was The New York Times and Droga5 that laid bare the political stakes, and the difficulty and value of finding the truth, in their stark ad series “The Truth Is Hard.”
The first spot, which rankled Donald Trump, aired on the Oscars in February. But it was Darren Aronofsky’s spots in April that brought home the visceral danger of reporting in the field—through the stories, and camera rolls, of photojournalists Tyler Hicks and Bryan Denton.
“Instead of being maligned and mistrusted, journalists should be respected and thanked,” Aronofsky said. “I hope the commercials pay tribute to the important work these men and women have done and continue to do.”
4) Nike “Breaking2”
Agency: Wieden + Kennedy, Portland, Ore.
Nike and Wieden + Kennedy have made countless brilliant ads together over 30 years. This year, they tried something altogether more ambitious, even crazy, as Nike made a serious run at a sub-two-hour marathon—one of most fabled barriers in human athletics.
The project, called Breaking2, was Red Bull Stratos-like in its exploration of the limits of human potential, except it was more product-centric. (The Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite with Nike ZoomX midsole was created specifically for the run.) In the end, Kenya’s Olympic champion marathoner Eliud Kipchoge missed the goal by just 25 seconds. Yet his time—a full two and a half minutes faster than the world record, though it didn’t count officially—was widely considered stunning.
It was also a branding triumph. W+K named the project, worked with Uncle Toads Media Group and Dirty Robber to construct the live event, and teamed with Mindshare, Twitter, Facebook and Google to create a multi-platform live stream that was viewed by nearly 20 million people. According to Brandwatch, the hashtag #Breaking2 accumulated over 2 trillion impressions. In its pursuit of a barrier often thought impossible to break, it also inspired runners all over the world.
“I’m sure there are people who think we’re a big, greedy corporate monster that only wants to sell shoes,” Tony Bignell, vp of footwear innovation for Nike, told Wired. “But this really was about human potential. I hope people will be inspired.”
3) Instagram “Stories Are Everywhere”
Agency: Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam
W+K created another of our favorite campaigns this year—Instagram’s “Stories Are Everywhere” by W+K Amsterdam. The huge—and hugely entertaining—campaign went way beyond digital, spanning everything from film to out-of-home. It was colorful, energetic, playful and superbly crafted, with almost all the creative made using the app’s Stories feature itself.
No other campaign this year was as joyful in celebrating the creative process itself, using same tools being advertised to actually craft the message. The result was the heightening of everyday moments into art—but in a way that felt perfectly accessible.
The out-of-home was also surprising and fun, with witty visual stories splashed across a canvas much larger, of course, than the app—but a scale that nonetheless felt emotionally true.
The themes of immediacy and spontaneity also forced W+K to approach the storytelling, and its production, differently. The biggest challenge was keeping everything “low-fi and homemade,” said Thierry Albert, creative director at W+K Amsterdam. “We always tend to overproduce things in advertising, and it would have been wrong here. So, we kept everything simple. From the print shoot to the film production, everything can be replicated by someone with a phone and the Instagram app. And we improvised a lot, like you’d do in real life with your mates. There’s a low-key, homemade feel to it that’s so refreshing.”
2) Logic “1-800-273-8255”
Partner: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Director: Andy Hines
On April 28, the rapper Logic unveiled one of the most creative and culture-embedded PSAs ever made—his song “1-800-273-8255,” named for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number and created in partnership with the federal government initiative.
The song, featuring Alessia Cara and Khalid, begins from the point of view of someone calling the lifeline and confessing they “don’t want to be alive.” Soon, the person fielding the call is offering words of hope, and by the end of the song, the caller is committed to fighting for life. (“I don’t wanna cry anymore/I wanna feel alive/I don’t even wanna die anymore.”)
Logic came up with the idea for the song, then worked with the NSPL to maximize its exposure. The results were staggering. On the day of the release, the lifeline received over 4,573 calls, it second-highest daily volume ever at the time—and a 27 percent increase from the usual volume. Logic performed the song on Aug. 27 at the MTV Video Music Awards; the next day, the line received 5,041 calls.
The NSPL website saw a monthly boost of 100,000 visits, from an average of 300,000 up to 400,000, in the two months after the song’s release. Google searches for the phone number doubled immediately after April 28, and they remain consistently 25 percent above the previous average today.
“It’s an honor for us to be working alongside Logic to help people in despair find hope and meaning,” Dr. John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, said on the day of the release. “By sharing these stories of recovery from individuals who have been there and have survived their own crises, we can change the conversation about suicide from one of tragedy and isolation to one of hope.”
Logic has called the song the most important he’s ever written, and it’s easy to see why, as it has saved an untold number of lives.
1) State Street Global Advisors “Fearless Girl”
Agency: McCann New York
Sculptor: Kristen Visbal
In the end, no other work of brand advertising in 2017 was as conceptually strong, or as culturally breakthrough, as McCann’s Fearless Girl statue for State Street Global Advisors.
The bronze sculpture, crafted by Kristen Visbal, was instantly iconic and literally an overnight sensation. Dropped in New York’s Bowling Green Park before dawn on March 7, staring down the famous Charging Bull, she brilliantly embodied female leadership in business, which SSGA supports by investing in firms with women leaders through its SHE fund. Mobbed within hours, Fearless Girl became the city’s hippest tourist attraction. She’s also one of advertising’s most inspired creations ever—forged from an ancient medium, yet perfectly crafted to deliver the most modern of marketing messages.
She also weathered storms, from the ire of the Charging Bull artist to accusations of hypocrisy after SSGA parent State Street was forced to pay $5 million for allegedly underpaying women and minorities. Yet each crisis only amplified her message, redoubling her influence. She blazed through the advertising awards circuit, too, winning top prizes at almost every show, including a well-deserved four Grand Prix (and 18 total Lions) at Cannes.
But most important, she was—and remains—an inspiration to the next generation. No one who has seen any of the thousands of photographs of little girls posing with Fearless Girl can doubt her immediate power—the physical embodiment of a vision of everything they can be, in a world that so often wants them to be something else.
“What we make is so ephemeral. To make something that might be around for a while is so gratifying,” senior art director Lizzie Wilson told Adweek shortly after the statue’s debut. She needn’t worry—Fearless Girl is one for the ages.