The irony of modern advertising is that many of its best creations can barely even be considered ads. Whether they’re experiences, inventions, pranks, or simply ideas that defy terminology, these marketing concepts have consistently generated some of the biggest buzz a brand could hope for.
So now that you’ve hopefully seen our picks for the 25 best ads of 2018, let’s look back at the 15 ad-like or ad-adjacent campaigns that made waves in the cultural waters this year:
15. Nat Geo | “Space Projection Helmets” Agency: McCann New York
Winning top honors in Adweek’s Project Isaac innovation awards, these VR-enabled space helmets allowed users to experience stunning space footage as it would appear for astronauts orbiting the Earth. McCann New York and Tomorrow Lab made 25 of the headsets to help promote Nat Geo’s “One Strange Rock” series from Darren Aronofsky. The only downside is the limited reach of such an activation, but it’s certainly a proof of concept that many marketers are likely to keep in mind when they think about how to take VR experiences to the next level.
14. Fox Home Entertainment | “Deadpool Photobombs Blu-rays” Agency: Neuron Syndicate
It definitely seemed like Deadpool (and his real-life persona, Ryan Reynolds) were everywhere this year, and this takeover showed that the ubiquitous antihero truly knows no bounds. Fox Home Entertainment’s in-house creative team developed the idea of a Walmart Blu-ray display in which the brand’s catalog of movies had all been photobombed by Deadpool. The results, designed by agency Neuron Syndicate, were some truly fantastic mashups as Deadpool inserted himself into City Slickers, Fight Club, Alien, Terminator and many more. As soon as the displays went live in Walmart locations, they began trending on Reddit and spreading across social media, with each edition instantly becoming a collector’s item. Originally cross-promoting Deadpool 2’s arrival in theaters, the display was revived and expanded when the sequel itself came to disc.
13. Budweiser | “Tagwords” Agency: Africa
It’s a risky move to make someone do work just to make sense of an ad, but Budweiser and Brazilian agency Africa came up with an idea intriguing enough to make it feel worthwhile. The premise of the Tagwords campaign: Many famous figures have been photographed drinking Budweiser, and it would be great for the brand to leverage those moments in pop-culture history. The problem: Those photos are hugely expensive to license, if they’re licensed at all. The solution: Describe the photos with a few words in an ad, then let curious Googlers do the rest. Viewers typing in the words found the photos without Anheuser-Busch InBev having to pay a dime for licensing. While skeptics might say the approach is a bit too complicated to actually click with consumers, the campaign was a hit among the ad pros at this year’s Cannes Lions, where it won Grand Prix in Print and Publishing.
12: Payless | “Palessi” Agency: DCX Growth Accelerator
When Payless set about to modernize its image recently with a new brand marketing team, few could have expected just how much success it would have in a short amount of time. The secret weapon was Palessi, a fictional luxury footwear shop created with agency DCX Growth Accelerator. Assembled with secrecy and no trace of Payless branding, the storefront was inaugurated with a chic event where only the savviest fashion influencers got invites. But after offering to pony up hundreds of dollars for shoes that actually ranged from $20 to $40 at your local Payless, they learned they’d been cleverly hoodwinked by a stunt aimed at highlighting the surprising quality of the chain’s footwear. The resulting video was a massive viral hit, with many viewers basking in the schadenfreude of watching influencers take the bait.
11. Skittles | “Exclusive the Rainbow” Agency: DDB Chicago
The whole selling point of advertising around the Super Bowl is the quantity of viewers you’re likely to reach. So in a classic swerve, DDB Chicago and Mars brand Skittles decided to go in the opposite direction and make a Super Bowl ad that only one person would ever see. The Charlie Bucket-esque winner of that distinction was Marcos Menendez, who was livestreamed via Facebook for 18 minutes as he was whisked off to a secret location to watch the spot. The absolute oddness of this counterintuitive approach made “the most exclusive ad ever made” one of the most buzzed-about Super Bowl spots of the year, even if the big game itself only featured teasers about the ad you’d never see.
10. HBO | “SXSWestworld” Agency: Giant Spoon
You can’t talk about experiential marketing in 2018 without talking about SXSWestworld, the hugely ambitious and intricately produced activation that brought HBO’s fictional town of Sweetwater into reality at SXSW. Giant Spoon, Adweek’s Breakthrough Agency of the Year for 2018, is known for high-quality event activations, but this one—featuring perfectly crafted sets, costumes and dialogues for the actors on site—set a new bar for just how big you can get with a pop-up promotion.
9. MGM Resorts | “Universal Love” Agency: McCann New York
Not an ad, not an activation, not a stunt—Universal Love exists in the unnamable ether of marketing, which might be why it was oddly snubbed by Cannes Lions jurors this year. But this commendable project, conceived and produced by McCann New York (which dominated discussion of advertising in 2017 with its Fearless Girl statue), is one that truly shows that mythical “outside-the-box” thinking that so many agencies strive to produce. Universal Love solicited major artists to record covers of traditional romantic songs and switch up the genders so that men would be singing about men, women about women, or perhaps all pronouns would simply become a nonbinary “they.” There was no shortage of star power: Bob Dylan, Kesha, St. Vincent and others proudly took part in the effort, and duet She & Him followed up with two differently gendered versions of the same track (“She Gives Her Love to Me” and “He Gives His Love to Me.”)
8. Burger King | “Whopper Detour” Agency: FCB New York
What kind of brand would send customers to the doorstep of its biggest competitor? Only a trolling mastermind like Burger King would attempt such a counterintuitive coup, and only Burger King could make it work. Whopper Detour, the brand’s first outing with agency FCB New York, promoted the Burger King app by letting fans use it to unlock a 1-cent Whopper coupon—but only when they approached within 600 feet of a McDonald’s. The bizarre and borderline cruel stunt generated massive PR for the chain and sparked more than 1 million downloads in the first 36 hours, rocketing it to the top of the charts on the Apple App Store. The promotion had its flaws—namely an easily overlooked caveat that the coupon only worked at locations that offered mobile ordering. But such complaints were drowned out by the roar of praise for such a cold-blooded act of branded trolling.
7. McDonald’s | “The Flip” Agency: We Are Unlimited
It was bound to spark debate, and it certainly did. But at a time when most brands would be content to mark International Women’s Day with a Rosie the Riveter tweet or perhaps a 30-second ad, McDonald’s and agency We Are Unlimited decided on a more dramatic move. The chain flipped its Golden Arches from an M to a W, with physical signage changed at one location and special “W” packaging served at 100 women-owned McDonald’s locations on March 8. Its digital presence also featured the W logo throughout the day. The goal was to celebrate the many women who’ve worked at McDonald’s, which says 60 percent of its managers are female. Many praised the move, but it also sparked its share of criticism, with some feeling it was a performative way of co-opting feminism without making a substantive commitment to issues like offering a living wage to its workforce. Such complaints are valid, and McDonald’s certainly could have gone bigger than just 100 locations. Still, brand marketers know that tweaking an iconic logo is no small feat for a global brand, and the move is likely to inspire others to wade into the discussion more visibly in 2019.
6. Domino’s | “Paving for Pizza” Agency: CP+B
In an ideal world, sure, your local government would keep every road silky smooth with nary a cavity in the asphalt. But Americans don’t live in an ideal world; we live in a notoriously tax-averse one where cities, towns and counties are always struggling for the funds needed to keep roads repaired. And this year, the issue of crumbling infrastructure found an unlikely hero: Domino’s. As part of the pizza chain’s recent focus on improving the take-out pizza ordering experience (it had already offered a free replacement program for pizzas that get mutilated by a rough commute on their way to your kitchen table), Domino’s this year launched “Paving for Pizza,” which asked fans to nominate communities that could use some help paving potholes.
It would theoretically be a win-win for the towns and those driving home with a fresh Domino’s pizza, but, fearing public embarrassment, many local governments offered a “thanks but no thanks” when contacted by the brand. Agency CP+B persisted, though, and soon expanded the program (which is essentially a $5,000 grant to help each community make road repairs) to all 50 states. The campaign created a huge goodwill boost for Domino’s and also helped amplify important conversations about the state of America’s roads and bridges.
5. Tourism Australia | “Dundee: The Son of a Legend Returns Home” Agency: Droga5
How big can a branded prank get? Agency Droga5 and Tourism Australia decided to find out with their marketing push behind a movie reboot—”Dundee: The Son of a Legend Returns Home”—that seemed entirely believable on the surface but was in fact one big tourism marketing campaign. Quite a few movie industry observers were skeptical from the beginning, but the cinematic quality and star power of the campaign’s early trailers was pretty convincing. In addition to supposed stars Chris Hemsworth and Danny McBride, the trailer above featured a seemingly endless cascade of Aussie talent, including Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Margot Robbie. But during this year’s Super Bowl, all was revealed in a spot that subtly segued from previewing a movie to marketing the beaches and attractions of Australia. It was one of few creative high points during a rocky year for Droga5, but unfortunately for the agency, it wasn’t quite enough to lock in Tourism Australia’s agency of record contract, which went to M&C Saatchi. At least we’ll always have a few brief glimpses of the buddy comedy we never knew we wanted.
4. Diesel | “Deisel – Go With the Fake” Agencies: Publicis New York and Publicis Italy
There has probably never been a more literal marketing interpretation of the phrase, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Fashion brand Diesel absolutely set the bar for bafflingly clever pop-ups with its “Deisel” knock-off shop erected on New York’s Canal Street (a well-known hub of dubious deals) during Fashion Week. Thanks largely to the misspelled brand name, visitors were suitably convinced the shop was a cheap reseller of Diesel-ish clothing, when in fact they were unwittingly browsing the real deals.
Some scored some incredible bargains before the brand made its big reveal, after which the store was reopened (with prices back up to the Diesel retail standard) and quickly emptied by those who’d been intrigued by the stunt. The limited supply of “Deisel” clothing items quickly became collector’s items and appeared at stupendous markups on online marketplaces. Most importantly, the stunt set a new bar for what brands could pull off with a pop-up activation, and the success of the Deisel storefront is likely what we have to thank for Payless’ mega-viral “Palessi” stunt later in the year (and featured earlier in this list).
3. Tesla | “Elon Musk’s Roadster Goes Into Space”
Ah, February 2018, a simpler time when we didn’t yet think of Elon Musk as the kind of entrepreneur who’d get high during an interview, insult someone working to rescue trapped children, tweet financially explosive intel about his own company, etc. So set all that aside for a brief moment to remember his historic marketing coup in sending his personal Tesla Roadster into space. The car was the high-profile payload in a successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, and a livestreaming camera even beamed back footage of the Roadster and its dummy driver, “Starman.” For a brand whose ad budget is famously zero dollars, Tesla scored an unbelievable win through this partnership between Musk’s two companies. Critics said it was less a marketing campaign than a millionaire’s lark, but the reality is that it was both. That doesn’t make it easy for brands without spacefaring siblings to replicate the success, but it’s also not exactly uncommon for corporate owners (Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, etc.) to also own other entities that could make for unexpectedly high-profile partnerships.
2. (Tie) IHOP | “IHOb” Agency: Droga5
Brilliant? Stupid? Brilliantly stupid? Droga5’s IHOb campaign was all these things and more. An absolute phenomenon on a scale you just don’t see from intentional marketing ploys (usually this kind of buzz and consternation is reserved for high-profile PR disasters beyond a company’s control), IHOP’s odd name change to become the International House of Burgers absolutely flooded the internet and traditional media with mentions of the breakfast chain. The first fodder was a mysterious tweet flipping the logo’s “P” to a “b”, which sparked widespread speculation about what it might stand for. Breakfast? Bacon? Beyonce? Once the brand announced its focus on burgers (corresponding with the new hamburger menu all of this was intended to promote), the chain set off another round of debate about whether this seemingly serious name change was a good idea. Many mocked it, but Droga5 and its client had the last laugh, with 42.5 billion media impressions, a 400 percent increase in burger sales and a 31 percent lift in IHOP’s stock price over the life of the campaign. Everything’s back to normal at IHOP, naming-wise, but one has to wonder what they’ll cook up in 2019.
2. (Tie) Philadelphia Flyers | “Gritty”
How did a mildly terrifying, oversized Muppet on ice skates become the most iconic hero of 2018? Such cultural mysteries are, let’s be honest, impossible to unpack. But there’s no denying that Gritty, the recently unveiled mascot for the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, is a marketing masterstroke that somehow landed right in the nerve-jangled zeitgeist of the moment. Debuting in September, the googly-eyed mascot wasn’t immediately embraced by locals (much less the internet as a whole) until, mocked by rival Pittsburgh Penguins online, he ominously tweeted, “Sleep with one eye open tonight, bird.” Embracing all that makes him creepy, awkward and unpredictable, Gritty (and, of course, the Flyers marketing team) shifted almost overnight from the butt of jokes to working-class hero and an icon of America’s “everything is on fire, but I’ll do the best I can” attitude. Whatever you do, don’t miss our own Jameson Fleming’s deep dive into the Gritty origin story.
1. Burger King | “Whopper Neutrality” Agency: David Miami
When it comes to best-in-class modern marketing stunts, there aren’t many boxes left unchecked by Burger King’s Whopper Neutrality video. It’s topical, bold, confrontational and informative—all while being absolutely hilarious and entertaining. The most-shared ad in Burger King history, this effort by agency David Miami surprised customers at one location with a new ordering system inspired by the internet landscape likely to be adopted without the Congressional protections of net neutrality. In the case of Whopper Neutrality’s repeal, that means that the speed with which your Whopper is served is determined by how much you’re willing to pay. (My favorite detail is that the traditional data speed unit of MBPS, megabits per second, is replaced by “making burgers per second.”) Customers were understandably infuriated, which was the whole point. Whopper Neutrality was a smash hit with advocates for a free internet, including politicians fighting for the issue. The video generated millions of signatures for a petition to protect net neutrality (which, nonetheless, was repealed under the Trump administration this June).
While there were many excellent marketing stunts and activations this year, Whopper Neutrality earns top honors through its combination of being product-centric and brand-forward while also tackling an issue of tremendous importance with pitch-perfect panache. It’s the kind of advertising work that makes advertising actually work, and even though it came out back in January, we never saw anything surpassed it.
Here’s a look back at our interview with the Whopper Neutrality creative team from this year’s Cannes Lions:
That’s it for our roundup of the year’s best marketing stunts, activations and odd creations. Don’t miss our list of the 25 best ads of the year, and if you see any notable omissions, drop me a note on Twitter at @Griner.