14 Iconic Ad Campaigns, Recalled by the Creatives Who Made Them

Revisiting some classic creations for #Clio60

To get the behind-the-scenes scoop on some of advertising's greatest campaigns from the past 60 years, Muse solicited tales of their creation—and in some case, immediate fallout—from the creators themselves. 

Legends like Lee Clow and Susan Hoffman bear witness, as do folks who may not be household names but whose efforts changed the course of commercial creativity and helped shape popular culture. 

Absolut Vodka, 'Absolut Perfection'

Agency: TBWA
Year: 1980

As recalled by Richard Lewis, at the time an account executive at TBWA\Worldwide (and later author of The Absolut Book), recollecting the gist of the conversation between art director Geoff Hayes and copywriter Graham Turner: 

Richard LewisGeoff: Dammit. Dammit. How did Bill Tragos trick me into working on a Saturday night? Coming up with a campaign for that Swedish vodka when I could be watching Honeymooners reruns. I do like vodka. It tastes like liquid fire and goes down like bleach. But that's probably not an ad. The client says it's the best. What a bunch of crap. They all say that. Hell, I'll just say what they already think. Stick a bottle on the pedestal, shine a flashlight so everyone sees it in the dark, then plop an angel's halo on top so every moron will know I'm just messing with them. And call it something no one will believe: "Absolut. The Perfect Vodka."

Graham: Geoff, you've done it again. But let's just shorten the headline for people in a hurry. How about: "Absolut Perfection"?

Geoff: Hmm, that doesn't suck. Let me think about it. Can't be too quick here. Otherwise, Bill will find more work for us. 

Apple, "1984"

Agency: Chiat/Day
Year: 1984

Apple | 1984

As recalled by Lee Clow, then creative director of Chiat/Day:

Lee ClowApple had been working on a new computer, "Macintosh." Steve Jobs thinks it's going to change the world: "I want a great TV commercial." [So, we come up with] "Why 1984 won't be like '1984'.": Apple computers will democratize technology. Exactly the point of Macintosh. Big Brother, on a huge TV screen. People listening, zombie-like, but then, a woman, running in, throws a sledgehammer at the screen, exploding the idea of a totalitarian future. Steve loves it. Others aren't so sure. We tell Apple we got Ridley Scott, the director of Alien and Blade Runner, to direct. The day before the shoot, Apple calls: "How much would it cost if we pull the plug right now?" The shoot proceeds. The commercial is shot. Steve, ecstatic, orders airtime during the Super Bowl. The ad is sent to Apple's board, which has only one question: "Shall we vote on firing the agency?" We sell all the airtime. Except for one Super Bowl spot. Steve allows the one 60-second spot to run. That's how the decision was made to run the "1984" commercial one time. It made Apple's Macintosh famous. And changed Super Bowl advertising forever. The celebration of Apple's genius to run the commercial only once continues to this day. 

Apple, 'Silhouettes'

Agency: TBWA\Chiat\Day
Year: 2003

As recalled by Lee Clow, then worldwide creative director of TBWA\Chiat\Day:

The recording industry is a mess. People steal music. Record stores close en masse. And nobody is talking about the music. Along come iPod and iTunes. Apple fundamentally changes how we discover, buy and listen to music. How do you tell people that, if you love music, everything has changed? Celebrate the music. Feel the music. That's the idea that guided us as we created what may be the most important advertising campaign of the digital age. The most articulate expression of the love of music is dancing. Moving with passion. That's the way we all wish we could express our feelings: Passion. No self-consciousness. Energy. Silhouettes of people dancing allow everyone to picture themselves as the dancer. Silhouettes against neon colored backgrounds signify energy. Undiscovered music—up-and-coming artists—demonstrates that iTunes opens up possibilities you won't hear on the radio. Against this palette, one single, memorable brand statement: white earbud cords. Apple sells 10 million iPods. The impact, immeasurable. Apple connected, in a deeply emotional way, with a younger, broader market. A once "cult" computer company delivers a cultural disruption that changes our relationship to music. And technology.

Barbie, 'Imagine the Possibilities'

Agency: BBDO
Year: 2015

As recalled by Jim Lesser and Matt Miller, at the time, and still, president/CEO and chief creative officer, respectively, of BBDO San Francisco:

Jim Lesser Matt Miller

There are two things we remember quite vividly. 

First, the briefing. This was such a critical project for Mattel after eight consecutive quarters of sales decline that the president of Mattel [Richard Dickson] kicked off the briefing and set the mutual ambition. He gave an inspiring speech that was a rallying cry for the team, and said Mattel needed our best thinking to turn Barbie around. 

Second, the shoot. We were trying to convince five very young girls, with little to no experience of acting, to act in front of a live audience of real people as hidden cameras rolled. Then the air-conditioning in our video village van broke. So we baked under the So-Cal sun, doing our best to coax performances from our young stars through earpieces. Somehow our ever-patient director kept her cool. It was amazing watching these girls do their thing with no rehearsals and no margin for error. 

The three-day shoot went so quickly we didn't know what we had captured until the edit, and memories of shooting the soccer coach scene means the phrase "Knees up like a Unicorn" is burned into our collective memories forever.

Coca-Cola, "Hilltop" 

Agency: McCann-Erickson
Year: 1971

Coca-Cola | Hilltop

As recalled by Harvey Gabor, then an art director at McCann Erickson:

Harvey GaborMy concept was to show young people from around the world in the costumes of their native countries singing about buying the world a Coke. We knew it would be a tough shoot—weather, location, casting, budget. But we found a perfect hilltop outside Rome. We found the perfect leading lady and were able to amass a host of fresh-faced kids on that hillside. Coke and McCann were patient and supportive, and we finally wrapped. Later, watching the final cut, I thought of what we had accomplished by not only selling a product but also by promoting an ideal of unity. I was so proud—still am. 

Guinness, 'Surfer'

Agency: Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
Year: 1999

Guinness | Surfer

As recalled by Yvonne Chalkley, then senior producer at AMV BBDO:

Yvonne ChalkleyThey say the test of any film is the audience reaction. Well, I happened to be in a packed loud pub, in Soho, with some friends during a Champions League match the night "Surfer" first aired in March 1999. At halftime, the volume in the pub got even louder. Suddenly, "Surfer" came on the screen. 

Within the opening seconds, the camera fixed in silence on a black-and-white close-up image of this extraordinary face, the pub went into total silence. I watched as people were transfixed by the drama and originality of the spot as it played out. I can honestly say people were in awe. 

As the next commercial played, the noise level went right back up, and we all knew what they were now talking about.

Levi's, 'Launderette'

Agency: Bartle Bogle Hegarty
Year: 1985

As recalled by John Hegarty, then chief creative officer of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, from his book Hegarty on Advertising:

John HegartyWhen the original script was written, I had the hero stripping down to a pair of Y-front underpants. No problem there, surely? The underpants look just like a pair of Speedo swimming trunks. However, the U.K. censorship authorities objected to the sight of a man in his "revealing" underwear in public. They deemed it indecent. We had hit an impasse—he had to get undressed or the script was dead. What could we do? 

The censorship authority came back and said that if we were to put him in boxer shorts, the script would be acceptable. "Boxer shots?" we thought. "Aren't they those funny old-fashioned undergarments from the '40s?' We thought that if that's what it took to get the script through, then we'd agree. And so, in "Launderette," Nick Kamen strips down to a pair of boxer shorts. 

The result: Sales of boxer shorts went through the roof, and the once-ubiquitous Y-front underpants died a death. Here's to the guiding fashion hand of authority.

Levi's 'Flat Eric'

Agency: Bartle Bogle Hegarty
Year: 1989

As recalled by John Hegarty, then chief creative officer of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, from his book Hegarty on Advertising:

I've always believed that clients get the advertising they deserve. It doesn't matter how good the agency, if the client wants to buy ordinary, you'll never sell them extraordinary. Luckily for us, we had clients at Levi Strauss who valued extraordinary. Naturally, we didn't always agree on the extraordinary, but that doesn't matter. You both know what you're trying to do. 

Like selling Flat Eric. I had to go back three times to convince them this could be a brilliant idea. What a great way of creating a new Levi's hero, I reasoned—not one that rippled with muscles and a six-pack, but a fluffy yellow puppet. To their credit, they finally bought him. The mantra "Keep zagging" comes to mind.

Metro Trains, 'Dumb Ways to Die'

Agency: McCann Melbourne
Year: 2012

As recalled by John Mescall, then executive creative director at McCann Melbourne:

John MescallLooking back on what it was like to make "Dumb Ways to Die," I think what stays with me most is the purity of the process. We had a beautifully odd idea, a small team, a great client and not a lot of money. And all the way along, every single day, I think we were all waiting for someone or something to put a stop to it all. Because crazy rarely survives in our industry. 

But no one ever tried to pull it back, water it down or compromise it in any way. The opposite, really. I remember presenting an early iteration of the animation to the client, and pretty much their only feedback was: "Needs more blood." Everyone involved was totally committed to the vision we had for it, and everyone involved refused to compromise even slightly on that. That's what I'll always remember about making "Dumb Ways to Die." 

Nike, 'Just Do It'

Agency: Wieden + Kennedy Portland
Year: 1988

Nike | Just Do It (Walt Stack)

As recalled by Susan Hoffman, then an art director at W+K:

Susan HoffmanDan Wieden told all the creative teams at W+K that he wrote a line for Nike and he mandated we all use it. We hated the line and were very vocal, to which he said, "Too bad." That was the beginning of "Just Do It." So, begrudgingly we all set out trying to make it work, and strangely, after stomping around and complaining, everyone helped define the meaning of JDI. 

One team found an older man—80-year-old Walt Stack—who ran 17 miles a day: "People ask me how I keep my teeth from chattering in the wintertime; I leave them in my locker." Another team found a woman who drank too much and knew she needed to change her life: "I smoked, I drank, I was fat, and hadn't done a lick of exercise in my life, so I started jogging." For the past 30 years, "Just Do It" has defined Nike's voice. The most recent example: a football player who showed what it means to "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything." 

I often like to remind people of something Dan Wieden has said: "Nike didn't discover the power of advertising. Nike discovered the power of its own voice, and it, for the most part, has continued to ring true. The biggest advantage you have in this business is your own voice, your own way of looking at things, thinking about things. That is where your power lies." 

And in the end, Dan was right! Thank you, Mr. Wieden.

Old Spice, 'The Man Your Man Could Smell Like'

Agency: Wieden + Kennedy Portland
Year: 2010

Old Spice | The Man Your Man Could Smell Like

As recalled by Jason Bagley, then creative director at W+K:

Jason BagleyOne of the things we and our friend [director] Mr. Tom Johannes Manson Kuntz II were determined to do was shoot the spot in one continuous take, with all in-camera, practical gags, which was easy! All you need is a boat, a full-sized bathroom that can instantly be yanked off the ground, shirts and towels that magically lift on and off, an animatronic clamshell, a diamond pump, a chair that transfers a man onto a horse, and a charismatic man to read a script while executing a complicated series of gags and make it all look effortless. 

If a single thing went wrong in that entire chain of events, the entire take was ruined, and at the end of two and a half days of shooting, we didn't have a single usable take. So we had to ask our amazing clients to pay for another shoot day. We shot all day, and still couldn't get it, and with 45 minutes of daylight left on that extra shoot day, we still didn't have a usable take. No one on set had any fingernails left to bite off. 

And then it happened: In the last 30 minutes of daylight, we finally got the one and only clean take. So the spot that everyone saw was literally the only time we pulled it off. 

State Street Global Advisors, 'Fearless Girl'

Agency: McCann New York
Year: 2017

As recalled by Lizzie Wilson, then a senior copywriter at McCann New York:

Lizzie WilsonWe dropped Fearless Girl in the middle of a very cold March night—and by cold, I mean freezing! From the hours of 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., my partner and I and the production team excitedly oversaw Fearless Girl's installation, while simultaneously taking turns ducking into a nearby ATM vestibule to stay warm. Unfortunately, staying in the vestibule too long meant potentially missing the first glimpse our statue. Which is exactly what happened to my partner [senior art director Tali Gumbiner]. She was in the vestibule when Fearless Girl was lifted off the truck. I couldn't believe the timing and sent her a text saying, "You have missed the birth of our child."

Taco Bell, 'Yo Quiero Taco Bell'

Agency: TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles
Year: 1997

As recalled by Clay Williams, then creative director at TBWA\Chiat\Day:

Clay WilliamsThe first real indication we had that the Taco Bell Chihuahua struck a chord with popular culture was at a premiere for the movie Godzilla, at Madison Square Garden. Six or eight of us got all ad-people fancy and took a limo to the event. Gidget—the real-life name of the dog—was with us, too. About a block before the red carpet, we were all ordered out of the limo, except for Gidget, who was to arrive without an entourage. We walked the final gritty block and blended into the background as Gidget worked the paparazzi. Such a glamorous business we're in.

Transport Accident Commission, 'Meet Graham'

Agency: Clemenger BBDO Melbourne
Year: 2016

As recalled by Stephen de Wolf, then executive creative director at Clemenger BBDO Melbourne:

Stephen de WolfIt was around the fourth or fifth time we'd gone back to our client on this particular brief. This was, perhaps, the reason we knew exactly what this idea needed to be. We went in with a simple board. On it were the words "Meet Graham. The only person designed to survive on our roads," with an image of a strange human form. 

What the idea needed to look like, sound like, and how it needed to be experienced was always clear to us, and while it was dangerous, our brave client saw clarity in the idea, too. Clarity from the start is what made the project unique. It meant we were united and unwavering on the 18-month journey to completion.

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