Six Times an Iconic Commercial Put a Brand On the Map

A Great Commercial Can Change a Brand’s Future

A great commercial is always great. But occasionally, one lands extra perfectly. Everything about it is fine-tuned to perfection, and it finds its perfect audience at the perfect time. It speaks to something specific in the moment, but seems timeless when we watch it today.

A commercial like that can raise awareness of a new brand or restore the fortunes of a failing one. You’ve probably seen these commercials, but even if you haven’t, they’re a big part of the reason you know the brands they represented. 

These commercials almost singlehandedly established these iconic brands as household names. And there’s a lot we can learn from them.

Poo-Pourri: Girls Don’t Poop

In 2013, everyone was talking about this memorable Poo-Pourri commercial. After slowly building a business for six years, based solely on word of mouth advertising, the odor-blocking toilet spray exploded onto the scene thanks to the Harmon Brothers trademark quirky humor. Most people loved it. USA Today writer Bruce Horovitz did not. But that, of course, just made more people watch it.

Thanks directly to this ad, Poo-Pourri is in homes around the world, and stocked in stores like Bed, Bath & Beyond, Target, and Ulta Beauty.


If you want people to take action, first you have to earn their attention. This commercial does that through incongruity – a sofisticated, dress-wearing lady on a toilet, talking about pooping. It accomplishes a few things: it makes us chuckle, and it also highlights the universality of their product. Everybody poops. So everybody needs Poo-Pourri. It’s the kind of advertising every new brand wishes for, and the kind the industry is coming to expect from Harmon Brothers (You can learn more about how they work on the Dan Harmon episode of Marketing Conversations with Lamphouse Films).

Pepsi: Pepsi Generation

The Pepsi Generation tagline lived for decades, featuring commercials with Michael Jackson and Brittany Spears, but when it first appeared in the early ‘60s, it reversed Pepsi’s fortunes in a major way. Previously, Pepsi had been just another budget-brand cola and they marketed themselves by comparing their taste and value to Coca-Cola, with very little result. 

By embracing a particular segment of the market (young people) and portraying an aspirational and adventurous type of person, they moved away from value-based advertising and toward lifestyle advertising. And it worked. They had slowly been losing market share year after year as Coca-Cola grew exponentially. But the year that the Pepsi Generation campaign aired, they gained market share again for the first time in decades, and continued to do so with new versions of the ad. 


By the 60s, people already knew what Pepsi tasted like. They knew how much it cost. Advertising based on those things wasn’t making a difference. But by shifting the perception of the kind of people who drank Pepsi, they turned drinking Pepsi into a statement about who you were. That’s the power of good lifestyle advertising. 

Your advertising doesn’t have to speak to the entire market. It doesn’t have to sell the features of your product, especially if the market already understands them. What it can do instead is enable your ideal customers to tell a satisfying story about themselves.

Dollar Shave Club: Our Blades Are F***ing Great

This is the one you knew would be on the list. One day you hadn’t heard of the razor subscription service, and then the next day you had. The whole world had. Within 24 hours of posting the ad on YouTube, Dollar Shave Club received over 12,000 orders, overwhelming their practically non-existant company. Four years later, they sold to Unilever for a billion dollars. 

With other companies, it’s easy to speculate whether their success would have still happened even without a great ad. For Dollar Shave Club, the math is easy. Without this groundbreakingly viral film, they would not have been the massive success they are, and you still would have no idea they existed.


You can’t predict when you’ll strike viral gold. There’s an element of luck involved. But you can predict that luck wouldn’t have struck if their commercial hadn’t been entertaining, surprising, irreverent, ironic, and raw – everything we wouldn’t have expected from the sleek, sensual razor commercials we were used to. They could have flatly explained their value propositions. They could have made a goofy ad. But they managed to do both, seamlessly. If you can entertain people, they’ll listen to you. It’s that simple.

Apple: 1984

Widely considered a watershed moment in Apple’s history, and the history of commercials, Apple’s provocative ad also played a strong role in making Super Bowl Commercials a major event each year. By making computing accessible to “the people,” Mac started a revolution and raised awareness for their new Macintosh 128K. $3.5 million dollars of orders poured in immediately after the ad ran, and Apple’s position as a groundbreaking, field-leveling company was established.

When the commercial ran, it shocked viewers, creating such a stir that news programs reran it for the next few days, giving Apple free increased exposure. 


Apple used familiar imagery to put the viewer quickly into a story they understood the rules of, and then cast themselves, or their product, or the viewer, as the hero. The lack of clarity doesn’t really matter, because the viewer feels something about the product: free-spirited people use the Macintosh computer. Conformists do not.

They weren’t afraid of making a bold statement, both in the style and message of the ad. Telling a good story takes courage. When I Grow Up was a virtually unknown brand before this ad ran. But they were so confident in it that, in addition to spending millions in Super Bowl ad placement, they spent $700,000 to upgrade their servers in anticipation of a huge boost in traffic. It was a gamble and it paid off. It’s a brilliant, emotional commercial that doesn’t need to oversell its product – it speaks to the hopeful child in the heart of every unfulfilled career person, in simple, timeless shots. Like the earlier Apple 1984 ad, it’s considered a touchstone in Super Bowl advertising.

Before the ad, they were averaging six hundred job searches per minute. After the ad ran, they jumped to nearly three thousand, and never really looked back. 


Most good ads speak to positive emotions: joy, security, contentment, freedom. This ad moves the viewer to want fulfillment, but it does it first by reaching for the negative emotions. That’s not always a bad thing. No one wants to feel trapped and disappointed, or feel they’ve let their childhood self down. It’s a startlingly effective ad because it speaks directly to our fears, but not in a dishonest or manipulative way. knew what a lot of people were already feeling, showed that it understood them, and offered a way out. 

If a commercial is going to go negative, that’s the way to do it.

Volkswagen: Snow Plow

When VW started marketing their flagship vehicle, the Beetle, in North America, they were fighting an uphill battle in a culture that had been heavily marketed to believe that big, sleek, and fast were the hallmarks of a good car. Instead of trying to portray the Beetle as something it wasn’t, they leaned into the difference. Their ads were simple, black and white, and focused on the car’s practicality. 

Before the early 60s, it was unthinkable that a foreign manufacturer would challenge the dominance of the Detroit brands in the USA. But VW not only became the biggest selling foreign car, it slowly carved out a significant market share for itself, claiming 5.6% of the US market by 1970, thanks to its distinct branding in the 60s.


VW made a very different kind of car. And they weren’t afraid to market differently. Their ads looked different, felt different, and appealed to viewers who didn’t want a long, low, luxury car. They quickly became the vehicle of choice for the 60s counter-culture by refusing to play by the same rules. The moral is: if your product is different, your marketing should be, too.

What Do These Commercials Have In Common?

First, they weren’t afraid to be different. None of these commercials are remotely similar to the type of commercials others in their industries aired. They were groundbreaking, memorable, and sometimes shocking.

They gave their customers the chance to tell a story about themselves: I’m young and adventurous, I drive a unique and practical car, I will be fulfilled at work, etc.

They use simple language and memorable phrases. They’re constructed from distinct, but usually simple, visuals. In other words, they’re films that were well made in service of a single, unique idea.

What can we learn from them? Swing for the fences. Innovate, don’t imitate. 

And the best advertising makes people feel something good about themselves, that the life they want isn’t out of reach.