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“Historians and archaeologists will one day discover that the ads of our time are the richest and most faithful daily reflections any society ever made of its whole range of activities.”
–Marshall McLuhan

In 1999, as the 20th century came to a close, the Ad Age staff set out to examine all the ways in which advertising has entertained, moved and motivated us over the years. We decided to rank the 100 best campaigns of the century, in a special issue, to celebrate their creativity and impact.

Now, Advertising Age is updating this list with 15 of the best ad campaigns of the 21st Century. In the last 15 years, advertising and marketing, and the media it used to get out its messages, has experienced an incredible upheaval as digital media and interactivity changed the dynamics of how consumers see and pay attention brand messages.

Control shifted from marketers and traditional media timing their messages and forcing consumers to see ads as a trade-off for the content they wanted to see to the consumer wielding remote control and computer mouse. Traditional media found itself scrambling to stay relevant as digital media wreaked havoc with the guarantee that consumers were likely to see ad messages. Expensive journalism distributed free online amassed audience but not ad dollars and wiped out a whole generation of magazines and newspapers, while DVRs, podcasts, streaming video services like Netflix and Hulu challenged TV and radio models. Out of this massive shift, marketers and agencies got very innovative in turning these new tools to their advantage.

Several of these winning campaigns are on this list because they led the way in thinking about how to use these new tools effectively and entertainingly. Some of these ad campaigns are here because they changed the way consumers thought about the world around them and some are examples of great solid marketing built on spot-on insights and beautifully, perfectly executed.

Advertising Age tapped the expertise of leading creators and marketers to derive this list of 15. We asked our judges to consider three criteria, the same three questions that were used for the original Top 100 Ad Campaigns of the 20th Century:

Was it a watershed ad or campaign, discernibly changing the culture of advertising or the popular culture as a whole?
If it itself was credited with creating a category, or if by its efforts a brand became entrenched in its category as No. 1.
Was it simply unforgettable?
We gave the judges a list of 50 nominees from which to vote on their top 15 and then rank them. These winning campaigns are those that got the most judges’ votes to be on the list, and ranked the highest. Ad Age Members were also asked to weigh in on their picks, and you can see the results of that poll here.

One of the judges, Greg Hahn, CCO, BBDO New York, noted of the finalists, “Looking at this list you can see what these executions have in common. They all have a strong voice, a POV, and a client that was willing to go outside of the tried and true. These all broke through because they broke out of the norm. They remain as standouts because they were inherently right for the brand. There are a million logical reasons why each of these shouldn’t have worked. Thank God the right people ignored all of them.”

Apple: Get a Mac

Are you a Mac or a PC? No one even asked before Apple and TBWA launched the “Get a Mac” campaign in 2006. And then suddenly everyone knew.

The series of 66 commercials, also known commonly as “Mac vs. PC,” featured comedic actors John Hodgman, as a Bill Gates-lookalike-nerdy-workaholic PC, and Justin Long, as a Steve Jobs stand-in personifying a hip Mac computer. The ads were playful and funny, but also aggressively competitive. However, TBWA managed not only to make Apple the good guy—the kindhearted Mac was always telling sad sack PC not to be so hard on himself—but also got people to pay attention and care about the boring part of computing. Security, viruses, rebooting and even syntax errors became watercooler conversations.

“Any brand that aspires to be a famous and loved consumer brand has to do things that have some kind of cultural currency or cultural impact,” said Lee Clow, chairman of TBWA\Media Arts Lab, who worked closely with Mr. Jobs on the campaign. “That’s always the goal—to do stuff that becomes part of the cultural conversation. Back when we did this, the social-media world was kind of just emerging because there wasn’t much mobile social media. On PCs and Macs people were blogging and stuff like that, but it wasn’t quite as prevalent as it is today, so it was kind of one of the first brand ideas that became part of the cultural conversation.”

The campaign spawned legions of parodies and memes as people imitated the either/or proposition through various lenses. Comedians and musicians used it for laughs (“South Park” and Lego characters made appearances), while religious groups, Greenpeace and even the Republican National Convention copied the format to make different points.

The only one who maybe didn’t like the ads was Mr. Gates.

“I saw Bill Gates one time and he didn’t smile too much when I said ‘Oh we did the Mac and PC stuff’,” Mr. Clow recalled. “He wasn’t too charmed by it, but he was a good sport about it.…We tried very hard for them not to be mean-spirited.”

That good-natured humor, along with the fact that competitive ads are easier if you’re the “little guy,” worked to Apple’s advantage.

Judge Andrew Keller, CEO, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, noted just how difficult it is to pull off competitive advertising. “How does a brand get away with bullying another brand in a world that hates bullying? By nailing the tone. And executing flawlessly. It’s so hard to do. From a competitive business point of view, the switching message was perfectly timed. Apple had patiently waited for years, and then with Microsoft Vista struggling, it was time to pounce. And the pummeling began. After it had worked its magic, they pulled it off the air before it had worn out its welcome. It galvanized Mac loyalists with pride. And inspired the PC user to take action in regard to their PC woes. A word of caution: Aggressive competitive advertising is not easy and can bite you in the butt if done incorrectly. This is the benchmark for how to do it right.”

Back then, Apple was the David swatting at the Goliath PC industry. Apple and TBWA had previously tried a “Switchers” campaign with real people who had happily moved from PC to Mac, and while it was popular with Apple fans, it didn’t result in much actual switching.

“The opportunity was that Apple had gained a young audience by virtue of iPod and iTunes in music, and so now these young people who before that had very little knowledge of Apple and Mac, now at least had Apple on their radar,” Mr. Clow said, adding that the environment along with the advertising helped create a new generation of young Mac users.

John Boiler, founder, chief executive officer at 72andSunny, credits “Get a Mac” with “discernibly changing ad culture by finding a way to do competitive and comparative advertising in a way that was entertaining. As testament to how it impacted popular culture, it’s hard to find an ad campaign that generated more knockoffs and memes other than the “Got Milk?” work back in the day. In the early days of social and sharability of the internet, people were making the effort to put their own spin on it.”

Judge Susan Gianinno, chairman, Publicis Worldwide, agrees that this campaign “definitely changed the conversation to Apple’s advantage. Many folks tried to replicate the format. But Apple demonstrated that it is not the format that makes the idea… it is every single aspect of the execution: the casting, the dialogue, the facial expressions, the ‘issue’, the consistency.”

By: Beth Snyder Bulik


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