What Happened to Quality TV Advertising?: 9 Good and Bad Commercials

What makes a television advertisement effective? Many today seem to miss the mark. This article looks at nine examples of good and bad TV commercials.

Side Note: While this post focuses specifically on television advertising, the overall principles apply to any form of promotion, whether for companies, churches, or others.

I’ve had the chance to digest the 2016 Super Bowl commercials and I’m left with one conclusion: most tv ad producers should be fired and the companies who hired them should sue to get their money back. I’ll just say it: many (and I’d argue most) television ads are not captivating or compelling. Instead, they are, to be blunt, just plain moronic, senseless, and dull. This applies to ads during the big game as well as those made for any other time of year.

While I can’t critique every commercial ever made, nor have I seen even a majority of them, I can say this: advertising execs have let us and their clients down.

What Viewers Expect from Commercials

Now, we customers are not too difficult to figure out. We don’t expect a lot from a television ad. Nevertheless, we do expect a few things from successful television ads:

  1. A reason to keep watching (even better, re-watching). That can be done through a great story (hint, story is always recommended), humor, drama, or a combination. If the ad isn’t compelling us to watch, we won’t.
  2. Make it memorable in a good way. A good ad is remembered positively by the viewer. If we recall how bad it was, then we won’t buy the product, but instead will mock it.
  3. Identify your company or product. If we don’t know who or what to buy, we won’t.

Sadly, most—if not all—ads deliver the third thing, but fewer and fewer are giving us the first two. Based on the very short list above, we viewers don’t really expect too much from effective commercials, so it’s disheartening that many advertisers can’t seem to deliver.

I was tempted to provide another list of what makes for an effective commercial, but after re-reading that list above, I don’t believe that’s necessary. Why? Because an effective commercial delivers on all three of the things we expect.

To illustrate my point I’ll look at a small sample of some recent commercials, especially those from Super Bowl 50. My brief analysis will look at each example in light of the three criteria outlined above. I’ll begin with bad, or ineffective (or even negatively effective) tv ads.

Examples of Bad Television Commercials

Bad Ad #1: “Puppy Monkey Baby” from Mountain Dew (2016)

Really? I mean, really?! This commercial is wrong on every level! Creepy! Freaky! Odd! Sick! Pointless! I mean, that’s a bad ad! Here’s why:

Criteria 1: Want to Watch and Re-Watch

Absolutely not! Nobody wants to watch or re-watch that freak of nature on their televisions! Gross! The only reason to re-watch it is to creep out others, which would explain over 22 million views on YouTube in less than three weeks.

ET Online summarized it this way: “NIGHTMARES FOREVER!” Fortune called it “potentially nightmare-inducing and certainly one of the most baffling Super Bowl commercials of all time.” While both praised its ability to get us talking about it, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

The ad tried to tell a story, but that was immediately lost in the vileness of that… that… thing. That creepy dog-headed thing. It also apparently tried to be funny. But that CGI creature wasn’t funny, it was creepy.

Criteria 2: Positively Memorable

Memorable? Absolutely! Did it garner a lot of attention? Most definitely! However, much of the response was very negative. Here is a sample of how the Twitter-verse reacted to Mountain Dew’s attempt at humor:

And the best one…

Criteria 3: Company/Product Identified

Yes, we were told which company was associated with this advertising aberration. This ad didn’t make people want to buy Mountain Dew, but instead to mock them. If I were CEO, I’d fire whoever approved this ad because I wouldn’t want my company associated with it. If I approved it… actually, I wouldn’t have approved it.

Bad Ad #2: “Bolder Than Bold Jump” from Butterfinger (2016)

Criteria 1: Want to Watch and Re-Watch

Uh… um… I don’t get it. So do I want to watch or re-watch this ad? Not really.

This futile attempt at humor isn’t funny at all. It’s dull. It’s senseless. Real humor is based at least somewhat on reality and there’s nothing real in this ad. The audience can’t relate to it. They won’t really laugh at it. There’s nothing to inspire us to watch or re-watch it (except to say that it’s bad). No facts. No humor. No story. Nothing but meaninglessness.

Criteria 2: Positively Memorable

I only remember this ad when it shows up on TV again, and I think, “Oh yeah, that’s the ad that Butterfinger wasted millions on for the Super Bowl.” And then I dwell on the overall stupidity of the 2016 Super Bowl ads.

Criteria 3: Company/Product Identified

As is almost always the case, every viewer knows this is a Butterfinger ad. Now where’s my Reese’s peanut butter cup?

Bad Ad #3: “Boy Can’t Grow” from Nationwide (2015)

Criteria 1: Want to Watch and Re-Watch

Nobody wants to watch, least of all re-watch, this waste of film and money. Why? Well, here’s how others described it:

  • Business Insider: “[It was] the most depressing ad of the Super Bowl. . . . Critics called it morbid and disturbing.”
  • Time: “Remember all the adorable father-son bonding? [This] ad might ruin all your warm and fuzzies. . . . Wrenching.”
  • Forbes: “dark and gloomy. . . . [N]ot only depressing, it was exploitative and insulting.”
  • IGN: “Weird . . . very strange approach . . . odd.”
  • WaPo: “By far, this was the most hated commercial of the Super Bowl. . . . bait-and-switch . . . buzzkill.”

So, no. Nobody wants to watch this.

Criteria 2: Positively Memorable

This commercial is memorable for all the wrong reasons. It’s depressing. C’mon! There’s no positive memories of this commercial.

Criteria 3: Company/Product Identified

Everyone knows that it was Nationwide who brought us to the verge of clinical depression. Thank you, Nationwide. On a side note, they did redeem themselves later that year with a wonderful Christmas commercial.

Bad Ad #4: “Economy Class” from Diet Coke (2014)

Criteria 1: Want to Watch and Re-Watch

Maybe you might think the girl is pretty and want to watch this ad from the Coca-Cola corporation. However, I’d rather not. It’s dull and unrelatable. It doesn’t tell a story, isn’t funny, and doesn’t compel me to do anything but leave to the room to go get a Dr. Pepper.

Even worse, it could be intepreted as implying that Diet Coke contains hallucinogens: “Drink Diet Coke and you’ll see all sorts of hallucinations.” Really, Coke?

Criteria 2: Positively Memorable

I suspect that, like me, most people don’t remember this ad until they see it again.

Criteria 3: Company/Product Identified

From beginning to end, we all are quite aware that Diet Coke makes you see things different. Now where’s my pure sugar Dr. Pepper?

Examples of Good (and even Great) Television Commercials

Good Ad #1: “The Story of Sarah & Juan” (30-second version) from Extra Gum (2015)

Criteria 1: Want to Watch and Re-Watch

Good? More like great! This commercial is an example of the perfect ad! It’s dramatic. It tells a romantic story. Men and women alike can immediately relate to this ad. I mean, what girl doesn’t dream of finding such a romantic guy? What guy doesn’t wish he’d thought of this? The music is romantic and the story is endearing. This is a timeless ad that brilliantly strikes a balance between Rockwellian idealism and the real world.

Do people want to watch it? Well, between October 2015 (when both the long and short versions were posted to YouTube) and the day of this blog post, the two combined have garnered over 23.2 million views. So, yeah, people want to watch and re-watch this commercial.

Criteria 2: Positively Memorable

Absolutely! Except for the very cynical or non-romantic types, most people will very have fond, wonderful memories of this commercial, and of their lives thanks to it.

Criteria 3: Company/Product Identified

Extra Gum does clearly reveal themselves at the end, but doesn’t let their brand interfere with the story. Well done!

Good Ad #2: “Ultrasound” fan-made ad for Doritos (2016)

Criteria 1: Want to Watch and Re-Watch

This one is controversial because many pro-abortion groups hated it. I mean, how dare someone humanize a baby (a human baby, I might ad). However, I seriously doubt Doritos was being political. Rather, they were going for funny and effective. And on both they hit it out of the park!

If you watch this commercial with your political glasses off, you’ll understand the brilliance of this Super Bowl 50 ad. First, it’s downright funny! Second, it’s relatable to most parents: it tells a story of a young dad who’s distracted during the OBGYN visit and a mother who’s in awe over seeing her unborn baby. Third, it conveys a clear message: everyone wants Doritos, even the yet-to-be-born.

Do people want to watch it? Of course! Everyone loves a genuinely funny commercial.

Criteria 2: Positively Memorable

Unless you’re disgusted by ultrasounds or are unable to take off your political glasses, this commercial will be remembered with a smile for its light-hearted take on an ultrasound.

Criteria 3: Company/Product Identified

Everyone wants a Dorito! Yep, they clearly and boldly reveal themselves.

Good Ad #3: “Holiday Jingle” from Nationwide (2015)

Editorial Note: Initially I had “Jingle Games” listed, but it was supposed to be “Holiday Jingle,” as you can tell from the description below.  The former never mentions football at all; the latter does.

Criteria 1: Want to Watch and Re-Watch

Like I said, Nationwide redeemed their Super Bowl atrocity with this wonderful Christmas ad. “Holiday Jingle” uses humor, sports, holiday spirit, and a great pitch man (pun intended) to create a delightfully fun commercial. TOUCHDOWN!

Criteria 2: Positively Memorable

Who doesn’t love Peyton Manning? Especially since shortly after this ad aired (Christmas 2015), Manning won Super Bowl 50! Who doesn’t love Christmas lights? People flock to see homes decorated with all the colors and images of the holiday season. Everything in this ad will be fondly remembered.

Criteria 3: Company/Product Identified

The jingle is sung throughout, and the company is identified at the end. Oh, did I mention, TOUCHDOWN!

Great ad, Nationwide! Love it!

Good Ad #4: “Lamb Streaker” from Budweiser (2006)

Criteria 1: Want to Watch and Re-Watch

Of course this one makes the list. I mean, it’s only one of the greatest commercials ever made! It’s funny! Really, really funny! And did I say funny? I’ve seen this ad countless times and I laugh every single time. It never gets old!

This one was made during the good days of Anheuser-Busch’s Super Bowl commercials, before the dark time began. This was during the long era of the Budweiser frogs, the lizards who killed the frogs, and “Wassup”; and don’t forget the famous “Bud Bowl.” That was long before the blue bottle, street party, “Up for whatever,” unfunny, cliché big game ads began (I can’t believe they actually wasted money to put some of those worthless things on during Super Bowls). Thank you, Doritos, for filling the void left by Bud.

Back then, Budweiser knew how to sell their products: great humor and great drama (see below).

Criteria 2: Positively Memorable

Of course! This commercial is almost always listed as the best or second best Super Bowl commercial of all time. So, absolutely, people have a positive memory of the ad.

Criteria 3: Company/Product Identified

As soon as you see the Clydesdales you know the company, but they show you their name at the end, anyway.

Now, this list originally was going to include only four good and four bad ads. However, I couldn’t include “Streaker” and leave out one of its great counterparts:

Good Ad #5: “Precious Pony” from Budweiser (2006)

Criteria 1: Want to Watch and Re-Watch

Moving! Utterly moving! Every child dreams of doing big things and making a difference in the world; they dream of being someone of importance, of growing up. And every loving parent tears up after seeing the adult horses pushing the wagon. This commercial balances the humor of “Streaker” with a very touching and compelling story. Well done!

If you’re a parent, I dare you to watch this and not tear up.

Criteria 2: Positively Memorable

This commercial is so well done, so motivating, and so heart-felt that those who watch it are inspired to greater things. It teaches that it’s not about being important in the world, but being important to our kids. It’s about being there for them, encouraging them, guiding them, and inspiring them. And sometimes it’s about pushing the wagon for them.

Criteria 3: Company/Product Identified

Clydesdales? Check. Name given at the end? Check. So, yes, Budweiser is clearly identified.

I know there are other examples of good and bad ads. What are some of your favorites or least favorites? Which ones could have been included? Share and comment below.

About John L. Rothra
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