10 Most 'Genius' Marketing Campaigns Ever

The vast majority of marketing campaigns are, sadly, rather forgettable. Some are amusing or briefly distracting, a poor few are irritating or worse, but genius in marketing is the rarest of commodities.

A clever marketing campaign can often be misidentified as a work of genius. In 1973, Polaroid Corporation was hailed for snagging no less a figure than Sir Laurence Olivier for a series of television advertisements highlighting its SX-70 instant camera. But while Olivier’s presence was a stroke of casting genius, the SX-70 was an expensive flop that disrupted Polaroid’s profitability and resulted in the ouster of its CEO.

Taking some inspiration from a recent Twitter thread, Benzinga compiled a list of 10 marketing campaigns that had a significant impact on both consumer goods and the wider pop culture.

Some of these campaigns ran for decades and are still fondly recalled for their eccentric versatility, others were one-shot efforts that nonetheless created new marketing avenues that are still being traveled.

Each, in its own way, was a mini-work of genius.

Admiral Cigarette’s 1897 Advertising Film: During the 1890s, the National Cigarette and Tobacco Company captivated American men with a marketing campaign featuring full-color drawings of shapely young women wearing quasi-naval uniforms tailored to show off their shapely figures. The “admirals” in this campaign proved so popular that the company printed trading cards and posters featuring their sexy all-girl navy.

In 1897, National Cigarette and Tobacco tamed with Thomas Edison, who was just beginning to launch his film production operations. Together, they created a 30-second film with one of the company’s “admirals” popping out of a giant Admiral Cigarette box and handing cigarettes to a quartet of unlikely figures — a stereotypical Irishman, an American Indian chief, a soldier and Uncle Sam. The men enjoy their free cigarettes while unfurling a banner that reads “We All Smoke” and the lovely lady joins them in lighting up.

Whether the film helped Admiral sales is not known, but this brief production single-handedly invented a new marketing medium.

The Wienermobile: In 1936, the Oscar Meyer brand of cold cuts and meats took to the streets — literally — promoting its hot dogs via a funky vehicle dubbed the Wienermobile.

The top half vehicle resembled a giant hot dog with the Oscar Meyer logo, while its bottom half was a sporty chassis, and when it travels down the road it cannot help but catch the eye of pedestrians and drivers alike.

Outside of the World War II years when gasoline rationing kept the vehicle off the road, the Wienermobile has been a consistent part of the company’s promotional efforts.

Six Wienermobiles operate across the country, and in 2017 the brand — now part of the Kraft Heinz Co KHC — expanded its fleet to include a WienerCycle and a WienerDrone.

The Wienermobile represents the longest-running experiential marketing campaign, which is no mean feat in a marketing sector where campaigns are often ephemeral in nature.

“My Goodness, My Guinness”: During the 1930s, the Guinness brand of Irish dry stout began to experience declining sales — well, the product had been around since 1759, so the novelty had more than worn off — and a new marketing push was launched to raise consumer interest. Artist John Gilroy was tapped to create a series of print advertisements that highlighted the drink in a number of whimsical ways.

One of the most beloved of Gilroy’s output came under the banner “My Goodness, My Guinness” that featured a beleaguered zookeeper whose feathered and furry charges kept helping themselves to cans and bottles of Guinness. The zookeeper found himself baffled in viewing Guinness in the hands of a polar bear, balanced on the nose of a seal and within the jaws of a happy crocodile that seemed to dare the zookeeper to retrieve it.

Gilroy’s artwork became advertising popular posters in the U.K. and Ireland during the 1930s and 1940s, and a 1955 filmed version of the campaign was the first commercial broadcast on U.K. television. The original posters can be found in the collection of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and copies of Gilroy’s work are still being sold by Guinness, now part of Diageo plc DEO.

The Playboy Bunnies: Hugh Hefner freely admitted the inspiration for the Playboy Bunnies originated at Bunny's Tavern in Urbana, Illinois, in 1936, operated by Bernard "Bunny" Fitzsimmons. Hefner patronized the tavern in the 1940s during his years as a University of Illinois student.

In the early 1960s, Hefner grew his Playboy Enterprises — now PLBY Group Inc PLBY — from publishing into hospitality and the Playboy Bunnies became an integral part of the Playboy Clubs, offering both a decorative presence via their campy/sexy costumes and an integral key to customer service success via their highly-trained presentation skills and vast knowledge of each club’s line-up of spirits.

The Bunnies survived the rise of the modern feminism moment, including Gloria Steinem going undercover as a Bunny for a harsh magazine article condemning the company. The Bunnies only faded from view when the Playboy Club network shut down in 1991.

The original costume is part of the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of Americana.

007 At The Wheel: In the early 1960s, product placement in movies was still in its infancy when the producers of the James Bond epic “Goldfinger” approached British manufacturer Aston Martin to use its DB5 automobile as 007’s vehicle. Although the brand already had a James Bond connection — Ian Fleming had his superspy drive a DB Mark III in the “Goldfinger” novel — the company was initially reluctant to participate but ultimately agreed.

However, the DB5 in “Goldfinger” was considerably different from the consumer model. Production designer Ken Adams reconfigured the car with wacky gadgets including a rear smoke screen, an ejector seat and a rotating license plate. “Goldfinger” became a box office smash and a toy version of the DB5 became a hit with kids around the world. The Aston Martin brand would be forever linked with 007 — and big screen product placement became a new marketing tool.

In 2020, Aston Martin Lagonda Global Holdings ADR ARGGY revived the DB5, copying the 1964 “Goldfinger” design for a limited edition run of 25 vehicles priced at approximately $3.44 million per car, with two additional models retained by Aston Martin and EON Productions, the 007 series producer, and another set aside for a charity auction.

Mr. Whipple And The Charmin Squeezers: The easiest way to sell a product is to show how it works, but good taste doesn’t allow that to occur when marketing toilet paper. The Procter & Gamble Co PG solved that problem with the marketing of its Charmin brand of toilet paper by launching a campaign featuring a fussbudget supermarket manager named Mr. Whipple who constantly urged his female shoppers to cease their squeezing of the Charmin packages. These women found it so irresistibly soft that they become borderline orgiastic while clutching it.

The campaign started in 1964 and ran for more than 500 commercials through 1985. Its popularity was so great that in 1978 Mr. Whipple was named by TV Guide as the third best-known man in America, with only former President Richard Nixon and evangelist Billy Graham ranking higher. This was clearly a testament to actor Dick Wilson’s wonderful performances as Mr. Whipple, who almost always wound up joining his shoppers in a Charmin squeeze.

And the real genius here: none of the commercials ever detailed just how Charmin was meant to be used, making it the very rare example of selling a product by not actually selling it.

Madge the Manicurist: The Palmolive brand of dish detergent had been around since 1898, but by 1966 the Colgate-Palmolive Company CL revitalized it with a television commercial campaign featuring Madge the Manicurist, a wisecracking middle-aged woman whose client base consisted of middle-class white housewives whose sole focus of conversation involved the rough shape of their hands, which they blamed on their dish detergent — but Madge changed their mind by soaking their fingernails in a bowl of Palmolive.

The campaign played brilliantly on women’s perceived vanity that coarse hands were the sign of a lower-income worker. It also helped that actress Jan Miner brought both humor and warmth to the role of Madge, who simultaneously dissed and assisted her clients.

The marketing campaign began in 1966 and concluded in 1992. By the late 1980s, Madge’s client base expanded to include working women arriving after work and Black women. Colgate-Palmolive took the campaign to other countries — this was among the first U.S. campaign to go global — and even Benny Hill got in on the fun by doing a wicked drag version of Madge for his popular variety show.

What Becomes A Legend Most?: Celebrity endorsements of products can be traced to 1850 when P.T. Barnum arranged for Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind’s name and likeness to be associated with consumer goods including clothing, furniture and pianos. When the Great Lakes Mink Association hired the Jane Trahey advertising firm to create a marketing campaign, little did the organization know she was going to gather a galaxy of show business icons for its Blackgama line of black-fur mink coats.

Beginning in 1968, a series of black-and-white print advertisements for the Blackgama coats appeared using the tagline “What Becomes a Legend Most?” The first five women featured in the advertisements — Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Melina Mercouri and Barbra Streisand — were gloriously photographed by Richard Avedon and Bill King, setting a high-bar standard of show business royalty in a campaign that ran through 2017, when consumer popularity for fur coats had mostly disappeared.

What was truly striking about “What Becomes a Legend Most?” was the wealth of performers who appeared, many of whom never did a commercial marketing campaign before or after: Sophia Loren, Lillian Gish, Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy, Brigitte Bardot, Leontyne Price, Maria Callas, Audrey Hepburn, Liv Ullmann, Maggie Smith and Rita Hayworth modeled the fur coats. A few big names declined to appear — Katharine Hepburn, Dolly Parton and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis passed, while Frank Sinatra canceled his photoshoot at the last minute. Tommy Tune, Luciano Pavarotti, Rudolph Nureyev and Ray Charles were the only men featured in the campaign.

“I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing”: In 1971, the Coca-Cola Co KO produced a one-minute commercial called “Hilltop” featuring a multicultural group of young people who gathered on a hill outside of Rome. Each held a bottle of Coke featuring labeling in different languages, and the youths lip-synced to a song detailing how they would “Like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony” while also expressing how they would “Like to buy the world a Coke.”

The commercial’s vision of young people of different cultures expressing hope for a more peaceful world resonated in an era rife with war and violence. Even more remarkable was the jingle’s immediate singalong popularity. Its creators Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway expanded the song and changed the lyrics to jettison Coke mentions, and the tune became a hit tune for the Hillside Singers, a folk ensemble who provided the dubbed singing voices in the commercial. The New Seekers also recorded a version that topped the U.K. charts.

Coca-Cola would revisit the commercial later in the 1970s with a Christmas season version and original talent from the 1971 version were brought back — many with their children — for a 1990 reunion advertisement.

The commercial’s popularity was so great that it was used as the final punchline gag in the last episode of “Mad Men,” which was an act of comedy genius on its own terms.

Apple’s 1984: Few new product introductions have been more dramatic than the Ridley Scott-directed commercial heralding the arrival of Apple Inc.’s AAPL Macintosh home computer. It only received a single national broadcast, during Super Bowl XVIII on January 22, 1984, but its impact was immediate.

In an obvious riff on George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” the advertisement is set in a dystopian environment where a population clad in gray prison-style uniforms watch a giant screen with a Big Brother-style speaking of the “first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives.”

The scene is disrupted by a blonde female runner dressed in red shorts and a white tank top. She is a bold pop of color in this monochromatic world, and evades four police officers to hurl a sledgehammer into the giant screen, creating a whoosh of energy to a suddenly awakened audience while a narrator declares the coming of the Macintosh with the promise that “1984 won't be like ‘1984.’”

The commercial has since been praised as both the dawn of home computing marketing and the first advertisement to use a Super Bowl broadcast for a major promotional campaign — and that, it would seem, was a double dose of genius.

Photos: Wienermobile by Douglas Porter / Flickr Creative Commons; Photo of "My Goodness, My Guinness" reprinted with permission from the Llewellyn Gallery.

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