Cover Story

The 50 Best Commercials of All Time

Celebrate the sponsored moments of your life with EW's 50 Best Commercials of all time

Sometimes they give you an Excedrin headache; other times, they really satisfy. Either way, one thing's for sure: TV commercials, they're a part of your life. The average viewer is force-fed about 24,000 in just one year, according to the media report TV Dimensions '97.

Who would've guessed that a primitive black-and-white Bulova ad in 1941 — at a cost of $9 — would spawn a nearly $40 billion-a-year industry? But it did, and commercials have been reaching out and touching us ever since: captivating, tickling, and — okay, often annoying us. Only lately, though, have they gotten any respect: Nick at Nite's nostalgia-driven TV Land network has had as much success with its ''retromercials'' as it's had reviving sitcoms and dramas. Super Bowl ads now generate nearly as much ink as the game itself. And this year, for the first time, even the Emmys will care enough to reward the very best prime-time commercial.

With that in mind, we thought it was time to plug these ubiquitous moments of capitalism in our own pages. After sampling hundreds of noteworthy promos, from the dawn of TV to the present, we managed to winnow the list down to a hearty handful of national spots. (Local and international ads had to be excluded from consideration because they were not available to all of our readers.) Effectiveness in selling product wasn't taken into consideration (if it had been a requirement, many of our favorites would never have made the list). The winners were selected strictly on aesthetic grounds — just, if you will, for the taste of them. In short, they are the 50 we consider uncommonly good. Good to the last drop. Finger-lickin' good. Hell, they're gr-r-reat!

And now — dare we say it? — a word from our sponsors.

1 ENERGIZER ''ESCAPE OF THE BUNNY''

He's kept going and going for eight years and almost 100 spots. He has an annual budget of $50 million, survived a backlash (David Letterman attacked him with a baseball bat), and has become a cultural cliche (he's been compared to everything from Saddam Hussein to the Oscars). He had a resurgence with last year's hilarious Twister spoof. (''He's out there,'' says agency creative head Lee Clow. ''People believe in him.'') But the second Energizer Bunny spot is still the most inspired: The relentless, shades-bedecked pink pitchman leaves his own ad and rudely drums his way through three others — parodies of coffee, sinus remedy, and wine spots. Jolting us awake from our sponsor-induced coma, this was literally breakthrough advertising — and helped separate Energizer from the battery pack.
AGENCY: TBWA Chiat/Day
YEAR: 1989

2 FEDERAL EXPRESS

''FAST-PACED WORLD''

Quick:Whatmakesthisguysolovable?Maybeit'sthesheerphysicalfeatof spewing450wordsperminute(that's7wordspersecond!).Maybeit'sthatfasterisalwaysfunnier(askKeystoneKopsfans).Maybeit'sthatbusinessclichssoundevensillierathighspeeds.Whatever,thisseries,starringactorJohnMoschitta,isabsolutely,positivelyoneofthebestgimmicksincommercialhistory.''Peoplesaidmakingfunofbusinesswasadumbwaytodoadvertising,''saysdirectorJoeSedelmaier.Peoplewerewrong.
AGENCY: Ally & Gargano
YEAR: 1981

3 AMERICAN TOURISTER

"GORILLA"

What better way to prove the durability of a suitcase than to have a gorilla jump all over it? This admirably simple, Clio-winning spot did just that—sort of. The ape was actor Don McLeod in a $20,000 monkey suit (with moving eyebrows). So convincing was his performance, he was soon making appearances as a spokesgorilla. "I've met women who thought it would be kinky to have a gorilla up to their hotel room," McLeod has said. Only if she's waiting in a suitcase, Don.
AGENCY: Doyle Dane Bernbach
YEAR: 1980

4 ALKA SELTZER

"SPICY MEATBALL"

Gut-bustingly funny, and perhaps the most famous commercial about making a commercial: An actor doing a pasta ad blows his big line so often—"That's a spicy meatball"—he gets indigestion. Director Howard Zieff went on to features (Private Benjamin); meatball victim Jack Somack, a vet of 300 spots, died in 1983. Though everyone quoted his refrain, it didn't boost sales. As ad editor Stan Siegel explains, "Everyone thought it was for spaghetti sauce."
AGENCY: DDB
YEAR: 1969

5 WENDY'S

"RUSSIAN FASHION SHOW"

"Where's the Beef?" got more attention, but this $250,000 spot was funnier, and the best Cold War spoof since Dr. Strangelove. A rotund Soviet model (played by a man) struts in a series of drab smocks—a flashlight signifies evening wear; a beach ball, swimwear. The delightfully absurd implication: Wendy's, with its many menu choices, is all-American; other chains are commies. Not everyone chuckled: The Soviets balked at this ad running during the Goodwill Games.
AGENCY: Dancer Fitzgerald Sample
YEAR: 1985

6 ISUZU

"JOE ISUZU/LIAR"

It won 432 Clio awards. Sold 300 million cars. Was praised by world leaders. We're lying. But the outrageous claims of oily car salesman Joe Isuzu ("gets 94 miles to the gallon") were an ingenious break from the usual hard sell, not to mention a postmodern poke at advertising's own inflated claims. The David Leisure-starring spots were so popular, Ronald Reagan once compared Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega to "that fellow from Isuzu."
AGENCY: Della Femina, Travisano & Partners
YEAR: 1985

7 COKE

"MEAN JOE GREENE"

One of the most beloved of all time and a Clio winner: Steelers lineman Mean Joe Greene comes off the field angry with himself and reluctantly bonds with a boy offering a Coke. (Poor Greene had to swig a total of 18 bottles.) "In South America we used the same concept with a soccer player," says Coca-Cola's Phil Mooney. Four years ago Pepsi spoofed it: Hoops star Shaquille O'Neal asks a kid for his cola, and the brat refuses. Very '90s.
AGENCY: McCann-Erickson
YEAR: 1979

8 PARTNERSHIP FOR A DRUG-FREE AMERICA

"FRIED EGG"

What a buzz kill. This long-running spot from director Joe Pytka was the toughest of all tough-love PSAs. "This is your brain," the announcer snapped at an intact egg. Then, at a sizzling one, "This is your brain on drugs." That stark food for thought may have saved a few million neurons and certainly provided rent money for many a comedy writer: "This is your brain on drugs, with a side of bacon," SNL mocked in one satire. Any questions?
AGENCY: Keye/Donna/Pearlstein
YEAR: 1987

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