10 Memorable Ads that Defined a Generation

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There are ads that you remember because the annoying jingle gets stuck in your head for days, and then there are ads that you remember because you related to them and they brought out something in American culture. Advertisers' main goal may be to target an age group in order to sell a product, but a few commercials throughout history have defined that generation so well that they've stuck around decades after the product disappears or changes marketing strategies. Here are 10 of those ads that you'll probably remember even if you weren't born yet.

  1. Volkswagen Beetle, "Lemon"

    When all other advertisers were still promoting classic American values and simply playing up the positive aspects of a product, Volkswagen's advertisers made lemonade out of a lemon. Even though consumers were hesitant to buy German products after the war and many car companies were building bigger cars for growing families, VW made use of its small size and big thinking. In the iconic "Lemon" ad of the early 1960s, Volkswagen showed a photo of the Beetle with the word "Lemon" in large letters underneath. The smaller text under the ad explained that inspectors had rejected this car as a lemon because of a very minor flaw. It was a follow-up to the equally successful "Think Small" advertisement. The ads were clever, simple, and slightly self-deprecating. This encouraged a generation to break the molds of American tradition and create new roles for themselves — like seeing how many people can fit in a VW Beetle.

  2. Apple, "1984"

    During the Super Bowl in 1984, one remarkable commercial played, not only forever changing the way people viewed Super Bowl ads, but inspiring an age group to think outside the box and embrace technology in a new way. The ad shows a brainwashed mob marching to a room to listen to their leader on a big screen TV. A young woman with a sledgehammer runs into the room followed closely by security guards and throws the hammer into the big screen, presumably freeing the mob from Big Brother and his mind control. A voice then announces that Apple will be introducing the Macintosh computer and that 1984 won't be like 1984. Macintosh found huge success and many people with tech-based careers today credit the "1984" commercial with pushing them in that direction.

  3. Coca-Cola, "Hilltop"

    In 1971, a commercial for Coca-Cola was released that has frequently been noted as one of the best commercials in history. Even the song made it into the top ten on the pop music charts. The commercial of course was the one that featured a group of young people from around the world standing on a hilltop, singing, "I'd like to buy the world a Coke." After its release, people were calling into radio stations requesting the song and asking TV stations when the commercial would be airing. The strong sense of multiculturalism and world peace in the commercial reflected the growing attitudes of a generation growing up and dying in the Vietnam War. Coming out toward the end of the war, the commercial no doubt showed a world many saw as ideal.

  4. Rosie the Riveter poster

    The iconic tough woman on a yellow background was printed in 1942, though she wouldn't be known as Rosie for another 40 years. The "We Can Do It" advertisement, along with other posters, was created to bolster support in factories during World War II. Housewives were being asked to do their part in the war effort and leave their homes to provide workers in the factories where the men had left openings. This campaign increased the number of working American women 57% between 1940 and 1944, an amazing testament to the selflessness of the generation. The view of women and the work they could do was also changed by this image and by the hard work of 20 million women. Not all women kept their war-time jobs when soldiers returned home, but many argue that Rosie the Riveter opened up the work force to the sex as a whole.

  5. "This is your brain on drugs"

    This 1987 public service announcement from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America made an entire generation, maybe two, aware of drugs. Whether it made them scared or curious is debatable. In the ad, a man holds up an egg and says it that represents your brain. He then introduces a frying pan as drugs. "This is your brain on drugs," he says as he cracks the egg into the pan and it fries instantly. This ad signified to an age group that drugs are dangerous and therefore potentially exciting. It also reminded parents to be afraid for their children, and introduced the first "helicopter parents," those who hover around their children and are generally seen as overprotective. The commercial has been listed as one of the top 100 of all time. The success of this campaign led to other dramatic anti-drug commercials and gave a generation something to rebel against.

  6. "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like"

    This recent Old Spice commercial with Old Spice Man, Isaiah Mustafa, spoke to young adults in a way that most ads in the past couldn't rival. It featured a smug, often shirtless man describing how wonderful he is while transitioning from one awesome location to another. The over-the-top confidence can be seen in Generation Y, but the ad's transmission defines the generation as much as the message does. As part of the ad campaign, Old Spice featured videos on YouTube where Mustafa would respond to comments and questions from YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, using his signature humor. This ad campaign was a perfect fit for a generation who wants to interact with its media and thinks it deserves attention for anything it posts on the Internet.

  7. The Crying Indian

    On Earth Day 1971, Keep America Beautiful started a campaign starring Iron Eyes Cody as the "Crying Indian." The PSA features an American Indian rowing a canoe through a polluted river and walking up to a stretch of road where a motorist throws some trash out the window. The American Indian is shown with a tear falling from his eye, and the narrator says the tagline: "People start pollution; people can stop it." This commercial's timing coincided with the rise of environmental activism in the early '70s, putting a face to Earth Day and capturing the attention of a generation who went on to promote recycling, conserving water, and protecting wildlife.

  8. Lyndon B. Johnson, "Daisy Girl"

    This 1964 campaign attack ad was only aired once as a commercial, but it became an important component to Lyndon B. Johnson's presidential victory over Barry Goldwater. The commercial shows a little girl picking the petals off a flower, and as the camera zooms in to her eye, there's a nuclear explosion. The voiceover warns that the stakes are too high not to vote for Johnson. The ad was criticized and pulled for its scare tactics, but highlighted the fears of a generation of people, especially since Johnson ended up winning the race. Fears of nuclear warfare really defined the Cold War era, and the thought of bringing those fears into Vietnam and passing them onto their children really resonated with voters.

  9. "I Want My MTV"

    Viewers today would probably be confused to see so many musicians on a commercial for MTV — which now plays mostly reality shows — but in the '80s, MTV was the destination for any young music lover. Pop icons like Billy Idol, Boy George, and Madonna marketed the music television station in this legendary "I Want My MTV" campaign. These commercials heralded a time of garage bands and music videos, and reflect the attitude of an age group that gets their news and music from the television, often from the same channel. Looking to break the mold set for them by their parents and create their own cultural niche, this generation is often referred to as the MTV Generation.

  10. Butterfinger Bart Simpson ads

    The Bart Simpson Butterfinger commercials began in the late '80s and continued through the '90s. Though The Simpsons was originally seen as a crass depiction of the American family, real families grew up with them and the Simpsons were eventually seen as an outrageous, but almost idealized version of all of us. The commercial introduced Bart Simpson, his skateboard, and rebellious antics to children who initially may not have been allowed to watch the show, and benefited from a time when it was okay to push the boundaries of traditional values. Though every child may not tell authority figures to "Eat my shorts" or deny his father a candy bar, the Butterfinger commercials allowed the new age of families to be proud to be imperfect.

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