[is-gateway name=”HicksNewMedia” id=”INFOtainmentNews”]The elements that contribute to marketing campaigns sounding the perfect note—or failing miserably—seem in hindsight to be obvious. The ones that fail do so largely because they were launched without a nuanced understanding of audience reaction. The ones that succeed are simple, elegant and appeal to commonalities shared by a wide audience. What succeeds and what fails might ultimately be described as alchemy, but it is an alchemy that either studies and adapts to the present Zeitgeist or ignores that Zeitgeist to its advertising peril.

Greatest Hits: The 5 Best Marketing Campaigns in History

Apple’s “Mac vs. PC”

This appealing and eminently watchable series of television ads drew consumers into an ongoing conversation where PCs were stodgy and Macs were hip. Don’t be your dad, be yourself, was the message the clever commercials seemed to say. Apple’s finger was firmly on the pulse of youthful consumers and it was reflected in a jaw-dropping increase in revenue; in fact, Apple’s share of the computer market “more than doubled” from 2006, when the company debuted the clever commercials, to 2009. As ad campaigns go, it was a resounding success.

Marlboro’s “The Marlboro Man”

While a marketing campaign about cigarettes may not be as effective today, there’s no denying that Marlboro hit the marketing jackpot in the years following its inception of “The Marlboro Man”. The dusty, lone cowboy epitomized American independence and symbolized a past that Americans cherished. Manly, aloof and free, he appealed to consumers who secretly wished to be like him. Marlboro was not just selling cigarettes with this ad campaign, they were selling an entire lifestyle. The company’s sales skyrocketed by 1957, making the invention of “The Marlboro Man” a wildly successful campaign that resulted in a wildly successful product.

Nike’s “Just Do It” 

Photo spreads of sleek athletic bodies glistening with hard-earned sweat coupled with massive celebrity endorsement resulted in an ad campaign of monumental success. Believe it or not, according to The New York Times, the phrase was coined in 1988, following the 1977 execution of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, who before being shot said simply: “Let’s do it”.  The ultimately permissive statement invited consumers to drop the things holding them back and “just do it.” Implying freedom, permission, possibility, it continues to be a marketing campaign of almost unparalleled brilliance that appeals to a global audience.

“Got Milk?”

Going into the 1990s, the milk industry had been experiencing a 30 year decline—that is, until the birth of the “Got Milk?” campaign.   This clever campaign entered the public psyche and wouldn’t let go, spawning countless parodies and transforming a boring kitchen staple with a whole new image. It’s hard to oversell the brilliance of this simple ad, where television spots were supplemented by glossy magazine spreads featuring some of the most famous actors and musicians of the age. Milk is trendy. Milk is delicious. Milk will make you strong. These are just a few examples of the messages derived from just two simple words. New York market research firm, Harris Interactive, credits the success of the “Got Milk?” ads on well-carried out research, and this wildly successful campaign is an object lesson in positive product association.

Volkswagon’s  “Think Small”

Still viewed as the standard by which all successful campaigns are measured, Volkswagon had a David and Goliath-sized battle for market representation in a country where bigger is always deemed better. Their counter-intuitive campaign was a smash success; their self-effacing ads caused the public to take a second look and ultimately to take a test drive. Product popularity exploded during an age that was already questioning social norms and appreciated a company that gave honest answers to the public about its product.

The Other Side of the Coin: The 5 Worst Marketing Campaigns in History

When creating an advertisement whose aim is to appeal to the masses and sell a product, it seems that common sense would dictate these same images and associations not be disturbing, grotesque or incite revulsion in the viewer. So why does this phenomenon still occur, with often disastrous results? It seems marketing whizzes are attempting to tread a very fine line between the shock factor that makes their product memorable and the shock factor that incites outrage or revulsion. In gauging the Zeitgeist with the best of intentions, they sometimes fail spectacularly. Here are just a few of the worst ad campaigns in marketing history.

Calvin Klein

Disturbing images implying violent acts against women, innuendo suggesting an element of pedophilia and images conveying a form of soft pornography are just a few of the charges leveled against Calvin Klein by an angry public during the last 30 years. Shock factor has reigned supreme in their marketing bag of tricks, to mixed results. While Calvin Klein as a market force is still hugely successful today, one must wonder how many potential consumers were driven away by their blatantly controversial subject matter. At one point, after a series of ads in 1995 featured teenage models in provocative poses, the FBI was called in to investigate charges of child endangerment. Is all publicity good publicity? Is there an ethic to which a marketing firm must always adhere? These are the difficult questions raised by the shock jocks in charge of Calvin Klein’s image.

Coca-Cola’s “New Coke”

The “New Coke”campaign was launched with all of the fervor and intensity of a battlefield objective, yet was met with an overwhelmingly negative public reaction. A marketing blitz informed consumers that the old world of Coke had passed away in order to usher in a new era of improved taste. Radio spots, television ads and supermarket samples deluged their consumer base. What they learned after seven years of intense propaganda was that their customers preferred the product they already loved. If it wasn’t broken, why try to fix it? Sales lagged and Coke admitted defeat, returning the beloved formula to the shelves and regaining their former title as most recognizable and loved product on the planet.

Pepsi-Cola’s “Crystal Pepsi”

Pepsi did not heed the recipe-changing failure of their competitor, Coke. In fact, even in spite of an ad campaign in which Pepsi blasted Coca-Cola for changing its formula, Pepsi heeded ill-conceived marketing advice and changed its formula. They removed the caramel coloring from the product, trusting that new and different would triumph over old and beloved. The lesson to be learned from this short-lived product is that consumers know a marketing gimmick when they see one. Changing the color of the product added no incentive to purchase it beyond a one-time novelty. Doubtless Pepsi was attempting to take shelf space away from Coke with yet another product. The public was not about to assist Pepsi in making this happen, however, and the product was withdrawn after just one year.

The Beatles, “Yesterday and Today

While this album cover did not permanently harm the Beatles as a brand, it is an object lesson in avoiding the pitfall of revolting an audience. Of the stratospheric popularity enjoyed by the band as a whole, this particular album had the least in sales. It’s difficult to surmise what the marketing department was aiming for with this campaign. Depicting the Beatles as butchers covered in blood with the remnants of hacked-apart baby dolls strewn around them simply begs the question, “Why?”

Disney’s “ Old Yeller Dog Food

There’s no doubt Disney envisioned calling to mind a warm and enduring image of love between a boy and his dog and how that love led to the nurturing of a beloved pet. These are wonderful associations to draw between an established story and a supermarket product. Convenient amnesia, however, caused advertising gurus to forget that the end of the movie featured the boy having no choice but to shoot his dog. This is a marketing failure on multiple levels; consumers unavoidably recalled the sad and horrific ending, not the fuzzy, heartwarming pet-owner relationship. The product disappeared from shelves, all right, but not because consumers wanted it. It was rapidly recalled for dismal sales.

Young entrepreneurs and small business owners should heed the advice offered by these successful campaigns—and remain wary of the mistakes of others. Aim to engage, rather than disturb; be smart about potentially negative connotations as a result of your marketing plan, and be willing to recognize that, sometimes, things are better left unchanged. Most importantly, rather than try to create a poorly researched campaign to shamelessly garner attention, focus instead on cleverly and creatively highlighting what makes your brand unique, trustworthy, and invaluable. Who knows—maybe one day even your brand will top the list of the “best marketing campaigns in history.”

Troy Denton writes on a variety of topics, but he focuses primarily on marketing; lately he has taken a particular interest to marketing techniques and strategies, such as TV campaigns, internet marketing, brochure distribution, custom made bobbleheads, discount products and others.