For the most part, television commercials are not watched so much as endured. People of a certain age will remember the unpleasant sensation of watching some show or another, then jumping up to go to the bathroom and grab a snack in the 120 seconds afforded them by the commercial break. The less we knew about what we had missed in those two minutes, the better.
Still, as much as we bemoaned their existence, these same commercials often became popular culture institutions in their own right. After all, when you see the same ad over and over again, it’s going to stick with you, and if there’s a catchy jingle or clever slogan, its permanence is even more likely. Look no further than the antacid Alka-Seltzer, whose slogan, “Plop, Plop Fizz, Fizz,” was one of many that people still refer to decades later. In fact, you’re probably saying “Oh what a relief it is” silently in your head at this very moment.
We’ve rounded up 25 examples of some of the most memorable television commercials of all time and presented them here. Whether you roll your eyes when you see them or get that twinge of nostalgia, one thing’s for sure – you will still remember them.
1. Alka-Seltzer – “I Can’t Believe I Ate That Whole Thing”
Regrets, we’ve had a few, and Alka-Seltzer capitalized on that very feeling for one of its most memorable commercials. In this ad, a man sits on his bed, awake with tummy trouble and repeating the mantra, “I can’t believe I ate that whole thing.”
And you’re not alone if you always thought he was saying “I can’t believe I ate THE whole thing.” Listen closely. He’s actually saying “I can’t believe I ate THAT whole thing.”
For those of us who have at times committed the sin of gluttony, the ad resonated.
2. Coca-Cola – “Mean” Joe Greene
In the 1970s, Coca-Cola aired one of its classic commercials, which depicted former football player “Mean” Joe Greene limping back to the locker room after playing a bruising game. A kid gives him his bottle of Coke, which Greene sucks dry. He then thanks the kid and throws all his sweaty football gear at him. At the time, this was considered heartwarming.
3. Keep America Beautiful – Iron Eyes Cody
The nonprofit organization Keep America Beautiful ran what has to be one of the most memorable public service announcements of all time. The spot depicts a Native American man canoeing through polluted waters and watching motorists throw garbage out of passing cars, causing him to shed a lone tear. It’s a great spot that gets its point across clearly and poetically, and it absolutely deserves its classic status.
4. Life – “Mikey Likes It”
This commercial for Life cereal depicts three kids sitting at the breakfast table, two of whom fear this new product. They get their youngest brother Mikey to try it, despite his reputation for hating everything, and to their surprise, he likes it! An enduring urban legend posited that the actor who played Mikey, John Gilchrist, died from a fatal combination of Coca-Cola and Pop Rocks, but we’re happy to inform you that this was a scurrilous rumor, and today Gilchrist is the AARP-eligible age of 53.
5. Budweiser – “Whassup?”
This 1999 ad campaign for Budweiser proved the hypothesis that if your commercial is annoying and repetitive enough, people will remember it. The commercial, which ran during the Super Bowl, features a bunch of twenty-something men saying “Whassup?” to one another interminably on the phone and in person, and the campaign mercifully ended in 2002.
6. Hershey’s Kisses — Christmas Bells
This holiday advertisement for Hershey’s Kisses is so simple and straightforward that it doesn’t even contain a single spoken word. However, the simplicity is exactly the point, and it helped make this 1989 commercial instantly memorable.
7. M&M’s — Fainting Santa
Did you know that some M&M’s are red? Well apparently Santa Claus didn’t, because the premise of this ad is that the red M&M and Santa Claus are both so taken aback by seeing one another that they faint. It may not be the most brilliant concept in the world, but it’s certainly memorable.
8. Wendy’s – “Where’s the Beef?”
This 1984 ad for Wendy’s is officially named “Fluffy Bun,” but thanks to actress Clara Peller, no one on earth is aware of that. Her repeated requests for the location of the beef endeared her to an entire nation and became such a part of popular culture that Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale invoked it during a debate. He went on to lose every state in the nation except for Minnesota, but we’ll always have our memories of that debate.
9. Alka-Seltzer – “That’s a Spicy Meatball”
We’ve got to hand it to the good people at Alka-Seltzer – they sure knew how to mine digestive distress for good commercial fodder. This one deserves additional points for its unique film-within-a-film perspective, and like “I Can’t Believe I Ate the Whole Thing,” the famous tag line “That’s a spicy meatball” was immortalized on The Simpsons, an ironclad sign of its cultural primacy.
10. Wisk – Ring Around the Collar
Is “ring around the collar” really a thing? Maybe. But what no one disputes is that Wisk irrevocably thrust this terrible problem into the national conversation. Sure, they talked about it as if it were an extreme form of humiliation, but it sure made the product fly off the shelves.
11. Campbell’s Soup – Melting Snowman
While this is not strictly a holiday commercial, it certainly has enough snow, blustery wind, and general weather-related misery to qualify. In this one, a snowman comes home and eats a bowl of Campbell’s chicken soup, which causes him to thaw out and reveal a boy under all that snow.
12. Apple – 1984
Apple’s award-winning “1984” commercial was directed by Ridley Scott, who helmed such big-screen features as Alien and Blade Runner. It was daring, it was bold, and it’s since been hailed as a classic. It also never aired again after its debut during the 1984 Super Bowl, automatically turning it into the stuff of legend.
13. Calgon – Take Me Away
As much as life in these United States has been stressful in the 21st century, people in the last century experienced their fair share of headaches as well. Look no further than this 1978 commercial for Calgon, in which a harried and overwhelmed woman says, “Calgon, take me away!” With that, she’s transported to a faraway realm of relaxation, also known as her bathtub.
14. StarKist – Sorry, Charlie
Poor Charlie the Tuna. He wants to wind up in a can of StarKist’s chunk light stuff, yet for reasons not shared with us, he is repeatedly rebuffed in the commercials by the people who make these kinds of decisions, leading them to say to him, “Sorry, Charlie.” It’s sad to see his dreams crushed, but in retrospect Charlie should really be happy that he didn’t end up between two pieces of bread.
15. Bounty – The Quicker Picker Upper
When it comes to diner employees who act like total jerks when a customer accidentally knocks over a glass, you would have a hard time doing so more memorably than the hard-nosed Rosie character, played by Nancy Walker of Rhoda fame. She played the role in countless commercials for Bounty paper towels between 1970 and 1990, and despite directing the Village People and Steve Guttenberg in 1980’s Can’t Stop the Music, it’s what she’s best remembered for.
16. Charmin – Don’t Squeeze the Charmin
Spare a thought for the beleaguered Mr. Whipple, a grocery store manager who wants only to display Charmin toilet paper attractively, yet is thwarted in this effort by people who keep squeezing it. Actor Dick Wilson played him in hundreds of commercials between 1965 and 2000, but his cries of “Don’t squeeze the Charmin” were always for naught. Fun fact – country singer Charlie Walker used the slogan as the inspiration for his 1967 hit “Don’t Squeeze My Sharmon.”
17. Palmolive – “You’re Soaking in It”
Those who go for mani-pedis to pamper themselves would likely blanch at the idea of soaking their fingers in dishwashing liquid, but for over 20 years, actor Jan Miner’s manicurist character Madge would advise her clients to do exactly that in Palmolive dishwashing liquid commercials. She would place one of their hands in a bowl of the green stuff and advise them that they were, in fact, soaking in it. Miner passed away in 2004, but the slogan “You’re soaking in it” is immortal.
IMAGE: palmolive-madge | YouTube / Palmolive
18. Dunkin’ Donuts – “Time to Make the Donuts”
In 2019, Dunkin’ Donuts changed their brand name to simply Dunkin’, perhaps in a bid to make consumers aware that they sell things besides donuts. Unfortunately, this was impossible, due to its memorable commercials featuring “Fred the Baker” and his repeated slogan “Time to make the donuts.” He repeated this in multiple commercials until you couldn’t get it out of your head.
19. Polaroid – James Garner & Mariette Hartley
In the 1970s and 1980s, actors James Garner and Mariette Hartley appeared in a series of commercials for Polaroid instant cameras. There was no catchy slogan, but they didn’t need one – the actors had such great natural chemistry with one another that it was easy to forget they were hawking a product. It also didn’t hurt that 40 years before the iPhone, a Polaroid camera was as close as you could get to an “instant” way of taking pictures.
20. Coca Cola – “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”
What do you get when you gather an ethnically-diverse group of people on a hilltop, put bottles of Coca-Cola in their hands, and tell them to sing? You get the 1971 commercial that the ad industry trade publication Campaign called “one of the best-loved and most influential ads in TV history.” It made an appearance on the series Mad Men, too.
21. Dr Pepper – “Be a Pepper”
Before he was mauling hapless British commuters in 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, actor David Naughton was dancing through the city streets, inviting passers-by to “be a Pepper” by drinking Dr Pepper. There were various incarnations of the very popular commercial, which of course made it the target of parodies on such shows as SCTV.
22. Shake ‘n Bake – “And I Helped!”
For decades, people have been making their own “fried” chicken with Shake n’ Bake, which is basically flavored breadcrumbs applied to raw meat and agitated vigorously inside of a plastic bag before baking. It’s so simple that children can be enlisted to help out, which led the company to create a series of ads in which a young child would say “And I helped!” The slogan became such a part of popular culture that during the 1980s, it became something that was yelled at the screen by crowds during midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
23. Chiffon – “It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature”
Chiffon margarine is a product whose slogan outlived it. The margarine itself was discontinued in North America in 2002, but the commercials, which starred Dena Dietrich as Mother Nature herself, are still fondly recalled by those who saw them air. In those commercials, Mother Nature is fooled into thinking Chiffon margarine is butter. Upon learning that it’s margarine, she summons a lightning bolt and warns, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”
24. Pillsbury– Poppin’ Fresh
Poppin’ Fresh, also known as the Pillsbury Doughboy, debuted in 1965, and while he hawked all manner of Pillsbury cookies, biscuits, and crescent rolls, one thing was always the same – every commercial would end with a human finger poking him in the stomach, causing delighted laughter. Today, that might be considered fat-shaming.
25. Chicken of the Sea – Catalina the Mermaid
Catalina the Mermaid is the mascot of Chicken of the Sea brand tuna fish, and she appeared in advertisements for the brand since the 1950s. Another fun fact – in the early television commercials, the voice of Catalina was provided by Grace Lee Whitney, who played Yeoman Janice Rand in the first season of the original Star Trek television series.
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