The Most Successful Food Commercials

A lot of people try to avoid television commercials, for good reason. They are kind of like an uninvited guest in your living room: there you are, hanging out with your funny friend Jon Stewart, when along comes some way-too-perky lady trying to sell you car insurance. Not cool.

But Super Bowl Sunday—February 7 this year—is the exception. Some people look forward to watching the commercials even more than the game. With so many receptive eyeballs (a rarity in this age of DVRs, the Internet and cable fragmentation), advertisers put on their best effort to entertain. This is not so easy to do in 30 to 60 seconds, while also getting across a convincing sales message. I previously worked in an advertising agency "creative department" for seven years, so I can attest to this firsthand.

Knowing how difficult they are to produce, I truly appreciate a good commercial when I see one. Food commercials have an advantage—if you make the product look mouth-watering, it will sell. But it is still not easy to make something memorable.

The following are a few of the food commercials of the past that I think were most successful, either because they have embedded themselves in the popular culture or they were just plain entertaining.

Children's cereals have produced some enduring icons—the Froot Loops toucan, Rice Krispies' Snap, Crackle and Pop, and the Lucky Charms leprechaun, to name a few—but none has had the lasting impact of Life cereal's "Mikey" commercial from the 1970s. The message is simple: it's good for you, but even picky eaters will like it. And although the original ad hasn't aired since 1982, people who are too young to have watched it during their Saturday morning cartoons (like our co-blogger, Abby Callard) still know the line, "He likes it! Hey, Mikey!"

​If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, "Got Milk?" might be the most sincerely flattered commercial campaign of all time. Ever since the California Milk Processor Board aired the first (and possibly best) in the series, "Aaron Burr," in 1993, everyone from exterminators to gyms has ripped off the slogan.

Some of the best commercials are those that ring true. Such was the case with the campaign that asked, "How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Roll Pop?"  The answer, of course, was impossible to discover, because no one (myself included) can resist biting through the crunchy candy coating to the chewy center. The burning question had a revival a few years ago, in the form of a suggestive song by rapper Lil' Kim.

You don't hear jingles as frequently as you used to, yet they are one of the most effective (if annoying) ways to be remembered. Oscar Meyer's brand was particularly good at this: its jingles for Oscar Meyer wieners and bologna still occasionally creep into my head today, even though I haven't heard them for more than 20 years. Watch them if you dare—you'll be singing "B-O-L-O-G-N-A" for days.

While we're on the topic of jingles, you know you have a successful one when it becomes a hit record. That's what happened with the 1971 song "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," which originally aired as a Coca-Cola commercial (and included the line, "I'd like to buy the world a Coke"). The ad, featuring a multicultural group of young people, tapped into the idealism of the era, and the song was re-recorded without the Coke reference, selling millions of copies.

In between "How many licks?" in the 1970s and "Got milk?" in the 1990s, the biggest question in advertising was "Where's the beef?" In 1984, Claire Peller posed this query to a fictional Wendy's competitor that served her a gigantic fluffy bun with a tiny patty. Twenty-five years later, the catch phrase is still used to imply that something or someone is lacking substance.

Finally, since we're talking about the Super Bowl, I'd be remiss to leave out beer advertisements. This could be a whole post on its own (maybe next year), so I'll just mention my personal favorite. So many beer ads, even if funny, are shamelessly sexist (to both genders). The long-running Bud Light "Real Men of Genius" campaign, though, manages to play on male stereotypes in a light-hearted way that is hilarious rather than offensive. So, Mr. Funny Commercials With Awesome '80s-Style Back-up Singer Writer, I salute you.

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