8 Minute Read

Historical Effects of Advertising on Societal Changes

By Alison Wurth:

Regardless what you see in comment sections or hear walking down the street, most consumers want brands to weigh in on social and political issues, according to a new survey. Specifically, the study found around two-thirds of consumers responded that it was either “Somewhat Important” or “Very Important” for brands to take a stand on social/political issues, with only 11% saying it was “Not at All Important.”

The ad world and the rest the country is buzzing about a @Nike ad. See @Alison_RBM’s thoughts on some previous iconic #ads and what we can expect for current ones. Click To Tweet

If you keep up with the history of advertising, you know there are a handful that everyone speaks about. A few come to mind — Apple’s iconic Super Bowl 1984 commercial and Nike’s controversial 1987 “Revolution” commercial. But what was it that keeps these two from disappearing among hundreds of other past ad campaigns? The production value? The topical approach to being relevant? Or is it that the companies made a bold statement by way of advertising?

The basic premise

TV ads are built on one simple idea: If you buy X, you’ll get Y. But Y is rarely the product itself. Rather, it’s a positive emotion, a perfect relationship, higher social status or just an amazing experience. For example, if you buy Maybelline beauty products, you’ll feel confident and show off your natural beauty because…”Maybe she’s born with it.”

Or if you were ever to go to a Toys “R” Us (RIP), you’ll reconnect with your youthful self and want the same for your kids. After all, you don’t wanna grow up, ’cause maybe if you did, you couldn’t be a Toys “R” Us kid! The list could go on and on and on…

Possibly more importantly, TV ads impact our culture in individual wants. At one point, buying Calvin Klein jeans would make you feel like Kate Moss. If you buy Jadore Dior perfume, you’ll end up looking like Charlize Theron walking around an empty mansion in a ball gown.

Charleze Theron gif

Of course, the influence of ads isn’t breaking news. What’s cool, though, is how exactly it works — more specifically, how ads both reflect culture and drive it forward, pulling we unsuspecting viewers along with it.

Iconic campaigns


Apple’s spot aired during the 1984 Super Bowl that aptly played off George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.” Using the simple themes of control versus freedom, and stagnation versus innovation, in a one-minute ad, Apple was able to spark viral curiosity just days before the release of its first Macintosh computer and set a precedent-breaking tone that still prevails.

Apple 1984 ad

Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial had a direct target on competitor IBM but was also a statement on where our country was headed. Was 1984 really going to be like George Orwell’s book?

“It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money …. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?”

-Steve Jobs

1983 Apple keynote address

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1984 Apple’s Macintosh Commercial from Bob Macintosh on Vimeo.


When The Beatles’ ‘Revolution’ hit the airwaves in 1968, riots erupted following Martin Luther King’s assassination and the Chicago police battered protesters at the Democratic convention. Despite the ambiguous lyrics, the songs heavily distorted sound made it the feel like the anthem of rebellion.

No one could imagine that this 60’s anthem would eventually save Nike and change the face of advertising and branding. Nike’s 1987 ‘Air Revolution’ TV ad for Air Shoes sparked intense controversy by using ‘Revolution’ – the only time an original Beatles song has been used in an advertisement.

Will the revolution be #branded? Find out how previous iconic #ads have aged and what we can expect from current tumultuous #campaigns! Click To Tweet

These groundbreaking campaigns are often political and very often hit with backlash. The three surviving Beatles in 1987 were completely opposed to their song about starting a revolution being used as a tool to sell. So much, they filed a $15-million lawsuit against Nike.

“Basically what this lawsuit is is a warning to advertisers and the record company: If you think you can use the Beatles recordings to . . . peddle anything from bras to beer, you’re going to be sued.”

– lawyer Leonard Marks

Filed the suit on behalf of Apple Records

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1987 Nike Air ‘Revolution’ TV Advert from The Daily Street on Vimeo.

Just Do It.

The Nike Revolution ad was far from the last time they decided to go the controversial route with their campaigns. It is worth mentioning that several of their ads in recent history have touched on social issues ranging from ageism, equal opportunity for women and more.

You may be asking – Alison, why are we talking about these 80s commercials? Because we’ve just been hit with a campaign that people will be talking about for years.

Colin Kaepernick initiated the NFL kneeling protests against police brutality and racial injustice. He is one of the most divisive figures in sports today. The same Colin Kaepernick is now the face of Nike’s 30th anniversary Just Do It campaign. To some, he is a man that put his million dollar career on the line by using his platform to speak out against racial injustice. To others, he is unpatriotic, disrespectful, and both anti-veteran and anti-flag.

Regardless of which side you are on – try to view this campaign objectively and historically just as we do years later with the 1984 Apple commercial or the 1987 Nike Revolution commercial. The truth is that advertising has always been a reflection of the times. And each of these advertisements are political, controversial and absolutely iconic.

All three hit with overwhelming opposition and excitement. And my guess? Each one will continue to be discussed for years to come. Each ad campaign holds a snapshot of the culture and political climate – a time capsule. And I’m looking forward to seeing how this one ages.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fq2CvmgoO7I&w=560&h=315]