‘Tis the season of giving… and holiday ad campaigns. What better way to celebrate than to look back on the best campaigns of the past hundred years?
Whether you nerd out on history, you love seeing how advertising has changed over the years, or you just want a fun look down memory lane, check out some of the best holiday ad campaigns for every decade since the 1920s!
Holiday Campaigns of the 1920s
Let’s start with the Roaring 20s, when prohibition made eggnog a no-no (at least the fun kind) and ad campaigns were (mostly) limited to print and radio. During this period, companies started getting more creative in how to reach their audiences.
Overland Sedan (1920)
Seen in publications like The Saturday Evening Post, this ad was one of many that promoted the massive growth of the automobile.
This particular ad also fosters the acceptance of women driving, in that cheery, condescending way. “…it’s a woman’s car in the sense that it is simple to operate and easy to control.” We just know some toxic folks were behind this one.
The ad encourages husbands to “put your wife’s initials on an Overland sedan” in order to “give her a sense of proprietorship.” Gross, but it tracks, historically speaking. Think of it as the great-grandparent of all those ads where married couples inexplicably gift each other new cars with giant bows on top.
To celebrate the opening of the largest department store, Macy’s started the tradition of the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Of course, this particular campaign doesn’t really have anything to do with Thanksgiving. It’s supposed to get consumers excited for Christmas and prompt holiday shopping sprees.
And with the parade just celebrating its 99th year, it’s safe to say this ad campaign is chock full of staying power.
Holiday Campaigns of the 1930s
The early 1930s were a difficult time for advertising—and everyone else, for that matter—due to the Great Depression. But the latter part of the decade picked up as countries began to recover economically, and the US saw the end of Prohibition. (Let’s drink to that!)
Coca Cola’s St. Nick (1931)
Did you know that our modern-day image of Santa was largely shaped by Coca-Cola? Prior to 1931, Jolly Old St. Nick was portrayed as everything from a gaunt man to a very spooky-looking elf.
Haddon Sundblom, the artist behind the modern-day Santa, drew his inspiration from the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” also known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” He created the Santa Claus we know today (and cemented the association with Coca-Cola’s signature red and white colors).
Budweiser’s Clydesdale Beer Wagon (1934 Campaign)
Developed as a campaign to celebrate the end of Prohibition, the Budweiser Clydesdales are now known around the world, and have been used in different ad campaigns since their introduction in 1934. Part of the genius of this campaign? Using the horses to deliver beer to Gov. Alfred Smith in NYC and to President Roosevelt in Washington DC.
In addition to various Budweiser ads throughout the years, the Clydesdales—and the Dalmatians that accompany them—are almost always featured in a Super Bowl ad.
Montgomery Ward’s Rudolph (1939)
He began as a coloring book character created by a copywriter as a “promotional gimmick,” but he became one of the most recognizable symbols of Christmas, second only to St. Nick himself.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer—indeed the most famous reindeer of all—was born when Montgomery Ward’s marketing team decided to create their own coloring book to give away to customers, instead of buying a different coloring book to give away each year. It’s a great reminder that creative direction can be the bright red nose that guides your marketing team to sleigh the competition. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Holiday Campaigns of the 1940s
World War II followed on the heels of the Great Depression. Even though advertising was beginning to recover, the war influenced the tone and messaging of most ad campaigns, even during the holidays.
Royal Portable Typewriters (1940)
This ad showcases the Christmas gift every child dreams of …a career. Added benefit? Kids, it helps with your homework! What child wouldn’t beg for one on a mall Santa’s knee?
Of course, the ad isn’t wrong when it hits on the importance of “typing.” Even though keyboards have replaced typewriters, virtually every job after their invention has required we know our way around the keys.
Canada Dry (1945)
Remember how we said WWII influenced the tone of many ad campaigns? Canada Dry is no exception. In fact, they actually become a bit glib toward the end of the war, reminding consumers that Victory Bonds are a great gift, and a sugar shortage means you might not be able to actually find any Canada Dry Ginger Ale. The marketing plan? Encourage folks to keep asking for it anyways. Now that’s demand generation.
And say hello to the evolution of Coca-Cola’s Santa, now war-torn, and drinking ginger ale instead of milk.
Holiday Campaigns of the 1950s
Advertising continued to regain the lost ground of the 30s and 40s. Along with the “mad” ad “men” of the 50s came some really new, rather quirky ideas.
Mr. Potato Head (1952)
He was the start of the first children’s toy commercial, and introduced every parent to their favorite part of the holiday season: “pester power.” The first Mr. Potato Head ad campaign? Revolutionary. That said, it features a very scary take on the sarcastic potato we’ve come to know and love so well. Nightmarishly scary. This ain’t your Toy Story’s Disney Potato.
NORAD’s Tracking Santa (1955 PR Campaign)
The Santa Tracker highlights NORAD’s (now CONRAD’s) cutting-edge capabilities, and uses telephone hotlines, newspapers, radio, phonograph, and television to inform people where Santa is. Still incredibly popular today, you can now use the internet to track Santa and his reindeer. It even tells you how many presents he’s delivered! Rest assured that even Santa’s data trail means he’s likely to get targeted ads.
Using minimalistic artistry to tell a beautiful and thoughtful story can be even more powerful than adding all the bells and whistles. And it gets its point across. Bill does, in fact, need a shave.
Holiday Campaigns of the 1960s
In the 60s, advertisers started taking aim at a new demographic: teens and their disposable income.
OK, we love an absolutely vintage moment. And this ad is definitely vintage. Portable entertainment really skyrocketed starting in the 60s. And it’s amazing to see how fast portable entertainment has evolved since then, from a portable TV (“the only one in the world!”) to portable transistor radios, cassette decks, CD players, boomboxes, MP3 players, tablets, and smartphones.
Polaroid had already made a name for themselves with the company’s instant cameras that printed out pictures immediately, eliminating any processing time and expense. But in 1963, Polaroid introduces some color into the world with the debut of Polaroid’s instant color film.
We also love the little line, “lots of other people said they’d wait, too. See your dealer very soon.” While “dealer” holds an entirely new meaning now, we’re eating up the instant picture this conjures of customers rushing to the store, lest they find themselves bereft of the new Polaroid. Shake it.
As the kids say these days, she’s giving …a stylish ballpoint pen for Christmas? Ummmm, OK. This ad is the perfect amalgamation of 60s chic: a holiday ad that isn’t too Christmassy, wintery, or emotional. Though it does leave you wondering: where can you get that dress?
Holiday Campaigns of the 1970s
In the 70s, advertising moved from dominating newspapers and magazines to dominating television.
When Norelco—or “Noëlco”—commercials start appearing, it’s a sign that Christmas is coming. And this particular ad is significant in that it’s the first stop motion commercial ever produced.
KFC’s Kentucky For Christmas (1974 Campaign)
It’s apparently very difficult to find turkey in Japan for a traditional holiday dinner circa 1970. So people turn to the other white meat: no, not pork, fried chicken. And KFC capitalized on that to become incredibly popular in Japan. In fact, Tokyo is home to the only three-story KFC, complete with a fully stocked whiskey bar. Finger-licking good, Saint Nick.
A (very) young Cory Feldman reminds us what makes the holidays so special: gift certificates to McDonald’s!
Holiday Campaigns of the 1980s
The introduction of cable, VCRs (and the ability to fast-forward through commercials), and home shopping networks, all presented challenges and opportunities to advertisers.
Zippo Lighters (1980)
A colorful, vibrant, and fun take on something that no one really needs. But just because you don’t need it, doesn’t mean you don’t want it.
Folgers’ Peter Comes Home (1986)
This ad makes Folgers a household name by incorporating it into a relatable story. Who doesn’t love waking up to the smell of coffee? It’s the best part of waking up. And the staying power! This ad continued on air in some form until 2005.
Hershey’s Holiday Bells (1989)
Hershey Kisses as bells. What more do you need? This classic commercial is a holiday staple and a perfect little brand awareness builder.
Holiday Campaigns of the 1990s
While there are lots of great holiday ads both before and after the 90s, some of our favorites definitely come from this decade.
Coca Cola’s Polar Bears (1993)
While the iconic polar bears have been a Coca-Cola classic since the 20s—around the same time Coca-Cola popularized the modern-day Santa Claus—this adorable ad is their first appearance in a commercial. And the CGI was pretty impressive for 30 years ago!
M&M’s They Do Exist! (1996)
Red M&M: “He does exist!”
Santa: “They do exist!”
Yellow M&M: “Uh, Santa?”
You know it already. You don’t even have to click.
Starbucks Holiday Cups (1997)
Since they first debuted in 1997, Starbucks Holiday Cups have been one of the more prominent signs that the season is upon us. They also let everyone know that Peppermint Mocha time has arrived (and, alas, that Pumpkin Spice is gone again till, what, August? July?). Starbucks typically has a different design featured on a red background, but some years the company likes to shakes things up, like the minimalist red cups in 2015.
Holiday Campaigns of the 2000s
The first decade of the new millennium brought relief when Y2K fears fizzled out. The 2000s also saw the tragedy on September 11th, the Iraq War, and the first Black president of the United States.
Pampers’ Silent Night (2005)
Using images of sleeping babies, while Silent Night plays softly in the background, this commercial pampers your inner child and certainly tugs on your heart strings. It also raised $40 million for charity. Diapers for the win.
From the slow-motion shots of turkey and sage stuffing, to the sultry voice describing the different foods, this ad definitely gives off distinctive food porn vibes. In fact, YouTube even turned off commenting. Concerning or arousing? You tell us.
Holiday Campaigns of the 2010s
Longer commercials that tell a story to draw consumers became the M.O. of 2010s commercials and beyond.
Oral B (2016)
Did you know that our mouths are statistically dirtier during the holiday season? And did you know that we also just made this statistic up? Still, though, this iconic ad takes a classic Christmas carol and modernizes it to include contemporary sounds of the holidays: stress-induced profanity.
Like we said earlier, the 2010s saw the rise of the 2-minute tearjerker. Like putting a post-it on your dog.
Hey, Macaulay! Using one of the best holiday movies of the 90s (ever?) and updating all of Kevin McCallister’s antics while he’s home alone using Google Assistant = a home run.
For the fireplaceless among us, nothing beats turning your TV into a modern hearth by putting on the Yule Log: an hour (or hours) of glowing fireplace footage and maybe some Christmas songs to boot. Well in 2015, Nick Offerman, in partnership with Lagavulin Single Malt Scotch, filmed a 45 minute video of himself sitting by the fireplace drinking whisky. The result is amazingly on brand (for Offerman AND the booze) and also… weirdly comforting? You decide.
The Best Holiday Campaigns of Today
The first few years of the 2020s have definitely been …different. And advertising has leaned into that.
Disney has never had a problem, well, Disney-fying stories with sugar-sweet narratives that warm our hearts and make dreams come true. Here, Disney showcases Filipino Christmas traditions while supporting Make-A-Wish®.
McDonald’s Inner Child (2020)
McDonald’s showcases the best way to access your angsty teenager’s inner child: by getting them McDonald’s first. And they weren’t wrong.
The stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic serve as the frame for this ad. With Etta James singing “At Last” over the freeze-frame holiday gathering and dinner, it highlights families and friends coming back together for Christmas. Vaccinated, we hope.
Happy Holidays from Big Sea!
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and here at Big Sea we’re definitely getting in the holiday spirit. We wish you a happy and warm season of giving and an even more prosperous new year. We’ll see you in 2024!