Advertising has become its own art form, a literal commercial culture with complex aesthetic dimensions that go far beyond shilling. So when the editors of the trade journal Advertising Age recently compiled a list of the "50 Best TV spots of the past 50 years," it was more than an industry exercise; it was an act of cultural exploration.
Ad Age's selections–ranging from Dinah Shore's musical Chevrolet ads in the 1950s to Life cereal's "Hey Mikey" spots in the '70s to Bud Light's "Yes…I AM!" series in the '90s–may be arguable. But their larger point is beyond dispute: "The most memorable ads become…part of the American scene." Indeed, often more so than books, music, or movies. And often in unintended ways, such as Walter Mondale's campaign invocation of the Wendy's slogan "Where's the beef?" Or even the way in which the 1971 Coca-Cola ad pictured here–in which a multinational crowd belts out "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke"–later gave rise to the "Hilltop Singers'" massive pop hit, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing." James B. Twitchell noted in Adcult USA (1995), "The culture we live in is carried on the back of advertising." True, but who could ever guess where it ends up and the uses to which it is put?