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The 20 Best Ads Of 2014

Our picks of the best in brand creativity from 2014.

  • <p>Dubbed the <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2012/snow-fall/#/?part=tunnel-creek" target="_blank">"Snowfall"</a> of native ads (referring to the NYT's much discussed story that ushered in the era of the parallax-scrolled, rich media web feature), this thoughtful, video- and graphics-enhanced New York Times post on <a href="http://paidpost.nytimes.com/netflix/women-inmates-separate-but-not-equal.html?_r=1#.VI8LVorF_2S" target="_blank">Women Inmates</a> was also an ad for the Netflix hit <em>Orange Is The New Black</em>. The piece, by Melanie Deziel and created out of the NYT's TBrand Studio, is notable for looking like something that would appear in the New York Times and for the fact that well, this is The New York Times. Whether you think "native advertising" spells the end of independent journalism, followed by democracy, or a necessary, inevitable development that will see brands create more useful content and fewer terrible ads, you'd have to admit it's sure a lot better looking and more interesting than the 8,000 rage-inducing pre-rolls you do your best to ignore every day. The ad drew raves from the journalism world and the ad world (the ad even forced the NYT's own David Carr to conclude, "All brand-sponsored journalism does not suck.")</p>
  • <p>At the start of the process of making <em>The Lego Movie</em> the brand and production teams forged a manifesto containing this core precept: "We are not making a commercial for the toys." They didn't; they created one of the most <a href="http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_lego_movie/" target="_blank">beloved movies</a> of the year. Not everyone can make an animated feature film, but everyone can take some lessons from the audience-first, passion-infused, trust-dependent process behind <em>The Lego Movie</em>. Read more about how they did it <a href="http://www.fastcocreate.com/3026121/why-the-lego-movie-is-much-more-than-a-90-minute-toy-commercial" target="_self">here</a>.</p>
  • <p>Samsung raised the bar for brand content here, harnessing hundreds of millions of dollars of star power, 43 million TV viewers and incalculable social media response in a moment no one saw coming—perhaps not even Samsung. The brand did invest $20 million as Oscars sponsor, which included device integration, and the team knew that host Ellen Degeneres wanted to take selfies. But who could have predicted how well it would all come together in one shot and one record-breaking <a href="https://twitter.com/theellenshow/status/440322224407314432" target="_blank">tweet</a>. Samsung set itself up for success by cultivating a nimble approach to advertising over the past few years, and by reacting the day after the Oscars, tying the pic to a $3 million donation to DeGeneres' chosen charities, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Humane Society.</p>
  • <p>Patagonia, always known as a brand that walked its outdoorsy talk, put a stake in the ground .. years ago with an ad that said "Don't Buy This Jacket" and an overall push to encourage re-use over reflexive consumption. Last year the company expanded the effort with its Worn Wear content campaign, and this year brought that project into the real world, holding Worn Wear Swaps in stores, allowing customers to swap their used apparel for another item from the Worn Wear rack. It also announced (at Fast Company's conference) a new investment in Yerdle, an app that lets people give away goods in exchange for redeemable credits, through its $20 Million & Change venture fund. In 2014, it released its first feature doc, <a href="http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-backstage-hollywood-patagonia-damnation-20140501-story.html#page=1" target="_blank">DamNation</a>. Founder Yvon Chouinard has gone where few corporate leaders have gone in actually talking about limiting growth to serve the company's environmental goals--he calls it “The Responsible Economy.” <br />
Patagonia makes the list for these efforts, but, more to the point, for being the most authentic case of a brand <a href="http://www.fastcocreate.com/3038557/behind-the-brand/the-purpose-driven-marketer-how-patagonia-uses-storytelling-to-turn-consume" target="_self">devoted to and guided by its stated values. </a></p>
  • <p>OK, it's a car. It's not an ad. But look at it as a pure brand expression. More to the point LOOK AT IT. BMW's i8 is the automotive story of the year and the story of a company taking a holistic approach to creating a truly new product from scratch. BMW created its electric/hybrid cars, the i8 and i3, using sustainable production methods, in a plant that used wind power and using renewable materials. The company sold hundreds of field test cars to car nerds, each of whom paid a monthly fee to drive the car and generate data that told the story of where and how people drive and what the car would ultimately be. The result: Top Gear named it car of the year. Many other reviews are of this tenor: <a href="http://jalopnik.com/2015-bmw-i8-the-jalopnik-review-1641783103" target="_blank">"The BMW i8 is the most significant and forward thinking car on the road today."</a></p>
  • <p>Advertising shouldn't be the best thing about a product—it should be part of one glorious unbroken product/experience whole, so this entry comes with the caveat that this reviewer is not a consumer of Taco Bell's actual product. But damn, its marketing make me want to be one! Taco Bell has distinguished itself over the past few years with some stand-out ads--including an <a href="http://www.fastcocreate.com/1682307/see-the-best-super-bowl-spot-so-far-for-taco-bell" target="_self">oddly poignant Super Bowl entry</a> last year—and with a can-do social media persona and with <a href="http://www.fastcompany.com/3008346/deep-inside-taco-bells-doritos-locos-taco" target="_self">knack for product innovation.</a> This year, the TB team released a two-years-in-the-making mobile app that, as one outlet put it "promises to paradigm shift how you order tacos." While certainly not the first food chain with a mobile app, the brand is probably the first fast feeder to execute at this scale, and quality.</p>
  • <p>The app, created with agency DigitasLBi, allows users to order remotely, and skip lines by checking in as they get within 500 feet of their chosen restaurant. And the food they pick up may also be a completely unique creation, as the app allows fans to combine all manner of existing 'Bell ingredients ("There are literally billions of combinations of Taco Bell ingredients that you can put into this thing," Taco Bell chief marketing officer Chris Brandt told Fast Company), while allowing the company to gather scads of customer data. The app also introduced mobile-exclusive menu items, reordering via phone rotation, and more. It was heralded by a daring social media promo—the brand went dark and even appeared to wipe out its Twitter and Facebook feeds.</p>
  • 01 /22
    | Wren First Kiss (Click + for more info, and Click - for less info)

    What most people first experienced as an artful video experiment turned out to be an ad for Wren clothing. Wren's Melissa Coker commissioned filmmaker Tatia Pilieva to create the piece, featuring videogenic strangers (they were revealed to be models and actors and friends of the director) kissing. The piece combined awkward, uncomfortable and Awww to the tune of 23 million views in its first three days on YouTube (and 93 million as of now).

  • 02 /22
    | Always "Like A Girl"

    Brands sure were interested in talking about women this year. And while drawing awareness to the continuing challenges facing women and girls, and an overall shift in advertising away from its historical chauvinism, are good things, it all became a little much at times. Viewers could be forgiven for a cynical eyeroll when a marketer that's spent years, say, equating shiny hair with a woman's self-worth, pivots to become the voice of feminism. But this spot from Leo Burnett and director Lauren Greenfield (The Queen of Versailles) is a more reasonable fit for a brand like Always, and part of a trend in this category toward more realistic, empowering messaging. Any remaining cynicism is wiped away by the sheer force and importance of the point here—that little girls start out with ironclad self-belief before the dumb, gender-biased world maims it with a thousand cuts--and the execution, which delivers and emotional wallop.

  • 03 /22
    | Netflix Orange Is The New Black Women Inmates NYT Ad

    Dubbed the "Snowfall" of native ads (referring to the NYT's much discussed story that ushered in the era of the parallax-scrolled, rich media web feature), this thoughtful, video- and graphics-enhanced New York Times post on Women Inmates was also an ad for the Netflix hit Orange Is The New Black. The piece, by Melanie Deziel and created out of the NYT's TBrand Studio, is notable for looking like something that would appear in the New York Times and for the fact that well, this is The New York Times. Whether you think "native advertising" spells the end of independent journalism, followed by democracy, or a necessary, inevitable development that will see brands create more useful content and fewer terrible ads, you'd have to admit it's sure a lot better looking and more interesting than the 8,000 rage-inducing pre-rolls you do your best to ignore every day. The ad drew raves from the journalism world and the ad world (the ad even forced the NYT's own David Carr to conclude, "All brand-sponsored journalism does not suck.")

  • 04 /22
    | GoPro Run Walter Run

    To quote ourselves: someone strapped a GoPro on the happiest dog in the world and the result is very happy. It wasn't made by GoPro but it's a GoPro ad (look for the "Video made with Go Pro Hero 3+ Black Edition" in the YouTube description).

  • 05 /22
    | The Ice Bucket Challenge

    This internet phenomenon probably made you feel a lot of things, not all of them great. But we'll let our sibling site Co.Exist explain why it's included here: "All told, the challenge helped the ALS Foundation raise nearly $100 million, compared to $2.8 million at the same time last year. That doesn't count the increased awareness of the disease, which could lead to future donations down the line. Regardless of whether it made you cringe or smile, the ice bucket challenge was a success."

  • 06 /22
    | Lincoln MKC McConaughey

    Absurd? Maybe. But a brand whose ads, and product, you likely ignored before took a risk and did something that became a huge culture bomb. For giving us the pleasure of watching the parodies pour in alone, this campaign, from Hudson Rouge, earned its spot on any best-of-2014 list. Oh, also, Lincoln sales were up 25% in the wake of the campaign.

  • 07 /22
    | Budweiser Puppy Love

    The second in a series of Super Bowl-winning winning spots from Budweiser and agency Anomaly. Our tear ducts can't handle the thought of the team topping this spot in the 2015 Super Bowl.

  • 08 /22
    | Save The Children Most Shocking Second A Day

    Distance and difference breeds apathy—that is the eternal challenge for charities looking to raise money to help those suffering in the world's hotspots. Other campaigns have asked "what if it were happening here," but few have executed on that question in such a harrowing, effective way. The campaign from Save The Children U.K., agency Don't Panic and Unit9 director Martin Stirling is designed to bring awareness to plight of Syrian children. It uses the now-familiar second-a-day format and turns it upside-down, just like the life of the cute little girl in the video.
    Read more about the making of the ad here.

  • 09 /22
    | Activision Call of Duty The Honest Truth

    Activision has a lot to celebrate these days, what with delivering the two biggest selling console games of the year, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Destiny. The company also had a string of explosively entertaining and provocative ads, but its hardest hitting was perhaps its quietest. Several years ago, the company created the Call of Duty Endowment to give back to real-life warriors and last year channeled nearly $4 million to the non-profit through a donation and sales of limited edition dog tags. This year, with agency 72andSunny and director Amir Bar Lev, the company produced an affecting campaign featuring real war veterans talking about the challenges they face finding jobs upon returning to civilian life. This campaign also has the distinction of earning the best reader comment we've maybe ever had on this site.

  • 10 /22
    | HBO Awkward Family Viewing

    HBO, agency SS+K and director David Shane serve up a simple, amusingly mortifying demonstration of why everyone who shares a TV needs HBO Go.

  • 11 /22
    | Newcastle If We Made It

    Newcastle earned new customers and marketing industry approval with the decidedly unambitious marketing tone established with the No Bollocks campaign in 2012. So when it came to the Super Bowl, an ad spectacle that positively reeks of... effort...what could the no-BS brand do (especially considering that it had neither the funds nor the permission to advertise in the actual Super Bowl)? The answer, provided by agency Droga5, was to hijack the game and its attendant hoopla by telling everyone how amazing a Newcastle Bowl ad would be, "If We Made It." The campaign included sort-of endorsements from not-classically-Super-Bowl-hot Anna Kendrick as well as Keyshawn Johnson, and reams of other video content including teasers, ridiculous storyboarded ads, even a self-referential "native ad" on Gawker, that, like the whole campaign, skewers the whole advertising machine while exploiting it.

  • 12 /22
    | The Lego Movie

    At the start of the process of making The Lego Movie the brand and production teams forged a manifesto containing this core precept: "We are not making a commercial for the toys." They didn't; they created one of the most beloved movies of the year. Not everyone can make an animated feature film, but everyone can take some lessons from the audience-first, passion-infused, trust-dependent process behind The Lego Movie. Read more about how they did it here.

  • 13 /22
    | Greenpeace Everything Is Not Awesome

    And, as the world's most beloved brand, Lego has a lot to live up to. These days, people are looking to brands to do more than just talk happy—how a company behaves is a bigger business and brand question. Greenpeace did its part to keep Lego honest, alerting consumers of a deal with Shell oil that hardly seemed in keeping with the toymaker's brand persona. And, most important for our purposes, did so in a fantastically creative way, with a bleak re-imagining of Lego's aforementioned blockbuster.

  • 14 /22
    | Samsung Oscars Selfie

    Samsung raised the bar for brand content here, harnessing hundreds of millions of dollars of star power, 43 million TV viewers and incalculable social media response in a moment no one saw coming—perhaps not even Samsung. The brand did invest $20 million as Oscars sponsor, which included device integration, and the team knew that host Ellen Degeneres wanted to take selfies. But who could have predicted how well it would all come together in one shot and one record-breaking tweet. Samsung set itself up for success by cultivating a nimble approach to advertising over the past few years, and by reacting the day after the Oscars, tying the pic to a $3 million donation to DeGeneres' chosen charities, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Humane Society.

  • 15 /22
    | Hornbach Say It With Your Project/Goth GIrl

    There are certain Co.Create staffers who were head-shaving, big-boot-wearing weirdos when they were teens and whose dads helped them make a stenciled Cramps t-shirt one summer afternoon without questioning the upsetting typeface or asking what was WRONG with me them. And this ad makes those staffers cry every time. (The piles of traffic this hugely popular ad generated for us also makes us all a little weepy). Kudos to Hornbach and agency Heimat Berlin for bringing emotion to home improvement.

  • 16 /22
    | Ge Enhance Your Lighting

    GE deserves recognition not just for letting the dangerous minds of Tim & Eric loose on a brief for a light bulb, as in this gem from BBDO NY, but for the ongoing commitment it's made to making intriguing, watchable content on the least sexy topics. This year, the company also released a limited edition sneaker to celebrate the anniversary of the moon landing, created a mini-movie about a beeping boy, and partnered with a DJ to create a song from machine sounds, among many other ambitious things.

  • 17 /22
    | Patagonia Buy Less, Ongoing

    Patagonia, always known as a brand that walked its outdoorsy talk, put a stake in the ground .. years ago with an ad that said "Don't Buy This Jacket" and an overall push to encourage re-use over reflexive consumption. Last year the company expanded the effort with its Worn Wear content campaign, and this year brought that project into the real world, holding Worn Wear Swaps in stores, allowing customers to swap their used apparel for another item from the Worn Wear rack. It also announced (at Fast Company's conference) a new investment in Yerdle, an app that lets people give away goods in exchange for redeemable credits, through its $20 Million & Change venture fund. In 2014, it released its first feature doc, DamNation. Founder Yvon Chouinard has gone where few corporate leaders have gone in actually talking about limiting growth to serve the company's environmental goals--he calls it “The Responsible Economy.”
    Patagonia makes the list for these efforts, but, more to the point, for being the most authentic case of a brand devoted to and guided by its stated values.

  • 18 /22
    | The BMW i8

    OK, it's a car. It's not an ad. But look at it as a pure brand expression. More to the point LOOK AT IT. BMW's i8 is the automotive story of the year and the story of a company taking a holistic approach to creating a truly new product from scratch. BMW created its electric/hybrid cars, the i8 and i3, using sustainable production methods, in a plant that used wind power and using renewable materials. The company sold hundreds of field test cars to car nerds, each of whom paid a monthly fee to drive the car and generate data that told the story of where and how people drive and what the car would ultimately be. The result: Top Gear named it car of the year. Many other reviews are of this tenor: "The BMW i8 is the most significant and forward thinking car on the road today."

  • 19 /22
    | Honda Double Life

    Honda has been a relative overachiever when it comes to making must-watch ads. The Euro arm of the brand and agency Wieden + Kennedy are responsible for gems like "Cog," and "Grrr" both of which were the standout ads of their respective years. Now the team of Honda and W+K, with Stink Digital and The Mill, have done it again, and added interactivity of the unforced, ungratuitous, experience-enhancing kind. The ad, for Honda's new Civic Type R, allows viewers to seamlessly flip between two tales of one man. The film, directed by Daniel Wolfe, is simple, perfectly synched and has a great ending. Be sure to watch it here.

  • 20 /22
    | Taco Bell Mobile App

    Advertising shouldn't be the best thing about a product—it should be part of one glorious unbroken product/experience whole, so this entry comes with the caveat that this reviewer is not a consumer of Taco Bell's actual product. But damn, its marketing make me want to be one! Taco Bell has distinguished itself over the past few years with some stand-out ads--including an oddly poignant Super Bowl entry last year—and with a can-do social media persona and with knack for product innovation. This year, the TB team released a two-years-in-the-making mobile app that, as one outlet put it "promises to paradigm shift how you order tacos." While certainly not the first food chain with a mobile app, the brand is probably the first fast feeder to execute at this scale, and quality.

  • 21 /22
    | Taco Bell Mobile App Continued

    The app, created with agency DigitasLBi, allows users to order remotely, and skip lines by checking in as they get within 500 feet of their chosen restaurant. And the food they pick up may also be a completely unique creation, as the app allows fans to combine all manner of existing 'Bell ingredients ("There are literally billions of combinations of Taco Bell ingredients that you can put into this thing," Taco Bell chief marketing officer Chris Brandt told Fast Company), while allowing the company to gather scads of customer data. The app also introduced mobile-exclusive menu items, reordering via phone rotation, and more. It was heralded by a daring social media promo—the brand went dark and even appeared to wipe out its Twitter and Facebook feeds.

  • 22 /22
    | Taco Bell Mobile App Continued

Like pretty much every year before it, 2014 saw humanity soar to new heights (The comet landing! True Detective!) and commit acts that made us weep for our future (Uber's management style!).

And so it was in advertising—a fantastic year, and a wretched year.

One one hand, it’s easy to see how an ordinary Internet-using human would come away from this year with middle finger extended to every advertiser, everywhere, ever. The ad industry likes to talk about things like consumer empowerment, conversation, storytelling, engagement. And yet, in some ways this year it was more frustrating than ever to be a consumer, or target, of advertising. Everywhere there was advertising based on the old, interruption-based model, just with extra, unavoidable, digital annoyance. Many advertisers generally made the online experience worse with un-click-away-able, and yet unwatchable ad roadblocks to things you were trying to look at, ads that slowed your roll when you were just trying to get a page to load, and ads that followed you around for months even though they were never relevant even the first of the thousand times you were forced to gaze upon them. Looked at from this perspective, it's hard to regard the future of advertising as anything but a dystopian hellscape.

On the other hand, and this list, of course, is the other hand, advertising has never been better! The things in the gallery above, the things we consider the best in advertising, show what’s possible when brands risk and reach, and, simply, think of the audience instead of themselves.

As usual, there are several things on this list that don't fit a traditional definition of an ad. But they are ads in the way that all brand actions are ads. The Taco Bell entry is very plainly an app. But it’s a creative brand expression, a problem solver and a relationship builder and an indicator of what's possible as marketing shifts to mobile.

There’s also a car on the list. Totally not an ad. Including it here not only nods at the fact that every brand output is an ad, but it’s in recognition of a balls-out, complete creative act. This particular car represents a huge commitment to a risky idea where every detail, from the kind of power used in the plant in which the car was made on up, was part of a big brand story.

But even the proper ads here don’t feel like ads. They feel like—yep, here it comes—content. And whatever you think that word means, it’s used here to describe something that was made with an audience in mind. Something motivated by the question, "What might real people find useful, entertaining, informative, or meaningful?" rather than, "What’s the message we want to force people to listen to?"

Let us know what your favorites were in the comments below.