Creating Campaigns Consumers Love: America’s Favorite Ads of 2023 | Industry Insights | All MKC Content | ANA

Creating Campaigns Consumers Love: America’s Favorite Ads of 2023


Every year, advertisers bring new creative to all platforms: TV, digital, print, audio and out of home. There are larger-than-life Super Bowl commercials that bring comedy, action, celebrities, cultural references, and lovable characters to a couple hundred million eyeballs. There are holiday ads that celebrate the magic of the festive season and the joy of togetherness. And there are major moments for brand presence, like March Madness, Fourth of July, Halloween, Black Friday, and more.

Which of these commercials has the greatest potential to drive commercial gain?

By taking a closer look at the way ads make people feel, marketers can understand the brand-building power of their creative. In part, we know broadly that the more people feel, the more they buy. Humans are not rational decision-makers. Rather, our purchasing decisions are driven by our emotions. And we also know that brand communications tend to be most effective when their ads yield positive feelings. Who knew that making people feel happy could trigger liking for your brand?

In our recent "Nation's Favorite Ads" webinar in partnership with the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), we explored some of the top ads of the year, why they worked and what marketers can learn to make their advertising even more impactful in 2024. Here we'll dive into the creative features and strategies we covered in case you missed the live event or want another look.

Consider the following creative strategies helped to appeal to our senses:

  • A narrative unfolding with progression that takes viewers on an emotional journey – while the end goal is to leave viewers feeling happy, you can often hit emotional highs by leveraging other emotions like sadness and then resolving them by the ad's conclusion. In 2023, Kroger's "Cuisine Exchange," Apple's "The Invincibles" and Publix's Mother's Day ad are just a few examples that followed this best practice.

  • 'Between-ness', dialogue and implicit communication. We are all hard-wired to automatically analyze relationships between people and things in our world: it's part of how we make sense of life. Orlando Wood evocatively calls this "between-ness" in his book, Lemon, – and it enjoys following dialogue as well as unspoken communication between characters, like eye contact and knowing glances. Often, these elements can be used to drive humor, like in creative commercials for Macy's, Corona and Chewy.

  • Characters with agency give your audience someone to root for, laugh at and connect with. Especially if they get to know them over time. Fluent devices, recurring characters or scenarios, are an especially effective tool. Research from Orlando and the IPA found that advertising campaigns that include a fluent device are 37 percent more likely to report a very large profit gain than campaigns without one. Disney, M&Ms, and Pillsbury all leverage their fluent devices to drive positive emotions and brand recognition. I still mourn the loss of the two guys in a car who advertised fast food chain Sonic for 18 years between 2002 and 2020.

  • References to the past. Our right brain processing understands the passing of time and has a natural affinity for orienting by the past. To engage audiences' broad beam (storytelling) attention, savvy marketers incorporate markers of the past, like costumes, sets and cultural references, which can drive powerful feelings of nostalgia. Great examples here include a Super Bowl commercial from Disney in 2023, and Google's 25th anniversary spot this year.

  • A nod to cultural works/moments with which the masses are aware strikes a familiar chord which can trigger a moment of pleasure. This can be achieved through pastiche, through paying homage to other creative works, or through parody, which pokes fun at them. Popcorners' inaugural Super Bowl ad brought Breaking Bad's characters back for a scene that fans recognize, with the snacks now inserted into the narrative. "We don't eat our own supply..."

  • Music with a discernible melody. If the music offers a nostalgia hit too, that's even more effective. OREO and Nintendo collaborated on a spot that features Super Mario's signature song and tested especially well for effectiveness. Meanwhile, Amazon's 2023 Christmas ad opted for an instrumental version of the Beatle's "In My Life," while T-Mobile brought John Travolta back (with some squeaky-clean neighbors) for a Grease-inspired sing-a-long.

Getting the Most from your Creative

Beyond incorporating these right-brained features into ads, there are additional winning practices to consider to support long-term brand building. These include:

  • Reinvesting in effective creative. System1's research finds that many successful ads don't ever really wear out over time. Great ads remain effective, even years or decades later, like Hershey's "Christmas Bells." It's time to ditch the notion that consumers quickly tire of creative and resist the urge to continually reinvent the wheel. If creative is helping to drive growth, continue to give it the spotlight it deserves. Some of the best performing ads of 2023 are actually from 2022, 2021, 2020 and, in Hershey's case, 1989.

  • Breaking from category codes. Category codes can be so strong that they block creative from achieving high effectiveness, by making your brand harder to distinguish from the category generic. This is why building a distinctive brand is so critical for long-term business success. Most auto category ads follow the same formula: winding roads, closeups of the car and a focus on the features, delivered through a voiceover. Kia's "Robo Dog," on the other hand, brings in characters, narrative and music, and Jeep's "Electric Boogie" leans into music and humor to advertise electric vehicles. Subaru also has a distinctive approach and feel. Looking at 2023's ads, it's similar to how Hershey's breaks from chocolate category codes with stories about the "Biggest Small Town Festival" and a student with a disability who becomes a taste tester for the brand.

  • Branding early and often. Unless a reveal is the pivot of your comms, don't make viewers guess who your ad is for! Instead, leverage your distinctive brand assets, like logos, colors, fonts, and even sonic branding cues, to inform viewers that the ad comes from your brand. Better still, build fluent devices and let them do the brand talking – who wouldn't instantly recognize the Wendy's crew or Flo and Jamie's Progressive team? (This is another reason why the short-term hit of hiring a celebrity to advertise your brand can deliver a pretty short-term benefit, too).

  • Maintaining consistency. Speaking of brand recognition, many brands achieve this by keeping a consistent look and feel. Reese's, for example, opt for simple shorts with Will Arnett's voiceover, an orange and chocolate-brown world and closeups into the product. Every ad in the campaign feels like it belongs. And Reese's maintain this aesthetic across their media mix, and throughout the year. We especially love what they do for Halloween.

  • Treating every ad like a Super Bowl commercial. Super Bowl advertisers spend months planning and perfecting their ideas so they can create something that millions of viewers will love. They go big with humor, celebrities, soundtracks, and other elements that aim to wow and make audiences feel. In short, they perform at a grand scale. Many of the most effective advertisers naturally test their ads well in advance of gameday to predict their ad's commercial impact and improve the growth potential of the creative, while they still can. Treating your next ad as if it were a Super Bowl ad shouldn't be a luxury, it should be an essential step. Great ads pay back the love that's put into developing and executing them, from embryonic ideas through the final flourish. It's an elite approach that works year-round, not just for the big game. Some of the best-scoring ads of 2023 weren't tied to a specific event and provided proof that brands across many different categories can capture viewers' hearts by being awesome!

Access the "Nation's Favorite Ads 2023" webinar here.

See the top 50 ads of 2023 here.

Jason Chebib is general manager of the Americas at System1.

The views and opinions expressed in Industry Insights are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.