Some advertisers in 2017 might have been better off not advertising at all.

Last year’s election has transformed harmless promotional stunts into Big Statements on the nature of society, Washington policies and, of course, the nation’s seemingly ubiquitous president. As the nation cleaved in two over matters involving race and culture, individual pieces of entertainment became cause for conflict – and with them, the commercials that bring thousands and millions of dollars in financial support.

“Yes, this is a particularly tricky time to be an advertiser,” says Brian Sheehan, a professor of advertising at Syracuse University’s SI Newhouse School of Communications.  In a year when the coffee-maker Keurig sparked the ire of both the left and the right by acknowledging it had pulled ads from Fox News Channel’s “Hannity,” advertisers recognize any public move becomes ripe for backlash on social-media and elsewhere. Poking that potential fury “is a silly mistake,” says Sheehan, because marketers should focus on reasons that prod consumers to purchase their products, not on trying to tell customers how to feel or act. “Leave the politics to the politicians,” he adds.

Many blue-chip advertisers found themselves in similar situations. Advertisers chose to flee the final weeks of Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News program in the wake of revelations about his behavior. But they also sat out a broadcast of a new Sunday-evening newsmagazine on NBC when the show featured a Megyn Kelly interview with online provocateur Alex Jones.

Even Shakespeare came under the microscope: Delta Air Lines and Bank of America said they were pulling some funding of the Public Theater’s schedule after reports surfaced that a version of “Julius Caesar” featured a lead character who looked a lot like President Donald Trump.

The polarized atmosphere ttransformed usually harmless Super Bowl commercials into political screeds and a Pepsi ad into a total disaster.

And it arrived just as advertisers have more technology at their disposal to tailor commercials for specific customer niches, rather than the world at large. Thanks to digital-production techniques, it’s easier than ever to get an ad on the air. And thanks to reams of consumer data culled from web-browser maneuvers, set-top box interactions and shopping patterns, it’s simple for an advertiser to devise a campaign aimed directly at a soda-drinker, new car buyer or first-time mother. In 2017, there’s no excuse for an advertiser not to know their target audience – intimately.

The charged public discourse is just Madison Avenue’s latest headache. Despite the lower barriers to entry, marketers have grappled a host of thorny issues, as the rise of an array of digital-media outlets makes finding those swaths of consumers that much more complex.

Advertisers who once threw out a few TV commercials and some newspaper ads now find themselves having to spread a wider net, hoping to entice consumers watching on-demand videos and hanging out in social-media forums. One day, given half a chance, they may even fully infiltrate Netflix and Amazon. They can’t always be sure the content their commercials support won’t have a plea to join a terrorist group or a Nazi shout-out. And they have yet to find a single methodology for measuring audiences upon which all can agree.

With all that in mind, it’s hard to understand when the best minds on Madison Avenue make rookie mistakes, like offending a good chunk of their consumer base with tone-deaf ads that play upon cultural and racial themes.

In this particular year, one person’s list of the best ads of the year could be another person’s worst. How do our picks rank in your estimation?  Our faves and flops are below:


Do-It-Yourself Commercials

WHAT: One of the most striking ad campaigns of 2017 didn’t aim for mass consumer acceptance, but rather hoped to make an impression on just one particular persona.

John Oliver this year began running fake ads starring a cowboy who complains to the screen about different political situations. The commercials originally ran solely on Washington, D.C. area cable systems between 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. during Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends,” CNN’s “New Day” and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” The intended audience? President Trump himself.

WHY: You don’t need a storied ad agency like JWT or CPB to get the word out any longer. You can, more or less, do it yourself (with the help of a production crew and someone who has finesse buying commercial time, to be sure). These ads may not be everyone’s favorite. But they do show that attention-grabbing ad ideas can come from a variety of places. Has Mr. Oliver considered opening an ad agency?


Pressing Forward

WHAT: The New York Times and CNN were among the media outlets launching clever ad campaigns to defend themselves from accusations of being “fake news.” The Times took to the Oscars to debut a TV commercial that talked about truth: “The truth is our nation is more divided than ever,” “The truth is alternative facts are lies” and “The truth is we need a full investigation of Russian ties” were among some of the copy lines. More recently, CNN mounted a promo campaign that talked about “facts first” as an apple showed up on the screen. ““This is an apple,” says a narrator. “Some people might try to tell you that it’s a banana.”

WHY: Media properties are much better at bringing in the advertising than they are running it themselves. The most creative NYT execution in recent years was likely spurred at getting someone to pick up the phone and take out a subscription. Meanwhile, CNN is best known for telling viewers “This is CNN” in the dulcet tones of James Earl Jones. At a time when the media is under constant attack, however, it’s good to tell people about a valuable service being provided and the distinction it can lend.

Pre-Game Pop

WHAT: Coca-Cola got a big bang for fewer bucks by running an ad during the pre-game show for Super Bowl LI that featured children singing “America the Beautiful” in different languages, as well as what is believed to be the first appearance of a same-sex couple in the gridiron championship. In the current atmosphere, the ad struck a chord and set the tone for the rest of the game’s advertising roster.

WHY: You don’t need to spend lots of money to make an impression during the Super Bowl. All you truly need is a good idea. This commercial first ran in the 2014 Super Bowl and generated both positive reaction and negative sentiment. But it never lost its power to spark response.

Variety’s Best of 2017

Quiet Mac

WHAT: McDonald’s ran a series of ads featuring actress Mindy Kaling, who never mentioned its name during the spots. Kaling wears a yellow dress against a red backdrop and tells people to use Google to search for “that place where Coke tastes so good” (and shows how to get a deal on the purchase of the soda at that unmentioned locale).

WHY: The fast-food giant has realized what so many others know: Today’s younger consumers hate old-school commercials. They dislike feeling that they have been taken in by an ad. Having the hip “Mindy Project” actress talk up one of the nation’s best-known burger emporiums without subjecting viewers to shots of Ronald McDonald or Big Macs is revolutionary for the company. She focused on a single element – Coca-Cola – and how to get it. By the way, McDonald’s has also been running ads for its coffee “McCafe” concept, with little nod to its trademark Golden Arches.


Go With The Tide

WHAT: In an ad that might be almost too clever for its own good, viewers of Super Bowl LI caught Fox Sports commentator Terry Bradshaw on screen with a big stain on his shirt. Bradshaw runs amok, heading on to the field of play and even out to actor Jeffrey Tambor’s house in an effort to have his shirt cleaned with the help of Procter & Gamble’s Tide.

WHY: Viewers no doubt thought they were watching the actual Fox broadcast (for at least a few seconds), but P&G’s clever maneuver meant moving them from on-screen action to outlandish commercial without interruption. The ad nods to a clever 2015 pre-game Super Bowl spot from General Motors’ Chevrolet that made viewers think NBC had lost its feed to the big game.

E-Trade’s Great Divide

WHAT: In a series of ads that captures the growing divide in this nation between haves and have-nots, online-investing outlet E-Trade depicts hard-working 99-percenters struggling to realize they’ll never have what the wealthiest 1% do – all with a little humor to offset the simmering resentment.

WHY: Ads often mirror society. We all may be angrier than any of us ever realized – and it took an E-Trade ad to figure it out.

Samsung’s Love Story

WHAT: Two tech-savvy kids get their groove on with the help of a Samsung Galaxy Note8

WHY: The best commercials tell compelling stories and create distinct worlds. After seeing this courtship kick off via text message, it’s hard not to root for this romantic duo – and want to see them again.



Pepsi’s Big Fizzle

WHAT: Kendall Jenner is in the midst of a photo shoot when a large parade of demonstrators pass by, carrying signs that call for “Love” and urge people to “Join the Conversation.” Jenner takes up with the protest and seeks to spur peace by handing a can of Pepsi to a police officer on hand to keep things from getting too wild.

WHY: Pepsi’s protest sparked one of its own, never a good thing when you’re trying to sell soda. Activists felt the ad appropriated images from various “Black Lives Matter” events and believed the scene of Jenner striking a chord with the cop went beyond the pale. Pepsi, which crafted the campaign internally rather than using an ad agency, pulled the commercial and apologized to the public and to the celebrity.

Six-Second Ads

WHAT: Shorter-than-short TV commercials have seemingly become all the rage, with Fox and AMC offering advertisers the opportunity to run these little video cues in strategically opportune moments, such as before the start of “The Walking Dead” or during top-rated Sunday-afternoon football. It’s a bid to compete with digital venues like YouTube, which sometimes show extra-short spots.

WHY: Funny thing about six-second ads: TV has been showing them for years, albeit under a different name. TV networks have long sold “billboards” to top clients, a quick seconds-long on-screen graphic that tells viewers what they are watching is “brought to you by” a particular advertiser. If TV networks can revamp the format and get more money for it, there’s certainly no harm in trying, but portraying the idea as something revolutionary is a little much.

Privacy Alert!

WHAT: Burger King ran a TV ad designed to trigger Google Home devices to start talking about the ingredients in a Whopper burger. Google Home was also found to offer a 17-second promotion for the live-action Disney film, “Beauty and the Beast” when users asked the device for information about their daily schedule. ““By the way, Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast opens today,” the machine was heard to say.

WHY: These devices become personal assistants of a sort and take up residence in living rooms and kitchens. While many consumers expect to see ads when they turn on TV or watch a video online, they usually rest comfortable knowing their inner residence is immune from the stuff. Google, in an attempt to gain wider support for its device in a competitive market filled with Alexas and Echos, may have violated the sanctity of the home.

Rewrites In The Cradle

WHAT: TD Ameritrade tweaked many of the lyrics to Harry Chapin’s 1974 ten-tissue bawlfest “Cat’s in the Cradle,” changing it from a song about a neglectful father to one about a dad who tried to be there for his son – all launched around Father’s Day. In this song, rather than get taken away by career concerns, the father tells viewers “I moved my meeting, saw him walk that day.”

WHY: TD Ameritrade’s goal is noble, but you can’t change an icon. Chapin’s song struck a chord because it depicted a selfish father who could not be swayed to take a greater interest in his children – an attitude that carried with it punishment later in life. Better, perhaps, to show the interested dad without the maudlin tune?

We Get It, T-Mobile!

WHAT: T-Mobile ran a series of ads telling viewers they could access Netflix as part of their subscription – and then told them again. And again! And again…complete with the signature audio cues from each.

WHY: Some people found the ad beyond annoying. “The t-mobile commercial with alternating netflix and t-mobile sounds puts me into an anxiety inducing personal hell,” said Chrissy Teigen, the model and TV host, via Twitter. The spot nods to another fingers-on-chalk commercial that used repetition to get its point across. In 2006, TV viewers were deluged with ads from Head On, a topical analgesic meant to stop headaches. But the commercials induced them instead, with a narrator saying over and over again: “Head On! Apply directly to the forehead.”

Doesn’t Anyone Do Consumer Research Anymore?

WHAT: Unilever’s Dove ran an ad destined to prompt unnecessary outrage. In a Facebook ad, an African-American woman takes off her brown shirt – and in doing so, becomes a Caucasian woman in a white shirt.

WHY: Outcry on social media came quickly. In today’s testy times, running an ad that might give rise to the notion that one race is better than another would seem like something to avoid. Dove said in a statement at the time that “we missed the mark in thoughtfully representing women of color and we deeply regret the offense that it has caused.”

Variety’s Best of 2017