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The Lemon Effect: What Makes an Ad Memorable?
Marketing Tactics

The Lemon Effect: What Makes an Ad Memorable?

Jingles? Japes? Juxtaposition? What is the secret sauce that makes an ad memorable?
Inquiring minds (and marketers) have been asking this question since the dawn of advertising.
To find the answer, we took a look at some of the most iconic, quotable, and influential ads of our time — from Volkwagen’s infamous “Lemon” to the enduring familiarity of “Got Milk?”

Let’s take a closer look at these classic campaigns to figure out why they are just as potent now as they were when they first made their debut in print, on the screen, or across the airwaves.

Fueled by Adversity: Volkswagen’s “Lemon”


This one word headline, paired with “full stop” punctuation that is rarely used even to this day, was an unprecedented and at the time, unthinkable choice for Volkswagen. The term itself was one that was used to describe cars that were not only foreign, but often defective — not exactly an ideal image. However, the brazen absurdity of the campaign’s subversive and self-deprecating headline earned the campaign unprecedented levels of public attention, ultimately leading to its irrefutable success.

At a time when driving American cars on American roads was the end-all-be-all, Volkswagen was not only going up against rigid socio-cultural identities, but consumers who were highly averse to anything that could be perceived as odd or untraditional. In other words, everything Volkswagen was intentionally designed to be.

Rather than taking the safe route by talking around these characteristics, which would have absolutely been perceived as “flaws” by large swaths of the general public, Ogilvy’s approach put them in the spotlight instead. In doing so, the campaign flipped Volkswagen’s potentially damning foreign image on its head, repositioning it as a bold, quirky, and unabashedly unique luxury brand.

Much like the vehicle itself stood out when it first rolled into the market, Ogilvy’s “Lemon” is still credited as a contributing factor in Volkswagen’s success in the United States, and the Think Small campaign continues to stand out as one of the industry’s most successful attempts at thwarting adversity by taking full advantage of it.

VW's Iconic Lemon Ad

An Irresistible Challenge: Tootsie Roll’s “How Many Licks?”

We wonder if the minds behind Tootsie Roll’s “How Many Licks?” campaign had any inkling that a playful interaction between an unsuspecting child and a capricious owl would pose a question that people are still trying to answer.

A seemingly innocuous inquiry served as the ad’s tagline: “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?” That single question has since captured the attention of children and families, sparked an ongoing public debate, and inspired at least three scientific studies developed by Purdue University and other academic institutions (yes, really).

And while “the world may never know” the true answer, we can confirm that the viral success of this campaign is a testament to both the potency of a playful challenge and the insatiable nature of human curiosity.

Giving Simplicity the Star Treatment: MilkPEP’s “Got Milk?”

Since the campaign was first introduced in 1993, the many milk-mustachioed faces of MilkPEP’s “Got Milk?” celebrity spots have adorned school hallways, billboards, full-page magazine spreads, and just about every other ad space they could possibly occupy.

MilkPEP’s goal was as straightforward as their message: they wanted people to drink more milk. And, while their ads often featured condensed copy that highlighted milk’s supposed health benefits, their star-studded sponsors were deliberately placed in the spotlight, and were undoubtedly the key to the campaign’s success.

The short, sweet simplicity of their evergreen headline paired with the extensive influence of the MilkPEP’s celebrity sponsors culminated in versatile campaigns that became a beloved hallmark of the ‘90s — campaigns that are still running to this day!

Celebrity appeal of got milk? still has appeal today.


Evergreen Earworms: Metro Trains Melbourne’s “Dumb Ways to Die”

It would be somewhat miraculous (and impressive) if there was anyone out there who’d managed to avoid this impish and impossibly catchy campaign up to this point. If that’s you then we’re sorry, but that streak ends here.

When Metro Trains Melbourne first envisioned their public safety campaign, they likely had no idea that the whacky, charming, and arguably unfortunate characters they dreamt up would go viral. The spot, a subversive 3-minute ditty that depicts a group of ill-fated cartoon “beans” suffering bizarre and whimsically-tragic deaths (poking a stick at a grizzly bear, inviting a psycho killer inside, eating a tube of super glue…) ends with the now-battered, brutalized, and partially dismembered beans portraying actual train station safety hazards like crossing the rails or stepping on live tracks and signing off with a simple request to “be safe around trains.”

Whether it was the jingle’s earworm effect or the juxtaposition of watching endearing bean creatures sing a cheery song while being killed off in horrifically humorous ways, “Dumb Ways to Die” is nothing if not memorable. In fact, the campaign has since evolved into an entire series of songs and animated specials that continue to amass new fans and follower.

Playful Plot Twists: Coca-Cola’s “Mean Joe Greene”

Cute little kids, athletic icons, and a wholesome plot twist? Who could resist? Certainly not Coca-Cola, as the twist of their classic “Have a Coke and Smile” campaign is one that is still fresh in the hearts and minds of fans several decades later.

The commercial featured the Pittsburgh Steelers famously grouchy defensive tackle Joe Greene, known by his fans as, “Mean Joe Greene.” When a small child hands a serious, fresh-off-the-field Joe a bottle of coke, Joe surprises the audience by not only throwing the kid a jersey, but by flashing a giant, friendly smile.

As someone who was not only known for his tenacity on the field, but also as a man who wasn’t particularly “smiley.” To the general public, Joe was perhaps one of the last people expected to support Coca-Cola’s mantra of “Have a Coke and Smile,” which is why he ended up being perfect for the role. The juxtaposition of Joe’s intimidating public image paired with such a wholesome, humorous plot twist made the ad’s wit and charm both irresistible and unforgettable.

Creating a“Lemon Effect” for B2B Brands

From subversive humor and celebrity sponsors to songs and slogans that we heard once and have been stuck in our heads ever since, these classic campaigns are all proof that there’s more than one way to make an ad memorable. 

More importantly, they’re proof that with a little heart and creativity, any brand can make an evergreen impact. At CID, we know that with a strong story and a smart strategy, any campaign can be a “Lemon,” including the ones we build for B2B brands. 

Looking to make your brand stand out in a memorable way? Contact CID to get started.

Amy Klinkhammer

Amy Klinkhammer-Thomas

Copywriter & Content Specialist

"Bring in the Klinkhammer," they said...and we did! Amy is part of our award-winning marketing & strategy team where she writes for ads, email, the web, video and so much more. She also drinks too much coffee and spends too much time debating the Oxford comma.

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