While 2020 might have felt two decades long, in terms of marketing, it was actually two distinct years in one: The 2020 before the pandemic and the one after.
Quite a lot of high-profile creative work had already been launched in those first few blissfully unaware months, and after creative production nearly ground to a halt in the early days of quarantine, that early work—such as Burger King’s Moldy Whopper and several Super Bowl spots—went on to dominate what was left of the 2020 awards show circuit.
But the advertising that emerged after Covid-19 struck global markets was born from a completely different era than that of January and February, with brands and agencies adapting in real time to challenges absolutely no one had been trained or prepared for.
So as you might expect, Adweek’s annual list of the year’s best ads is a tonally eclectic one that occasionally veers quite jarringly when watched in an order that’s not chronological. But, just like the industries Adweek covers, we tried our best to make sense of it all.
Here are this year’s Top 25 Ads of the Year, selected by Adweek’s editors:
Outside of Covid-19, nothing was more central to the American conversation in 2020 than the presidential election. With Donald Trump hoping (and ultimately failing) to secure a second term in his race against former Vice President Joe Biden, the political rhetoric leading up to Nov. 3 reached unparalleled levels of anxiety-inducing intensity.
So it was either truly odd or extraordinarily apt to see the soothing meditation app Calm sponsoring CNN’s coverage of election night. As part of a tremendous push by the app, which increased its advertising about 220% in the first half of 2020 compared to 2019, Calm ensured its logo would be front and center as the country watched election results trickle in—though it would ultimately be days before a winner was determined.
A classic Super Bowl formula for success—but one that’s deceptively difficult to get right—is to find a balance between pop culture’s hottest new talent and its old-school favorites. Doritos and agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners, a frequent power player in the Super Bowl set thanks to its relationship with Doritos parent company PepsiCo, nailed it with this year’s “The Cool Ranch,” which featured a dance-off between country-rap crossover star Lil Nas X and beloved Western actor Sam Elliott.
A digital extension of the campaign offered an AI-powered app that let fans recreate the (physically impossible) dance moves themselves. The spot was a crowd favorite, landing at No. 4 on the USA Today Ad Meter, which gauges audience response on Game Day.
If you’re going to step up to a task like recreating horror classic The Shining—and making it a Super Bowl ad where the product somehow still, uhh, shines—you’d better do it right. And TBWAChiatDay New York pulled it off with the agency’s spot-on recreation of Stanley Kubrick’s intense Stephen King adaptation.
While viewers might not have loved it as much as we did (it landed at No. 19 in USA Today’s Ad Meter), “As Good as the Original” was still one of the Big Game’s best uses of celebrity talent in a year when stars were, for once, actually used quite well. This also was a year that, understandably, lacked many darkly humorous ads, and the overarching creepiness of the Mtn Dew Zero Sugar launch ad definitely stood out in a saccharine Super Bowl night.
The stakes don’t get any higher than they were this year for console gaming giants Microsoft and Sony. The marketing of product reveals was a carefully timed aspect of each brand’s launch strategy, and a leak could derail months of planning. So when an image of an unannounced Xbox console surfaced, Microsoft made a rare and difficult decision: to just roll with it.
In a lighthearted tweet that quickly and tacitly acknowledged the leak, the brand posted a popular meme for moments of awkward observation. The Sept. 8 tweet was then followed up—at 3:13 a.m. ET—with an official announcement of the Xbox Series S, a slimmed-down and more affordable sibling of the already-announced Series X.
No marketer has more boldly and consistently challenged the stigmas levied against women and their bodies than Essity, a feminine products company whose brands include Bodyform and Libresse. The company’s #BloodNormal campaign—which aimed to normalize advertising depictions of realistic menstrual situations such as showing red blood, painful cramping and period sex—sent global shockwaves of reformation throughout the category. A subsequent campaign, “Viva La Vulva,” celebrated that all vulvas are beautiful and should never be a source of shame or insecurity.
Partnering once again with London agency AMV BBDO, Essity this year released “Womb Stories,” a powerful and multi-dimensional campaign that brought a new level of nuance and emotional range to an industry that spent decades relying on coy, condescending metaphors. The resulting stories are sometimes joyous, other times heartbreaking, and the agency partnered with a diverse pool of artists to bring these powerful memories to life.
Falling a hair’s breadth short of landing at No. 1 on USA Today’s Ad Meter, Hyundai’s “Smaht Pahk” is a delightful reminder that not every creative concept has to be elaborate or even all that eventful. The Super Bowl spot from agency Innocean was one of the game’s most straightforward, simply showing actors Rachel Dratch and Chris Evans chatting as they watched John Krasinski use the automaker’s new Smart Park feature.
Defaulting back to the accents of their Boston-area homes, the stars watch in increasing awe as the car parks itself and Krasinski describes all the local haunts where he’s “pahked it.” While such a repetitive premise might have gotten old quickly in less adept hands, the actors and agency manage to keep it charming thanks to the fast-moving and borderline indecipherable dialogue.
Lavishly, brilliantly rich in details, “Before Alexa” marked agency Droga5 London’s debut on the Super Bowl stage. That’s always a tough task for an overseas shop, but one made even more daunting by the fact the Droga5 satellite was following up two consecutive years of crowd-pleasing Amazon Big Game spots by fellow Londoners Lucky Generals.
The result is both ludicrously fantastic and charmingly relatable, showing people throughout history playing the roles we now assign to our voice-activated devices. As the spot gets going, it seems it might be straightforward at first, but that goes out the window when Alexa the chamber maid sends a fire log…out the window. From that point on, it’s a weird and wild ride, complete with the jug rendition of Usher’s “Yeah” that we didn’t know we needed.
In an absolute coup of savvy digital thinking, Wendy’s took home the Cannes Lions’ first Grand Prix in the festival’s Social and Influencer category that debuted in 2019. In a stunt called “Keeping Fortnite Fresh,” agency VMLY&R Kansas City had created a Fortnite character dressed roughly like the Wendy’s mascot and then dropped into the multiplayer game with the sole purpose of smashing freezers in the game world’s burger restaurants (highlighting the chain’s commitment to never freezing its beef).
This year, the agency built on that high-profile (but one-off) success by creating an ongoing strategy of customizing a wide range of games to include Wendy-like characters or designing levels inspired by the brand. Jumping into just about every popular game this year, Wendy’s made good use of Animal Crossing, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Ultra Street Fighter IV, Minecraft and more. The brand’s medium of choice for sharing all these branded experiences was Twitch, where Wendy’s rose to the rarified air of being one of the platform’s Top 1% of streamers.
If your logo redesign doesn’t capture 1,000 years of national history and mythology, are you even trying?
While branding designers infamously love to overexplain even the most basic logo updates as if they reflect the rise and fall of human civilization, Icelandic agency Brandenburg actually proved this year that it can be worth hearing the backstory behind a new visual identity. Tasked by KSI, the Football Association of Iceland, the agency created a bold, fascinating and effective new look for the country’s national soccer team.
As you can see in the video explainer below, the logo is actually four icons that can stand alone or together, representing the four defenders of the Icelandic people: the giant, the bull, the dragon and the eagle. Somehow coming across as both minimalist and detailed, the new identity is an absolute masterclass in how to create a truly original visual brand.
“Social media phenomenon” isn’t a phrase you can use lightly in a time when countless videos rack up views by the millions—and then seem to vanish from the collective consciousness as quickly as they appeared. But the title certainly applies to the unexpected situation Ocean Spray found itself in on Sept. 25, when TikTok user Nathan Apodaca posted a video of himself riding a longboard down a hill while drinking the brand’s cranberry juice and lip-syncing “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac.
It’s a modest and uplifting video, so early viewers might be forgiven if they didn’t expect it to explode across every social media platform and mainstream media. Apodaca’s original clip has now been viewed 73 million times on TikTok and spawned a fractal explosion of reenactments, including from Mick Fleetwood. (Full disclosure: I too made one.)
After taking a few days to formulate its response, Ocean Spray revealed it had bought a cranberry-red truck for Apodaca, who had been riding the skateboard due to his ride being out of commission. Ocean Spray CEO Tom Hayes also made his own version of the video. TikTok, which enjoyed a huge boost in mainstream visibility thanks to the situation, tied a perfect bow onto it all by creating an ad about how “It Starts on TikTok.”
In a year when attracting the attention of young voters was more important than ever—and likely determined the outcome of the presidential race—one of the biggest marketing masterstrokes was achieved by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez simply by playing a video game.
It wasn’t just any game, of course—it was Among Us, one of the year’s biggest surprise hits. Livestreaming the game alongside Democratic colleague Rep. Ilhan Omar, Ocasio-Cortez drew a phenomenal crowd of 439,000 Twitch viewers on a stream that drew a combined audience of more than 5 million views. Thanks to both her own highly engaged audience and the involvement of several high-profile Twitch streamers, Ocasio-Cortez set a new benchmark for how candidates can attract attention from key voters while clearly also having a good time.
While Ocasio-Cortez’s game-streaming event described above is likely to have long-term implications for how savvy politicians connect with young voters, in terms of short-term effectiveness, it’s hard to beat the Virtual Princess Bride Reunion. Bringing in more than $4 million in donations for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, the one-time event leveraged Zoom to reunite much of the beloved movie’s original cast.
The event came together after Wisconsin Democrats saw success with a West Wing reunion. When the group reached out to British actor Cary Elwes, he quickly agreed to participate and help gather costars including Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, and Carol Kane. The highly successful event—which only donors could watch—came at a vital time for Democrats in Wisconsin, where Biden won by a mere 20,000 votes.
When a potentially devastating asteroid hurtled toward Earth this fall, one organization rose to the challenge of protecting civilization. But it wasn’t NASA or any other government body. It was Oreo.
OK so maybe the Mondelez-owned cookie brand wasn’t aiming to protect civilization so much as its own recipe. And maybe this wasn’t an actual emergency preparation so much as a responsive marketing stunt. But luckily the world didn’t need the Global Oreo Vault, and as an ad, the project proved to be hugely popular with Oreo fans and a strong source of news coverage for the brand.
Inspired by a fan tweet that asked “who will save the Oreos?”, the Global Oreo Vault—located in remote Norway, much like the Svalbard International Seed Vault intended to protect global agriculture in case of disaster—was developed by agencies 360i and The Community’s New York office. The move was in response to an ongoing client brief that Oreo senior director Justin Parnell described as finding ways to offer “a little relief from all the worry and division in the world right now.”
In Adweek’s Readers’ Choice: Marketing Moments of the Year bracketed tournament held in social media this month, The Global Oreo vault took home top honors thanks to a strong turnout by Oreo fans.
In New York, the millisecond a light turns green, the honking begins. In packed intersections of Mumbai, the color of the light doesn’t matter, and the honking never stops. So the city police decided to try a new tactic at getting motorists to ease up on the horn. Working with agency FCB Interface, part of FCB India, police deployed “The Punishing Signal.”
The concept is so simple it makes you wonder why this isn’t in use everywhere: When sound sensors detect too much volume from honking during a red light, the stop signal gets extended even longer. The more you honk, the more you wait. It was just a one-day experiment, but the innovative thinking helped illustrate why FCB was Adweek’s Global Agency of the Year for 2020.
As lockdowns hit American cities in the first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic surge, one of the first brands to run an ad specific to the crisis was meal delivery service DoorDash. Responding to news reports that highlight dine-in closures while downplaying the availability of take-out options, DoorDash and The Martin Agency launched an ad that urged Americans to order from their favorite eateries to help keep them in business.
Such a message has obvious benefits for a company like DoorDash, but the brand’s #OpenForDelivery campaign was soon embraced by thousands of other businesses, including direct competitors like Uber Eats and Postmates that were tagged by DoorDash in a tweet that sparked 900 supportive replies. Major restaurant chains took the opportunity to tag their competitors with wholesome notes of support:
Celebrities such as Justin and Hailey Bieber also helped amplify the #OpenForDelivery campaign, which generated about 100,000 social posts around the hashtag.
While Burger King has become known in recent years for its somewhat incessant jabs at archrival McDonald’s, one of its most warmly embraced campaigns of 2020 went in a completely different direction. Much like the DoorDash campaign above, Burger King’s operations in France and the U.K. showed they were willing to set aside rivalry in the name of keeping restaurant workers employed amid a renewed round of lockdowns.
Created by agency Buzzman, the text-only “Order From McDonald’s” print ad showed modern copywriting at its best: conversational, humble and direct.
In a year where reality often seemed stranger than fiction, no marketing head fake was more effective than State Farm’s hilariously spot-on deepfake that aired as a sponsor message during megapopular sports documentary The Last Dance. One of few sponsors allowed into the ESPN broadcast (which sated a massive appetite for sports content amid multiple league postponements), State Farm used cutting-edge technology to show Kenny Mayne eerily predicting the 2020 documentary itself.
While a product of the production limitations of the Covid-19 pandemic, the ad also showed how deepfake technology could be used in ways that, while still unnerving, are at least not maliciously deceptive. To learn more about how the spot came together, you can watch Adweek’s Adnatomy episode detailing how it was made:
How can a simple twist on a basic menu item create national product shortages for a sprawling chain like McDonald’s? By putting Travis Scott’s stamp of approval on it. Building on McDonald’s Super Bowl pre-game spot about “Famous Orders,” agency Wieden + Kennedy New York helped develop The Travis Scott Meal, an official promotional combo that included a Quarter Pounder with cheese, bacon, onion and lettuce; a Sprite; and fries with BBQ sauce.
The first celebrity-themed menu item since Michael Jordan’s McJordan Special in 1992, Scott’s signature meal was explosively popular, and McDonald’s struggled to keep ingredients in stock. You can bet that McDonald’s and its rivals have been thinking intensely about how to launch more celeb-centric menu items ever since.
I can’t say I’d ever wanted a sequel to an ad until I saw 2019’s “Underdogs,” an Apple ad about a scrappy team of misfits racing to launch a new product. And this year, my wish was granted, with the team reuniting—remotely, of course—in “The Whole Working From Home Thing.”
Clocking in at 7 minutes, the short film is a disturbingly relatable but still highly enjoyable cross-section of work life in the quarantine era. While Apple launched a range of excellent ads this year, including the touching “Creativity Goes On” from TBWAMedia Arts Lab, this long-form spot developed in-house by the brand was a nearly unbeatable example of digital storytelling in 2020. While some raised valid questions about whether the spot fetishizes an unhealthy work-life balance, it’s clear that Apple isn’t so much celebrating overwork so much as just acknowledging how our work and personal lives spilled across each other throughout the endless months of quarantine.
What happens when you combine one of the year’s hottest musical stars with a multiplayer gaming phenomenon? If you do it right, you get “Astronomical,” a digital event that set a new bar for how an artist and highly innovative brand can collaborate to create something truly amazing. While technically a release event for Travis Scott’s new song, a collab with Kid Cudi called “The Scotts,” Fortnite’s “Astronomical” experience went far beyond what any musician has done to debut new content in a digital space.
More than 28 million Fortnite players watched “Astronomical” across five events scheduled for different time zones. The in-game concert blended soaring, surreal visuals with a wide array of animations of Scott performing multiple hit tracks in addition to his new single. Epic Games also marked the moment by releasing Travis Scott skins and other customizable content for players to use in Fortnite. On Scott’s Youtube channel, the event has been rewatched more than 119 million times. While that might not top his 2018 video for Sicko, which has 740 million views, it’s still an audience number that’s hard to get your head around when talking about a brand partnership.
If you were looking for a cool-headed voice of reason and maturity this year, you weren’t likely to find it in the halls of government or the feeds of social media—unless you looked to the beef sheets. Frozen beef brand Steak-umm, which for years has been sparking surprisingly profound, often quite meta conversations around the nature of social connections between companies and consumers, this year doubled down on its unique content strategy by waging an ongoing battle against misinformation at the most vital time in American history.
An April 6 tweet from Steak-umm vaulted the brand’s status from respected niche marketer to nationally trending thought leader:
A follow-up thread delved deeper into the nature of critical thinking:
Behind Steak-umm’s fascinating feed is Pennsylvania agency Allebach Communications, whose social media manager, Nathan Allebach, was named to this year’s Adweek Creative 100. The approach has built a massively passionate fan base for a relatively small CPG brand, with supporters turning out by the tens of thousands to support Steak-umm in the semi-finals of Adweek’s #AdOfTheYear bracket, where it was toppled only though a highly concerted effort by the far larger Oreo.
Hennessy and agency Droga5 accomplished a double stroke of masterful storytelling with their September campaign around Maurice Ashley, the world’s first Black chess grandmaster. In the cinematic and visually explosive 2-minute ad, Droga5 recreated Ashley’s early days with the game, learning in Brooklyn in the 1980s as part of a highly competitive group of Black players who called themselves The Black Bear School.
For those intrigued by the ad, narrated by rapper Nas, the brand also created a 5-minute documentary about Ashley, and this more straightforward account is just as captivating. The work continues the cognac brand’s “What’s Your Wild Rabbit?” ad series and shows that the nearly decade-old campaign still has the potential to energize and educate.
If you missed this one in 2020, I’m not entirely sure what you’re doing near the end of a sprawling self-indulgent article of ad nerdery. What’s left to say about this Super Bowl spot for Jeep, other than the fact that 10 months later, it’s just as delightful? Claiming the No. 1 spot in USA Today’s ad meter, “Groundhog Day” lured Bill Murray into reprising one of his most iconic roles and starring in his first (and, he warned, last) national ad.
It also launched the global reputation of agency Highdive, which also produced the popular Rocket Mortgage Super Bowl about Jason Momoa getting unnervingly comfortable at home. Highdive would go on to be named Adweek’s Fastest Growing Agency of the year and Adweek’s 2020 Breakthrough Agency of the Year.
It was a year in which dark humor was often the only way we could vent our fears and uncertainties, but you’d never know that from the advertising that came out of the pandemic era. Overwhelmingly (and wisely) focused on reflecting the gravity of the times, brand marketers generally avoided humor in favor of sincere messages of solidarity and optimism for a better tomorrow. That’s all fine and good, but sometimes you just need to laugh at the raging trash fire of a year we’ve been enduring together.
Leave it to Ryan Reynolds, the jester king of modern marketing, to find the right tone to finish the year on. Named this year to the board of Match Group, Reynolds brought his creative ad savvy to bear for one of the company’s dating services, Match, with a year-end ad called “Match Made in Hell” about Satan finding love with the personification of 2020. Together, they enjoyed many months of abandoned romantic venues and toilet paper shortages before watching meteors descend to finish us off in these closing days of the year. The concept might have been too bleak for many marketers to land right, but Reynolds’ Maximum Effort content studio—which also does work for Reynolds-led brands Mint Mobile and Aviation Gin—nails it.
The spot’s soundtrack, “Love Story” by Taylor Swift, even made headlines by being re-recorded by the superstar singer just for the ad. The 2008 track experienced a resurgence this year thanks to TikTok, where it was used for several popular video memes.
If you were to write the opening chapter for a textbook about the kind of advertising most ad pros wish they could convince clients to make, you’d probably spend a good chunk of it talking about Moldy Whopper. The campaign highlighting Burger King’s commitment to natural ingredients broke just about every rule of common-sense marketing, namely the unspoken guideline about not showing your signature product rotting in time-lapse like something projected onto the backdrop of a 1990s Nine Inch Nails concert.
Three years in the making (as the brand waited to ensure its supply chain was fully committed to dropping artificial ingredients), the campaign was developed through an unplanned partnership of three agencies who all had come up with similar ideas independently. The resulting work, shot with eerie beauty by Stockholm-based Ingo, won just about every advertising award you can win in a year without a Cannes Lions. It won 18 Gold Pencils at The One Show, and D&AD juries honored it with 10 trophies including the coveted Black Pencil.
Some might be surprised to see the polarizing campaign not at No. 1 on our list, while others might have hoped not to see it in Adweek’s rankings at all. While Moldy Whopper certainly deserves its praise for being one of the most unrestrainedly bold campaigns on record from a global brand. But looking through the lens of 2020 as it played out after Moldy Whopper debuted in February, it would be hard to argue that this was the campaign that best defined the year.
This was the year brands finally spoke up on racial justice, albeit woefully late and two years behind Nike’s campaign in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. But while many marketers stepped forward in the agonizing aftermath of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police, few kept the conversation going in their ads.
So it was doubly admirable to see Beats by Dre launch “You Love Me,” one of the most powerful ads about equality and respect ever made, in November, months after most brands had quietly dropped their newfound emphasis on supporting Black Americans. The ad, from Translation and production house Prettybird, bypasses pleasantries and forces white America to confront the hypocrisy with which it treats its Black citizens—loving their contributions to culture while treating them with disdain and even hatred individually.
While Covid-19 might have been the most defining aspect of 2020, it is the fight for true equality that will have more enduring consequences, and Beats deserves no small amount of praise for advancing and encouraging that conversation in a way that puts the voices of the marginalized at the fore. To that point, the spot was written by Lena Waithe, directed by Melina Matsoukas and featured a score by Solange Knowles.
You can’t describe life in 2020 without comparing it to all the years you’ve known before. Nothing was the same anymore. We lived differently, worked differently, connected differently. We hurt, lost and struggled in ways we had never known, and each moment felt haunted by the memories of a life from which we had been abruptly severed.
That’s not an experience any ad can capture. But Nike made an absolutely Herculean attempt, and the result was one of the most hard-wrought and timely ads ever.
“You Can’t Stop Us” from Wieden + Kennedy Portland uses a split-screen motif to highlight both the contrasts and the shared experiences that marked a year of lockdowns, cancellations, solidarity and endurance. More than 1,000 hours of compositing went into this feat of creative planning and editing, with U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe narrating.
But the ad’s quality doesn’t stem from its star power and meticulous craft. The spot is an anthem for 2020 that both literally and thematically shows how even when we’re split apart, we manage to find unity, optimism and moments of joy. It’s a message we’ll need just as much in 2021, and every year beyond.