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Ad Man Presents His 100 Greatest TV Spots of All Time

By Mike Unger

Photo: Screen save of a 1940s Bulova TV ad.

This Bulova commercial from 1941 tops Drew Babb's "100 Greatest" list.

Some of Babb’s best make us chuckle, others tug at our hearts. Some urge us to quit or start. They reinforce our loyalty or prod us to switch.

We can’t get the best — or the worst — of them out of our heads. A good concept keeps going and going and going . . .

Short of chucking your TV and radio, ignoring the Internet, not riding the subway or bus, (you

get the idea), there’s no escaping the avalanche of advertising in America.

Drew Babb wouldn’t dream of trying.

Few people love ads like the School of Communication professor, who’s compiled his eccentric list of the 100 Greatest TV Spots of All Time into an hour-long presentation that’s a walk down memory lane.

Topping it is “America Runs on Bulova Time,” largely because it’s the first documented TV ad. It originally aired during a 1941 Brooklyn Dodgers-Philadelphia Phillies baseball game, and reportedly cost $10 to run.

While his selections are admittedly subjective, Babb cites three main criteria for inclusion.

“No. 1, two weeks after I’ve seen a spot I can still remember most of it,” he said. “I can tell you what the cuts are and what the voice-over is, and definitely I can remember, the brand. No. 2, I really felt good about it. Third, and this is probably the most important, I wish I’d have written it. I wish I could say, ‘That was mine.’”

Throughout his career, Babb’s been able to claim ownership over scores of ads. His first big break was at a firm in Chicago, where his mentor kept file cabinets filled with his favorites.

“He said, ‘Let me see your collection,’” Babb recalled. “I said, ‘Do you mean my portfolio?’ He said, ‘No. What ads do you really like?’ I liked Volkswagen, Virginia Slims, the Parliament cigarette ads. So I started collecting.”

Believe It or Not

Fast forward a generation or so. Babb decided to assemble his collection into a presentation, but tracking down some of the spots was tough. Not everything is on YouTube.

No. 14 on Babb’s list is a 1969 ad for New York mayor John Lindsay, who was trailing in the polls by 14 points just five months before the election. In the spot he looks directly into the camera and admits botching a blizzard cleanup — then cites some of his accomplishments. It’s credited with helping him pull off an improbable comeback win.

Tracking it down was an adventure.

At a Washington event Babb ran into political pundit Charlie Cook, who gave him an e-mail address for journalist Jeff Greenburg.

The man whose firm made the ad, David Garth, was suffering from dementia, but Greenburg was friendly with his wife . . . who knew the writer . . . who had a 35 millimeter tape of it in his garage.

“I’ve got to share this with the students, it’s an important ad,” Babb told him. “So he sent it to me. I took it to a lab and transferred it.”

Other spots took chutzpah to snag.

At a historic preservation conference Babb cornered actor Richard Dreyfuss, narrator of Apple’s famous “misfits” spot. Dreyfuss’s secretary sent Babb a clean copy of the ad.

Babb, who teaches political advertising, has given the presentation a dozen times, including last semester at AU.

His audiences cheer and jeer throughout. Some spots, like the Lyndon Johnson “Daisy” commercial, would be on everyone’s list, but others, like the “I’m A Pepper” 1970s Dr. Pepper ad, elicit differing reactions, he said.

“Some people said they started drinking Dr. Pepper because of that, others said they stopped. It’s very cornball, but it’s very highly branded.”

This he says with a twinkle in his eye. Branding, Babb believes, is the ultimate goal of an advertisement.

“You have to grab somebody by the throat, convince them, let them go, and remind them who brought them to the dance,” he said. “If you have a great ad but you can’t remember in a half an hour what the product was, you might as well burn the money, because you haven’t branded.”

With his list of 100, Drew Babb is strengthening his own brand. As his audiences and students know, Drew Babb is all about the power of advertising.

“When I’m interviewing young writers and art directors, I ask, ‘Of all the ads running today, what ones do you really like?’” he said. “It’s not a trick question, but it’s a penetrating one. I don’t have to agree with them, but they better have two or three great TV spots, a couple of print ads, even a banner ad on a website that really got to them. If you don’t want to come up with those answers, I would suggest insurance or real estate.”