Lessons are best learned when we don’t expect them. When someone proselytizes us or pontificates, our defenses go up. Therefore, the best time to influence someone is when their guard is down. That’s why good ads can have a profound impact — we expect them to be mindless at best, annoying at worst, and most of them are either or both. But some are transformational and enduring.

Television commercials convey some of the most powerful lessons in leadership and can be worth showing to aspiring leaders or serve as templates for your own leadership messages. In last month’s column I listed numbers 10 through six of those TV ads that best exemplify leadership principles in my opinion. Here, I share numbers five through one in descending order.


5. Budweiser, “One Team” (2020)

Description: Opening shots show empty stadiums due to the Coronavirus pandemic. A voiceover says “This Bud’s for…” and then mentions the names of sports teams. But the images don’t show the teams; they show today’s heroes. For example, “This Bud’s for the Reds” shows a Red Cross disaster relief worker, “This Bud’s for the Trailblazers” depicts scientists presumably working on a vaccine, and “This Bud’s for the Braves” shows a masked delivery person. The spot ends with “This Bud’s for the home team.”

Leadership Lessons: Responsibility; selflessness; leading by example. The organization comes across as virtuous and high-minded.


4. Coke, “Hey Kid, Catch!” (1979)

Description: In this iconic ad, Pittsburgh Steeler defensive lineman Mean Joe Greene hobbles down a tunnel to the locker room after an apparently brutal game. A young boy, starstruck, tries to talk to him, but Greene dismisses him and staggers on. The boy offers Greene his bottle of Coke, which the lineman reluctantly accepts, and then downs. The boy starts walking away dejectedly when Greene says to him, with a big smile, “Hey kid, catch!” and tosses the boy his game jersey.

Leadership Lessons: Developing new leaders; gratitude. This incident will be forever imprinted in the child’s memory. He will grow into adult who has been instilled with the example of a great leader.


3. Monster.com, “When I Grow Up” (1999)

Description: A child appears and says, “When I grow up, I want to file all day.” The scene switches to another child who says, “I want to climb my way up to middle management,” then another who says “…and be replaced on a whim.” A series of children describe their career “hopes” in a similar vein. A closing title card says, “What did you want to be?” followed by the Monster logo.

Leadership Lessons: Humor; listening; vision; speaking truth to power. This ad sends up the difference between career aspirations and career realities. Monster pokes fun at its own industry to make a larger point about perseverance and vision.


2. Apple, “1984” (1984)

Description: A line of drone-like people march down a corridor in a dystopian, industrial setting. A Big Brother-type figure is spouting dogma from a giant TV screen and smaller monitors hang from the corridor walls. Interspersed with those scenes is a woman, in color, in a track suit with a hammer, being chased by thought police. She flings the hammer into the giant screen and it blows up, releasing the people from their stupor. The title card and voiceover say: “And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”

Leadership Lessons: Innovation; creativity; courage. This ad highlighted Apple’s bold creativity and individualism in a hidebound, conformist world, presumably represented by IBM.


1. United Airlines, “Speech” (1990)

Description: A business executive somberly addresses dozens of staff members in a conference room. He is lamenting how the company has lost a loyal customer by substituting technology for face-to-face relationships. He announces that staff members will be visiting every client in person, and he starts handing out plane tickets. When someone objects by saying there are clients in more than 200 cities, the executive says, “I don’t care,” and continues handing out the tickets. He concludes by saying that he’s off to visit the client who had just fired them.

Leadership Lessons: Humility; values; listening; transparency; learning from failure; leading by example. The executive has the courage to regroup and invest in the values the company stands for, and he sends himself out on the road along with everyone else.