The 30 Best Ads of 2021

In a year of uncertainty, these are the 30 commercials and brand moves that stood out from the pack

By Ann-Christine Diaz, Alexandra Jardine and Parker Herren. Published on December 16, 2021. Credit: Ad Age

2021 was another roller-coaster. The world was still crippled by the pandemic but started to look toward a more promising future with the arrival of vaccines. Though advertising began to feel a bit more “normal” again, brands and agencies still grappled with uncertainty of the market as well as big issues that continued to plague humanity, from social injustice to climate change. The work reflected both the promise of normalcy as well as the changing tides, as we see here in our list of the best ads and brand ideas of the year.

30. Wendy’s x “Rick and Morty”: Morty’s
Wendy’s has built a reputation for its success with young audiences through Twitter and gaming. It’s also bolstered that relationship through a hugely successful partnership with the animated series “Rick and Morty.” This year, as lockdown restrictions lifted and experiential events returned, the fast food chain took that partnership to the next level with a full store takeover in Los Angeles. The over-the-top brand activation drew fans of the cartoon from across the country to a drive-thru experience and custom menu at the “Morty’s” pop-up, which featured items such as a Pickle Rick Frosty.

29. Inspired by Iceland: Icelandverse
Agency: SS+K
Travel ads made a comeback this year, and this push from SS+K to promote Iceland tourism, stood above the fray by leveraging one of the biggest news moments of the year, Facebook’s rebrand to Meta. It was also one of 2021’s funnest and funniest branded content moves.

28. Girl Up, Refinery 29: Today We Rise
Agency: Ogilvy
This spot, from Ogilvy for the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up and Refinery 29, beautifully marked Kamala Harris’ ascention to the vice presidency by capturing the real-time reactions of girls and their moms watching history in the making.

27. Cox: Drawn Closer
Agency: 180 LA
This campaign provided an ingenius solution for schoolkids who weren’t able to perform together in live productions due to the pandemic. Cable provider Cox and 180 LA stepped in by turning a school play by middle school kids from Nevada into an animated short. With the help of Nexus Studios director Patrick Osborne, students voiced and puppeteered their own characters from home and facial capture tech helped them look as true to life as possible. “Drawn Closer” even debuted at a Hollywood-style virtual premier party.

26. Mountain Dew: The Joy of Painting
Agency: TBWA\Chiat\Day New York
2021 saw an abundance of nostalgic marketing ideas, reminding consumers of more comforting times in the midst of the chaos of the last couple years. Mountain Dew and TBWA\Chiat\Day made a whole platform out of it with throwback ads recreating “The Shining” (2020), “Gremlins” and our personal favorite, a “found” episode of Bob Ross’ “The Joy of Painting” that actually taught you how to paint a bottle of Dew.

25. Posten Norge: When Harry Met Santa
Agency: POL
The Norwegian post office has taken a dip into controversial subject matter for past holiday ads, but this year’s gorgeously cinematic spot might be its most daring yet. “When Harry Met Santa” depicts the most long-distance relationship imaginable between a man and Kris Kringle. The man and Claus express their romance over the years through gifts until they’re finally able to be together one Christmas night with the help of Posten Norge. From a government entity, it’s a powerful statement that also celebrates the country’s 50th anniversary of the legalization of same-sex relationships.

24. Nike: Play New
Agency: Wieden+Kennedy
Nike’s global “Play New” campaign launched in May as a way to combat quarantine-induced lethargy and depression, and has since become a platform for inclusion and diversity for the brand. One of the best spots of the series debuted in time for the Olympics and imagined an idyllic “Best Day Ever,” in which the sports world takes athletes’ mental-health seriously and the WNBA draws as much attention as its male counterpart. Other great turns highlighted viral Brazilian skateboarder Rayssa Leal, who competed in this year’s first-ever Olympic street skateboarding event, and transgender soccer player Mara Gomez.

23. Pepsi: Better With Pepsi
Agency: Alma; Vayner Media
We’re used to seeing big-budget broadcast spots from Pepsi, but this print and social push from the brand really stood out last year for the simplicity and wit of its message. In an effort to remind consumers that its soda brand goes well with fast food, two ads depicted what appeared to be wrappers and mascots of the top U.S. burger chains, along with the message “Better With Pepsi.” All of those fast feeders happen to serve competitor Coca-Cola.

22. Pfizer Brazil: #InGameVaccine
Agency: Ogilvy Brazil
To help spread vaccine awareness, Pfizer Brazil showed up in the most unexpected of places—a video game. The pharmaceutical brand took to Grand Theft Auto RolePlay, the most-watched GTA RP server in Latin America, to connect with players. A special mission that included posting proof of at least one real-life dose on Instagram allowed gamers to get a virtual vaccine in-game that granted extra protection for their characters.

21. Guinness: Welcome Back
Agency: AMV BBDO
Everything resembles a pint of Guinness—snow on top of garbage cans, rugby socks on a washing line, a white cat on a black compost bin—in the Diageo brand’s ad from AMV BBDO welcoming the reopening of U.K. pubs back in May. Directed by Chris Balmond and set to Elvis’ classic “Always on my Mind,” it’s a shining example of beautiful craft artfully weaving a longstanding brand message into a comment on tumultuous times. It aptly ends on Gunness’ famous tagline: “Good things come to those who wait.”

20. Volvo Cars: The Ultimate Safety Test
Agency: Grey Europe
Safety has long been the hallmark of the Volvo brand, but this thought-provoking ad from Grey took the idea in an unexpected direction to promote its all-electric ambitions. Scenes detailing Volvo’s history of safety testing over the years are followed by a trip to the Arctic where a Volvo SUV dangles from a crane; but then a glacier crumbles, and we’re reminded that “climate change is the ultimate safety test.” A smart message (plus kudos to production company Smuggler and director Ivan Zacharias for filming in sub-zero polar conditions).

19. Burger King: Confusing Times
Agency: David Madrid
Through a series of comedic radio ads, Burger King completely encapsulated the experience of living in 2021: confusion. Voiced by a dreamy-voiced narrator, a procession of confusing issues of our time—COVID health regulations, climate consciousness and “Karens”—are announced like a PSA before revealing the most confusing prospect: a meatless Whopper that tastes like a Whopper? Confusing, but a fresh and funny use of the medium.

18. TimeXFortnite: March Through Time
Agency: Time Studios and Epic Games
This summer, Time Magazine’s Time Studios teamed with Epic Games’ Fortnite for a virtual activation that leveraged the metaverse as an education platform for social justice. An extension of “The March” exhibit at the Dusable Museum of African American History in Chicago, “March Through Time” teleports Fortnite players to an in-game recreation of the National Mall during Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Through interactive mini-games and audio of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the partnership aimed to teach a young audience about the Civil Rights Movement in an unexpected venue.

17. Adidas: Liquid Billboard
Agency: Havas Middle East/Jack Morton Worldwide
As outdoor advertising resumed around the world, Adidas debuted one of the year’s cleverest out-of-home stunts in Dubai, inviting women to swim inside a “liquid billboard” at a beach to promote its new inclusive swimwear collection. Created with Havas Middle East and experiential agency Jack Morton Worldwide, the mini-swimming pool was made of reinforced transparent acrylic and held 11,500 gallons of water. One of those ideas that makes you think, why didn’t anyone think of this before?

16. Petco: It’s What We’d Want If We Were Pets
Agency: Droga5
Petco made a brave and interesting move in 2021. It became a “health and wellness” company for pets. To announce that shift, it debuted a fun campaign out of Droga5 that imagined pets as people discussing the company’s range of services. As well as cleverly matching the humans at a snobby cocktail party to their animal counterparts, the campaign skilfully illustrated the retailer’s new brand direction. A later spot focused on the mental health of pets as their owners went back to the office.

15. Frida Mom: Stream of Lactation
Agency: Mekanism
Frida Mom set out to show the sometimes harsh realities of new motherhood in its Golden Globes spot. An extended version of the ad, by Mekanism, shows real new mothers feeding bare-breasted, trying to alleviate their clogged milk ducts, exhausted from pumping and turning to cabbage leaves to quell soreness. The brand was one of a number of advertisers trying to portray breastfeeding more authentically this year; others included Tommee Tippee, Maltesers, Nike and Facebook.

14. The Big Issue/LinkedIn: Raising Profiles
Agency: FCB Inferno
LinkedIn seemed to come into its own in 2021 as a go-to destination in the midst of post-pandemic job searching and the great resignation. This campaign, created with U.K. publication The Big Issue, however, depicted how powerful the platform can be by helping to secure a livelihood for those struggling with homelessness. The Big Issue helps the unhoused make a living as vendors of the magazine, but lockdown kept them from making their regular rounds to customers.This partnership gave nine of those vendors premium profiles on LinkedIn to help them connect with patrons online while teaching them digital skills that could help them on future job hunts.

13. Xbox: Beyond Generations
Agency: McCann London
At the beginning of 2021, before vaccines were widely available and life began attempting to return to normal, Xbox launched a moving campaign to give a glimmer of hope for an unexpected audience: elderly gamers. Among cringey attempts at tackling the pandemic’s sorrows and the loneliness of isolation, Xbox’s tale of a grandfather and grandson bonding through regular virtual hangouts proved both a sensitive depiction of the time and a progressive move to expand its typical age demographic. Honorable mention for tear-jerking COVID spot goes to Germain retailer Penny’s visualization of young people’s major life moments lost to the pandemic.

12. Monogram: Hypocrisy
Agency: Mischief @ No Fixed Address
Jay-Z’s cannabis brand Monogram is a relatively new player on the market, but it’s already established a strong point of view with its daring ads. This push created with Mischief didn’t pull any punches with messages pointing out how local governments ban cannabis-related activities yet don’t legislate against questionable behaviors such as cannbalism or bestiality. The campaign also addressed social justice issues, calling out the systemic racism baked into the war on drugs.

11. Lego: Adults Welcome
Agency: Lego Agency
Lego has sold sets aimed at adult audiences previously, but impressively committed even more firmly to this demographic with its first global marketing campaign speaking directly to them. The push, produced with Hobby Film, reminded adults of the soul-soothing properties of playing with bricks (in yet another marketing move addressing our mental well-being). The company saw sales spike during lockdowns and built upon that success with multiple campaigns aimed at inclusion regardless of age. In June, Lego released a rainbow set made by its queer-identifying VP of design and last month, premiered yet another thrilling “Rebuild the World” spot for the holidays featuring diverse builders and their fantastical creations.

10. Pringles: Meet Frank
Agency: Grey London
In the year’s best real world-meets-metaverse move, Pringles took a character out of a video game for two weeks and made him the star of its ads in this campaign from Grey London. A first for the gaming world, the campaign pulled zombie “Frank” from Xbox tile “West of Dead” during a live Twitch stream and popped him into a series of spots. He also interacted in real life with gamers before returning to the game as a Pringles-eating brand ambassador.

9. Ikea: Trash Collection
Agency: Try, Oslo
Ikea showed its own products looking trashed, forlorn and dumped by the roadside in a brave and unusual ad from Norwegian agency Try promoting its furniture recycling initiatives. The spot was one of a number of smart marketing initiatives by the brand around the world highlighting sustainability, including a cookbook based on food scraps and several ads showing how small environmental actions can help the planet.

8. Reddit: Superb Owl
Agency: R/GA
While the 2021 Super Bowl was filled with the expected array of big budget spots, Reddit stealthily grabbed the spotlight with what appeared to be a glitch promoting the brand in what appeared to be a game day car ad. It was actually a clever move from R/GA that leveraged a local media buy and the brand’s recent fame with the Gamestop and Robinhood saga fueled by the subreddit “R/WallStreetBets.”

7. Corona: Plastic Fishing Tournament
Agency: We Believers
Historically, Corona has been a brand we’ve associated with chill times on the beach, but 2021 marked the year when the brand (owned by ABInBev in Latin America) decidedly became an environmental hero. It debuted a planet-friendly six-pack holder, created all-natural beach bar and opened a branded island to celebrate its sustainability accomplishments and more. But this idea from We Believers, centered on a new kind of fishing contest, we loved the most. Not only did it help to remove plastic waste from the ocean but it aimed to sustain the livelihoods of local fisherman whose catches have been depleted because of pollution and overfishing.

6. Change the Ref: The Lost Class
Agency: Leo Burnett
Of the cause-driven campaigns we saw in 2021, this one from gun safety organization Change the Ref and Leo Burnett and Hungry Man director Bryan Buckley stopped us in our tracks. Part Borat-style prank and part heart-stopping message, it depicted a former NRA president and high-profile gun rights advocate giving a high school graduation speech to rows and rows of empty seats, representing a “Lost Class” of students unable to attend commencement this year because they were killed in acts of gun violence. It’s a move that made headlines even outside the ad world.

5. Extra Gum: For When It’s Time
Agency: Energy BBDO
Mars Wrigley’s Extra perfectly captured the pent-up excitement of the world opening up again in early May with this exuberant, celebratory spot from Energy BBDO. It sees people emerge from lockdowns to race back to the office, parks and the arms of their lovers, with lots of mouth-to-mouth action, to Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to me Now.” As well as being hilarious, the ad clearly addressed a marketing need; to give the suffering gum category a much-needed boost.

4. Peloton: And Just Like That…He’s Alive
Agency: Maximum Effort
As the brand seemingly responsible for the death of a beloved “Sex and the City” character in the franchise’s new reboot, Peloton found itself in a precarious PR situation. Its response was genius: recruiting Mr. Big actor Chris Noth and the murderous instructor for a cozy fireside giggle about life, new beginnings and cardiovascular health (featuring a voiceover cameo from Ryan Reynolds). In a year that was filled with brand comebacks to real-world events, this was the best.

Update: When we first published this list, Peloton’s spot served as a perfect comeback to a tricky situation for the brand, the top “reaction” ad we had seen all year. Later in the day, however, the brand ended up pulling the film after sexual assault allegations emerged against Noth. The news, however, offered a good opportunity to assess how brands should tread when it comes to leveraging product integrations in their marketing.

3. Tide: Turn to Cold
Agency: Woven; Saatchi & Saatchi
This year, marketers stepped up their game when it came to taking on climate change. Procter & Gamble’s Tide pulled one of the industry’s boldest moves in this space by making the environment the centerpiece of its U.S. brand marketing efforts, with the “#TurntoCold” campaign encouraging its consumers to wash everything in cold water. (P&G research found that heating water is part of the laundry chain that most negatively impacts the environment). The push included celebrity ads starring Ice T and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and even extended to redesign of Tide packaging.

2. NFL: Football is Gay
Agency: 72andSunny
Simple and powerful. On the heels of NFL player Carl Nassib of the Las Vegas Raiders coming out as gay, becoming the league’s first active player to do so, the NFL debuted this minimalist ad as a statement of inclusion as well as to support The Trevor Project. The spot opens with the words, “Football is gay,” then goes on to welcome those that identify as lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, American, beautiful—the list goes on. It concludes by proclaiming, “Football is for everyone.” It’s a bold example of the NFL’s more progressive and honest approach to marketing that helped earn the brand the title of Ad Age’s Marketer of the Year.

1. Heinz: Draw Ketchup
Agency: Rethink
In considering the work that rose to the top in 2021, the Ad Age team kept coming back to this charming but brilliant campaign for Heinz Ketchup. It hinged on the simple idea that when the world thinks of the red stuff, there’s one brand that rules. The team at Canada’s Rethink proved this by asking everyday folks to “draw ketchup”—with startling results. Though Rethink has created a treasure trove of fun ideas around the brand, this one was pure genius.