TRA’s Colleen Ryan says that to be one of Australia’s favourite ads – and not just the winner of an award bestowed by a jury – is the true measure of success. This is part of an ongoing ‘The art of knowing people’ series with TRA that aims to challenge conventional thinking and better understand consumers, markets and cultural trends in Australia and beyond.

If people could be a fly on the wall at Cannes and hear and see how jurors talk about great ads, they would wonder what planet they were from.

Ask anyone who doesn’t work in advertising what they think of ads and they’ll tell you they don’t watch them or they can’t remember any. Generally, they’ll say most ads are rubbish, which is interesting if, as they say, they don’t watch any as most comments are, thankfully, swiftly followed by “except that one about…”

We know most advertising is processed unconsciously, so it’s no surprise that people can’t remember many ads when you ask them the question out of context. Out of context means when they are not thinking about the category or a buying decision.

Even when we are making a buying decision, an ad may be operating at an unconscious level to influence our decision. This happens because we like things that are familiar. Our brains are wired to feel positively towards things we know. Familiarity does not breed contempt – it breeds affection. If we have processed the ad, even unconsciously, we will feel warmly toward the brand because of its familiarity, as well as any unconscious positive associations.

What typically triggers the out of context recall of “except that one about…”? It’s either newsworthy controversy or humour, both of which bring the work into shared consciousness.

Shared ad experiences amplify presence in our consciousness

When a TV ad or any ad campaign gets talked about in the media, it becomes a shared topic of conversation, either literally with friends and family or vicariously through media commentators. The days when we all watched the same TV at the same time and therefore, advertising was part of a shared experience, are long gone.

Conversation in the office about what happened in last night’s episode of a soap has been replaced with chats about what individuals are streaming. The emphasis on individuals is deliberate. Therefore, media coverage of ads inserts itself in water cooler conversations along with whatever else is current.

An example of advertising which became part of the conversation was the Come and Say G’day Tourism Australia ad. If you subscribe to the “all publicity is good publicity” adage, then you would say Tourism Australia was the winner in the debate that ensued. Australians did not like how their country was being portrayed and they let their feelings be known. In contrast, anyone in marketing would have known that Australians were not the target audience and the people for whom the ads were created had a very different perspective.

The exceptions are the big TV moments, a sports game, for example. In a recent survey of Australians asking about their favourite ads, many of the comments referred to “the Rexona ad in the Matilda’s game” or more generally, “the Maccas ad that was on during the women’s football” (nationally representative survey of 1,000 Australians, August 2023, by TRA, sponsored by Dynata).

Ad spots during rare, shared TV moments are draw cards for advertisers because shared experiences are amplified through the cultural consciousness. Sports games also create heightened emotional experiences and emotions are a pathway to memories. The games create context – people remember where they watched a big game, who they were with and even what the weather was like. Ads get locked into that memory chain as part of the experience.

The power of emotion in advertising is well-documented. It was good to see proof of that in a recent survey of Australia’s favourite ads, where a highly emotional campaign was the favourite by a long shot. The Cadbury brand has captured the culturally relevant and universally understood act of generosity and the warm feelings that flow from it. Eating chocolate is a personal and deeply sensory experience, yet Cadbury has attached the brand to a shared moment. When people said the Cadbury ad was their current favourite, they almost always did so by describing a snippet of the story “the boy on a bus” or “the dad and his daughter”. These snippets are, notably, human-to-human emotional connection.

The rest of the top five favourite ads were made up of a mixture of categories and advertising styles. However, brands from six to 10 are dominated by insurers.


Cadbury, Bus


Qantas, Feel Like Home Again


ALDI, Shop ALDI First


KFC, Bucket For One


Specsavers, Fishing


AAMI, Bargain Regret


McDonalds, Huddle Up


Woolworths, Bruce Car


Budget Direct, Bath Bubble Trouble


NRMA, Until Then

Humour is a shared experience

The other powerful driver of what Australians chose as their favourite ads was humour, with the insurance category – not best known for being a particularly fun category – making an appearance in four of the top 10 ads. This is Australia-specific. In New Zealand, by comparison, favourite ads are dominated by banks. Unlike the banks in New Zealand, the Australian insurance category is not a big spender. In 2022, insurance was only ninth in Nielsen’s top 20 spenders (A$218m compared to over a billion for top spenders, retail).

NMRA, AAMI, Budget Direct and Woolworths insurance ads all made the Top 10 Favourite Ads list and they all used humour, with different styles of humour and different use of the humour. For example, some use humour to set up the problem they solve (AAMI highlights the problem of uncertainty about knowing that you are covered), some use it to be culturally relevant (NMRA’s water sprinklers connect to the growing problem of bushfires), some use it as a recognisable branding device (Budget Direct’s Blown Away campaign benefits from consistency). Humour is not a one-purpose tool, it is more like a Swiss army knife, fit for many purposes.

Nor is humour an emotion but it can trigger an emotional response. It can make us feel happy, it can make us relish revenge, it can feel bittersweet. What matters is that it makes us feel.

The other role of humour is it is a shared cultural experience – people laugh out loud when they are in the company of others 10 times more than when they are alone. We may be watching the ad alone but humour unites us in a common cultural understanding. We tell each other jokes, we send memes, we buy “funny” birthday cards. We connect through humour.

Humour can be a problem for advertisers that don’t take Australia’s culturally and linguistically diverse communities into account. These communities make up more than 50% of the population. Humour is culturally driven, so people from different cultures can take a while to understand traditional Australian humour. The type of humour advertisers use can be more or less accessible to these communities. And humour that they do not understand can make them feel like a brand is not for them.

We have recently come out of the awards season, so it’s good to remind ourselves that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and ads are not made for judges. Being one of Australia’s favourite ads is arguably the true measure of success.