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Our Favorite Marketing Heroes in Popular Culture, Ranked

Marketing is woven into the fabric of our culture. As Americans, we eat, sleep and breathe it. We fall in love with characters in the trenches of the industry like Peggy Olson and find magic in the experience marketing stunts of the OG candyman, Willy Wonka.

Here are some of our own, perhaps less conventional, marketing heroes from popular culture. 

5. Josie Geller

Okay, fair – she’s not a marketer. She’s an undercover reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times who goes back to high school to write an exposé on the modern American teenager at the cusp of Y2k. After a disastrous first day, Josie learns the importance of forgetting what she thinks she knows and conducting real market research to reach her target demographic: Gibby, Kirsten and Kristen. 

Josie Geller so effectively embodies her market that she’s able to become prom queen, teach them valuable life lessons, get scooped by the Tribune and find lasting love in Mr. Coulson, who should not be a teacher. 

4. Fyre Festival

Marketed as a luxury music festival on a private island, Fyre Festival became infamous for being a total disaster with sad sandwiches. Their brand marketing strategy sang directly into the hearts of hopeful influencers, trust-fund babies and industry heavyweights. It told a glamorous story and promised an elite experience but famously failed to deliver.

Hulu and Netflix capitalized on the fail, delivering two documentaries for the common man. Official Fyre Fest merch was auctioned off to hungry consumers, eager for a piece of the iconic flop, to pay off lawsuits. The narrative found its way to books on marketing and became a selling point for webinars, case studies and initiatives to bring more authenticity and transparency to the industry. 

3. The Blair Witch Project

In 1999, the internet was a baby and some members of our team weren’t even born yet. That summer, a low-budget indie film leveraged the tools of the nascent World Wide Web to create modern mythology. The Blair Witch Project’s campaign included fake police reports, supplementary “documentaries”, newsreel-style interviews, posts on message boards, chat rooms and more.

What’s so inspiring about The Blair Witch Project’s brand marketing strategy is the sheer creativity and fearlessness of the approach. And it worked. With an original budget of just $35,000, the movie grossed more than 7,000 times that amount at the box office.

2. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

That cute little alien that looks like a corkscrew did more than befriend a young Drew Barrymore and teach Elliot how to say goodbye. He put Reese’s Pieces on the map. Spielberg initially intended Elliot to use M&Ms to lure E.T. out of hiding, but when Mars (ironically) said no, Hershey’s stepped in to deliver the most understated and emotionally resonant product placement of our time. 

This partnership is often cited in seminars and books on marketing as an exemplary case of leveraging cinema for brand promotion in an authentic and resonant way. Reese’s Pieces’ sales boomed after the movie’s release, and the candy has remained a beloved staple of sweets lovers.

1. Billy Mays

OxiClean. Orange Glo. Kaboom. They’re under your sink and Billy Mays is in your heart. Billy Mays was THE pitchman, THE direct-response advertising spokesperson, THE reason you didn’t change the channel during the ads when channels were still a thing. Mays had a unique ability to grab viewers’ attention and build trust, convincing them of a product’s value through his enthusiastic-bordering-on-manic yet straightforward demonstrations.

After his sudden death in 2009, people mourned him like they do more obvious celebrities. And for a culture that hates feeling like they’re being sold to, that’s huge. Mays’ legacy continues as a beloved figure in advertising, often lovingly parodied and certainly remembered for his substantial impact on how products are pitched on TV.

Experience Marketing Done Right

What we love about these iconic marketing heroes and anti-heroes is the lessons we learn from them. Be bold. Be honest. Take risks. Reap rewards.

Connect with us to start your journey towards better branding.