Social media as we know it today opened the doors to a whole new world of influencer marketing.
With it, it’s brought new opportunities for creators to earn money while giving brands the chance to reach new customers.
But social media didn’t create influencer marketing— it merely changed it.
Companies have partnered with celebrities, sports stars, and pop culture icons for decades — long before the first social media platforms debuted.
The 1990s were an important decade for marketing: Technology boomed, making it easier to stay connected with pop culture news and trends and new celebrities showed up overnight, capturing the attention of both fans and brands.
While marketing in the 90s relied on traditional advertising strategies like TV commercials and print ads, it set the stage for creators in the social media age: Several big brands even continued campaigns from the decade into the 2000s, adding these new, internet and social media-based creators to their campaigns along the way.
From celebrity endorsements to creative product placements and convenient pop culture moments, influencer marketing boomed in the 90s, albeit in a different way and in different environments.
Let’s look at a year-by-year snapshot of iconic examples of this from the decade.
If upstart sneaker company LA Gear wanted to keep up with the shoe giants, they needed some big names to back their brand. To do that, they partnered with singer and dancer Paula Abdul for a new line of products. This was a big deal, as they were able to entice her away from a previous partnership with one of LA Gear’s main competitors, Reebok.
Abdul was preparing to release her second studio album, Spellbound, when she endorsed LA Gear and her new campaign with LA Gear promoted both the shoe line and album. Together, they released a single track CD with a medley of several hits from Spellbound.
Abdul was at the height of her music career in 1991 with Spellbound reaching the top spot on the Billboard 200. When people saw her dancing on TV, they also saw her white LA Gear sneakers. This early influencer marketing campaign was a huge success, helping the brand reach a new segment of customers and expand brand awareness as Abdul’s shoe became one of the top sellers of the early 90s.
Michael Jordan was the ultimate sports influencer of the 1990s. So when Gatorade wanted to put their drink in the hands of more athletes, they turned to him to make it happen. Together, they created one of the most memorable ad campaigns...ever.
With Jordan at the height of his career, people all over the world looked to him as their inspiration; his influence was palpable. Gatorade tapped into this to create their “Be Like Mike” campaign, which helped viewers associate Jordan’s athletic prowess to his beverage of choice on the court.
Gatorade saw so much success with the ad that company revenue grew from $681 million to over $1 billion within a year after the commercial first aired. Gatorade also revived it at the 2015 NBA All-Star Game as part of its 50th anniversary campaign. This time, it used social media to reach even more people with #BeLikeMike — which currently has over 75,000 posts on Instagram.
Product placement was a subtler form of influencer marketing in the 90s. But after a while, moviegoers were growing tired of forced product placements in their favorite films.
The 1992 comedy Wayne’s World took that sentiment and added a satirical twist: In the now-famous scene, the main characters Wayne and Garth discuss “not selling out to sponsors.” During the conversation, they take turns ironically showing off products from the movie’s sponsors.
Wayne proudly displays a Pizza Hut pizza followed by a satisfying Doritos crunch. The scene then cuts to Garth, decked out in Reebok gear from head to toe, who observes: “It’s like people only do things because they get paid, and that’s just really sad.”
Next, it cuts over to Garth (sans Reebok gear) giving Wayne Nuprin for his headache. The scene ends with Wayne taking a gulp of Pepsi and saying the soda brand’s slogan, “The choice of a new generation.”
Viewers responded well to the satirical take on product placement, enjoying that Wayne’s World added its own unique style to the way it promoted its sponsors (even though it was unconventional and even taboo for the time) as it came across as both authentic and funny.
In the 1992 Super Bowl, Pepsi turned to a celebrity endorsement (again, a form of early influencer marketing) to promote its newly redesigned cans.
The ad features Cindy Crawford climbing out of a red sports car and walking over to a vending machine to buy a Pepsi. Two boys ogle from the background, but as she cracks open the can and takes a big drink, one of the boys ironically says, “Is that a great new Pepsi can, or what?”
At the time, Cindy Crawford was one of the most famous supermodels in the world, appearing on the covers of magazines like Vogue and Cosmopolitan, hosting MTV’s House of Style and staring in her own workout videos — which sold over 2 million copies. When Pepsi partnered with her to promote its new cans, it associated them with Crawford’s beauty, fame, and sophistication.
The ad struck a chord with viewers. Pepsi brought Crawford back for its 2018 Super Bowl commercial — this time in a montage with many of the brand’s most famous influencer partnerships over the years, including Britney Spears, Jeff Gordon, and Michael Jackson.
The California Milk Processor Board’s “Got milk?” campaign turned around the state’s dairy industry after a decade of decline.
Its first TV spot titled “Aaron Burr” humorously depicted a history buff with a love for Hamilton (the man, not the musical) being called on by a radio station to answer one simple question for $10,000 — who shot Alexander Hamilton? However, the peanut butter sandwich he just shoved in his mouth keeps him from being able to say the answer. He reaches for a glass of milk of milk to wash it down, but finds it empty. His lack of milk cost him $10,000. The ad ends with the now-famous white text on a black screen — “Got milk?”
The CMPB soon added influencer marketing to its mix of fun advertising with the now-famous milk mustache ads. “Got milk?” eventually featured actors and musicians, politicians and businesspeople, sports stars and supermodels, and even the Simpsons.
By featuring influencers with so many different realms of influence, CMPB helped their message reach an even broader audience — and the strategy worked. In 1994, milk sales in California went up by 15 million gallons (the state’s first increase in years), all while building national recognition for the “got milk?” tagline and driving dairy sales nation-wide.
McDonald’s brought two of the world’s most famous athletes together for its 1993 Super Bowl commercial: Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. Featuring Jordan at the height of his career and recently retired legend Larry Bird, the ad showed the pair in a winner-take-all contest of impossible shots.
The prize? A McDonald’s Big Mac.
The ad ran in two parts — during the first half and halftime — with the first section ending with Jordan telling the viewer, “I think we’re going to be here a while. I suggest you go get a Big Mac.”
By pairing two elite athletes with the United States’ most watched sporting event, McDonald’s used influencer marketing to reach the 91 million sports fans who tuned into the Super Bowl that year. The ad also sparked a wave of people challenging their friends to similar contests, with phrases from the commercial like “nothing but net” becoming commonplace on basketball courts across the country.
Sprite was one of the first brands to recognize hip hop’s growing influence. Since the late 80s, the soft drink company has showcased rappers and hip hop artists in its ads.
In 1994, Sprite launched “Obey Your Thirst” — the campaign that would define its marketing for the next 25 years. Its first commercial in the campaign featured pioneering rap group A Tribe Called Quest. The group calls out to “all the non-believers” to obey their thirst and drink Sprite.
After its success with the first “Obey Your Thirst” commercial, Sprite continued to promote hip hop culture in its advertising campaigns. Throughout the 90s, the brand featured artists like Nas, KRS-One, Grand Puba and Large Professor in the campaign. While these artists didn’t have massive followings or national name recognition like some athletes or actors, they each had a strong following within the hip hop community.
Sprite’s reliance on influencer marketing within a very specific group helped establish the brand as a staple of hip hop. The soft drink brand continues its emphasis on creator marketing within hip hop culture today with creators like Drake, Kodie Shane and Seth Giscombe.
It was, at one time, unthinkable for James Bond to drive anything other than a British-made car. But, when BMW struck a three-movie deal with the franchise beginning with Goldeneye in 1995, Bond jumped behind a foreign-made car for the first time.
Although Bond is a fictional character, BMW was able to use his prestige to launch its brand new BMW Z3 the same year. When Goldeneye reached number one at the box office, BMW sales skyrocketed — quickly selling out the entire first production run of the new roadster.
The car brand’s success with the Z3 shows that sometimes a character can be even more powerful than the creator who plays it. James Bond presented an opportunity for BMW to take advantage of a personality that extends beyond one actor or even generation — all while matching its luxurious, sporty style.
I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! turned to influencer marketing to help build its popularity throughout the 90s.
While it featured several faces over the years, the brand built a lasting relationship with Fabio Lanzoni, the Italian fashion model and spokesperson who’s known as the first male supermodel. With his defined physique and recognizable attractiveness, Fabio was the perfect spokesperson for I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!, as they wanted to be known as a healthier alternative to butter for the diet-conscious.
Fabio’s first commercial for I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! aired in 1996 with Fabio emerging from the statue to exclaim the eponymous catchphrase. He returned as Tarzan in a new ad later in the decade as well.
I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! wanted to establish itself as a healthier, low cholesterol alternative to butter without forfeiting any of the great buttery taste. By partnering with a healthy, attractive celebrity like Fabio, it helped associate its spread with the healthy lifestyle it was trying to promote.
The Danish pop band Aqua was virtually unknown in the United States until 1997. But then the band released its hit single “Barbie Girl” — helping them debut at number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 and eventually sell over 8 million copies of the single.
The song parodies the party lifestyle of the rich and famous through the eyes of Barbie and Ken, the famed dolls created by Mattel.
This move was rogue and risky: They used Barbie’s fame to help them become the most successful Danish band ever, but never built a relationship with the creators of the Barbie brand. Mattel didn’t appreciate their doll — which is marketed toward young girls — being associated with the song’s thinly-veiled innuendos.
The toy company filed a lawsuit against Aqua, which a judge eventually dismissed. Taking a “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach, Mattel used the song in some of its advertising in 2009 (with some lyric changes, of course).
During the 1998 Super Bowl, American Express combined forces with two 90s influencers to promote its credit and charge cards. In the ad, comedian Jerry Seinfeld walks down the street chatting with Superman when they hear Lois Lane cry out for help from a store across the street.
The problem? She forgot her wallet and couldn't check out.
For once, Superman was powerless — but Seinfeld was there to save the day with his American Express card. The commercial is light-hearted and cheesy, matching Seinfeld’s own comedy style.
When American Express partnered with Seinfeld, they allowed him to exercise his own creativity as a writer for the 60-second spot — a practice that is now commonplace in today’s world of creator marketing. Seinfeld’s writing made the ad feel more authentic and helped sell the idea that he really used and enjoyed the product he was helping promote.
In true Seinfeld style, he portrayed the American Express card as a must-have for the “every man” — a trait that appealed to the 30 million people who tuned into his show about the everyday lives of a group of friends each week.
Wearing Abercrombie & Fitch became a status symbol of sorts within 90s youth culture — one that American pop/hip hop band LFO noticed.
The trio’s hit song “Summer Girls” debuted in 1999 and spent 17 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, where it peaked at number three. The song is a mix of nostalgic pop culture references and the band’s reminiscing about past summer flings.
But one line from the chorus carried the song into pop culture fame — “I like girls who wear Abercrombie & Fitch.”
This unique instance of influencer marketing stemmed from A&F’s strong brand that turned it into a status symbol. The LFO wrote the lyrics based on what it meant to them — without any prompting from the clothing company. Fortunately for both Abercrombie and LFO, the line stuck and people flocked even more to the store and the song.
In his chairman’s letter for Abecrombie’s 1999 fiscal year report, CEO Mike Jeffries wrote, “We opened 54 new stores and a band wrote a hit song about girls who wear A&F.”
Polaroid was once a trailblazer for its instant photos, but the 90s brought cheaper and faster methods for developing film. The company looked to the younger generation to try to turn things around.
In 1999, it released the I-Zone camera with a small, portable design that prints photos the size of a 35mm negative. To help promote the new camera to the teen girls Polaroid wanted to reach, they partnered with teen star Britney Spears.
The partnership started well: Spears was a hit with teen girls around the world as she released her debut album the same year. Because of it, the Polaroid I-Zone sold incredibly well, becoming the best selling camera in the world.
But the partnership’s success was short-lived. By 2001, Britney Spears was transforming from a teen sensation into an adult pop star, leaving behind the family-friendly persona that made her so endearing for the campaign.
Influencer marketing worked extremely well for Polaroid, but it didn’t recognize change. Instead of partnering with a new creator who had its target market’s ear, the company continued with Spears even after she outgrew its audience.
Back in the 90s, brands who wanted to use creator marketing were limited to celebrities and sports stars, and they had to go through media houses and ad agencies to get it done. But many of today’s creators are self-made, independent, and have incredibly specific audiences.
Today, brands now have access to creators with much closer relationships than their celebrity counterparts. Partnering with them allows brands to be ultra-specific in their messaging and to talk to audiences who are most likely to be interested in certain products.
We can help you find your perfect fit creators and launch your first campaign today. Sign up and get started.
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