The Most Powerful CTAs In History and Why They Worked

Dale Cudmore
Last Updated on May 30, 2019
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When it comes to business, small or large, calls to action (CTAs) are everywhere.

You can’t escape them. Either understand how to make effective CTAs, or your conversion rates will be much lower than they could be.

calls to action

If you’re not familiar with CTAs, here’s a quick definition:

A call to action (CTA) is a specific phrase that encourages a consumer or follower to take a desired action.

Now if you’re only looking for a CTA to use for a simple button on your website, there are hundreds of other articles that will help you with that. (How many ways are there to say “sign up now”?)

But effective CTAs go beyond buttons. They are incorporated in copy, whether in landing pages or scripts.

If you want to learn how to create and weave effective CTAs into your copy (on your landing pages, in emails, ads, etc), this is the page for you.

In any copywriting 101 course, you’re always told to read books written decades ago by legends like David Ogilvy.

Copywriters throughout history have figured out much. But most of it hasn’t transitioned to online marketing. Most of the time when reading about a new online copywriting tactic, a little research will show that it first appeared 50 years ago or more.

So in this post, I’m not going to show you examples from modern software companies like Buffer and HubSpot. Instead, we’re going to look at CTAs that have effectively motivated consumers throughout history that have inspired action far greater than clicking a simple button.

24 Examples of Successful CTAs

These examples come from military, politics, government, religion, and advertising campaigns.

Warning/disclaimer: Some of these come from “touchy” subjects. Remember that we’re only looking at the CTA itself and how it was used. I’m not going to comment on the actual subject or message at all.

I’ll point out the most notable aspects of each CTA as we go and a few takeaways, and then at the end, we’ll look for patterns.

Yes We Can

yes we can still
Obama Yes We Can by cfishy via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

This iconic phrase, used as a slogan during the 2008 presidential election is known around the world.

What’s interesting is that Obama almost didn’t use it because he thought it was too “corny.” Fortunately for him, his wife convinced him otherwise.

This phrase is often used by unions, particularly in Spanish-speaking countries. (“Sí se puede” translates to “Yes, we can” although a more literal translation is “Yes, it can be done.”)

Strikes share a lot in common with Obama trying to get elected. They’re both the underdogs, faced with a lot of doubt. But this CTA became a rallying cry for Obama’s supporters who kept pushing forward. It kept them from giving up during hard times.

Takeaway: This lesson is particularly important for non-profits and social businesses. Any social change movement is necessarily an underdog, otherwise what it’s trying to do would already be the norm. A simple reassuring CTA can keep pushing supporters forward in times of doubt. That’s why CTAs like “we can do it” have been so effective in the past.

Make America Great Again (MAGA)

Make America Great Again Cap
MAGA Cap by James McNellis via Wikipedia, licensed under CC BY 2.0

I know Donald Trump is controversial, but his slogans and calls to action were extremely effective in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Note that this slogan is very similar to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 slogan: “Let’s Make America Great Again”.

It’s catchy, short, and easy to remember.

Both times it was used were during times of economic struggle, where a lot of Americans desired for America to go back to the state where it was clearly the most prosperous country in the world.

Takeaway: If your product solves a pain, related to a time that your customer didn’t have that pain. For example, a CTA for a joint medicine could revolve around “Feel like you’re 20 again.” The image, and associated feeling of being pain-free, is effective at driving action.

Make Love, Not War

Make Love, Not War
Make Love Not War by GDJ via Pixabay, in the public domain

This is an iconic anti-war CTA that arose in the 1960s, primarily by opponents of the Vietnam War.

There are a few aspects that made this slogan inspire activists:

  • It’s short and easy to say.
  • It was connected to a popular movement (“make love” refers to the practice of free love).
  • It’s contrasting: love and war are essentially opposites.

Build the Wall

build the wall

Here’s a slogan that really resonated with Trump’s base. It was often chanted at campaign rallies and was even adopted by other right-leaning politicians afterward.

If MAGA is the “what” of his campaign, building a wall was the “how” he was going to accomplish it, at least in the eyes of his followers.

Takeaway: This slogan was effective at motivating his followers by giving an actionable goal to support and try to achieve. If a solution will take a long time, start with the first step in your CTA. For example, if you have a business that teaches how to be an entrepreneur, you could use a CTA like “name your business.”

Mr Gorbachev: Tear Down This Wall

tear down this wall
Image from a frame of “Berlin Wall” Speech – President Reagan’s Address at the Brandenburg Gate – 6/12/87 via Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, used under Fair Use

In part of US President Ronald Reagan’s speech in West Berlin in 1987, he said this line. Following the speech, the latter part, “tear down this wall,” became a big talking point.

Historians argue about how impactful it was, but it nonetheless played a part in the wall being demolished a few years later.

The interesting part is that it wasn’t the speech itself that had the impact, but the people praising the speech afterward that shook Soviet confidence, according to author James Mann.

The CTA gave people an easy, concrete goal to latch onto.

Takeaway: As we’ve seen in a few CTAs when there are mixed opinions on a topic, it often pays off to make a bold statement. Instead of suggesting regulation, or some sort of compromise, Reagan made a clear statement — tear it down. This sort of lesson applies closest to social businesses, where you need supporters to focus on a single message.

If You See Something Say Something

homeland slogan
Image from screenshot on Homeland Security

This CTA is still used in campaigns at the time of writing this post. It’s primarily used in campaigns to encourage the public to report suspicious activity that could be signs of terrorism.

There’re a few aspects that stand out:

  • Alliteration: Even though it’s on the long side, the alliteration makes it easy to say and remember.
  • Trigger and action: All actions need a trigger. This CTA has the explicit trigger of “see something,” followed by a reasonably clear action of “say something.”
  • “You”: Why isn’t the CTA just “see something say something?” By adding a specific call to “you” it forces the reader to take personal responsibility.

Have it Your Way

burger king
Image via Burger King Wichita Falls

This slogan lasted for 40 years and helped Burger King rise to be a top fast-food chain.

People desire freedom, especially when it comes to their food.

Takeaway: If freedom or customization is a strong desire for your customers, a good CTA should touch upon it.

Be the Best

be the best
Image via screenshot of army.mod.uk

The slogan “be the best” has been used as the UK Army’s recruiting CTA since 1993. Like most armies, this slogan was designed to target young men looking for a purpose who could be molded into effective soldiers.

This CTA is:

  • Short (3 words)
  • Rolls off the tongue.
  • Memorable.
  • Ambitious (Not just “be better,” but “be the best“).

I Want You For the US Army

uncle sam poster
I Want You Poster via Wikipedia, in the public domain

This is a famous CTA used on numerous war posters during the World Wars.

This example is rather unique because a lot of the impact of the message comes from the images around it, rather than just the words.

Most notably, the person (Uncle Sam) representing the country, specifically pointing to and calling out the reader.

Takeaway: CTAs are about the overall reader or viewer experience, which can include visual elements (or audio, etc).

Bring Him Home Sooner! Buy War Bonds

buy war bonds
Bring Him Home Sooner! Buy War Bonds via The Historical Museum of Fort Missoula, in the public domain

War bonds were being used during each World War to fund military expenses like purchasing weapons (tanks were often mentioned in the ads).

The main lesson from this CTA is that the stronger the desire of your audience is, the easier it is to write an effective CTA.

In this case, the CTA itself is “buy war bonds.”

Even though the CTA is ridiculously simple, it’s important to understand the context that made it so effective. People not at war still had people they cared about fighting overseas.

This led to fear and an intense desire to help in any way they could.

If your reader is aware of a strong pain, they are looking for fast relief, don’t waste words.

Dig For Victory

dig for victory poster
Image created from Dig for Victory Poster by Andy Maguire via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

The “dig for victory” slogan was part of a British agriculture WWII campaign in order to get people to grow their own food to help support rations.

What’s most interesting here is that there’s no obvious connection to gardening in this CTA (“dig” is a stretch).

Also note:

  • It’s short.
  • It’s connected to a desired result (victory in war).
  • It’s simple (digging is straightforward, “planting” seems more complicated).

Protect and Survive

Protect and Survive Phtomontage
Protect and Survive Photomontage by Peter Kennard, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

This CTA was used by the government during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The purpose was to serve as instructions to follow during a nuclear attack and was included in pamphlets and films with more detail.

This CTA is really a cue. The people already knew what to do, but this cue triggers that knowledge in a time of crisis.

Takeaway: You may be able to create a similar CTA that triggers emotional reflexes that your audience has. Here’s a great guide to emotional buying with more detail.

Keep Calm and Carry On

keep calm and carry one
Keep Calm Poster via Wikipedia, in the public domain

This phrase just won’t die out, even in times of peace.

It was originally put on motivational posters in 1939 to raise the morale of the British public.

This CTA is so well known that many people are more familiar with parodies of it than they are of the original. Indeed, it has reached the point where the BBC has asked Keep Calm and Carry On: Are the Parodies Still Funny?

Takeaway: If there’s a point on your page or sales process where you believe readers might be overwhelmed, a simple CTA can be used to encourage them to continue.

For example: “I know this seems complicated, but I’ll break it down in simple steps for you if you continue…”

Ban the Bomb

Ban the Bomb Sign
Ban the Bomb Rally 2017 by Paul Sableman via Wikipedia, licensed under CC BY 2.0

This phrase was widely adopted by opposers of nuclear weapons by supporters of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). It became an iconic phrase during the 1960s.

There are a few aspects of the CTA to note:

  • Alliteration: “Ban the bomb” easily rolls off the tongue, and is easily remembered.
  • Clear: “Ban” only has one interpretation, versus words like stop, limit, regulate.
  • Imagery: They could have said to ban “nuclear,” but “bomb” puts the image of horrifying nuclear weapons used in the past into your mind. That emotional response elicits action.

What Would Jesus Do? (WWJD)

wwjd
Image based on Ichthys Symbol via Wikipedia, in the public domain

WWJD has been a popular Christian phrase since the 1990s, especially in America.

For people that it resonates with, it acts as a reminder to adhere to the tenets of Christianity — mostly of trying to be kind and loving.

Most people try to be better, it’s why companies endorse certain types of celebrities (eg, Nike uses athletes in ads).

Takeaway: It’s possible in some situations to name drop in your CTAs as well. For example, “Use Tiger’s club,” if you sell golf clubs.

Think Different

think different
Think Different via Wikipedia, in the public domain

All serious copywriters should study apple; they’ve had some of the most successful advertising campaigns in the past few decades.

The phrase “think different” allowed Apple to differentiate themselves from IBM and other competitors when Apple wasn’t the giant it is today.

It was used from 1997 to 2002, yet is still remembered by most people today (at least over the age of 25 or so).

It’s short, memorable, but most importantly brought individuality to a field where there was little. IBM and others were making very similar products, all described by tech specs.

But when consumers went to purchase a PC, many of them wanted to “think different” and not buy the same standard box as everyone else.

Takeaway: If you’re selling a product in a monotone niche, consider using CTAs (and designing your products) to emphasize individuality. People crave freedom, use CTAs to associate your brand with freedom.

Don’t Mess With Texas

dont mess with texas sign
Dont’ Mess With Texas Sign by Anneaholaward via Wikipedia

This CTA was a slogan with the intention of reducing littering on Texas roads, which isn’t quite obvious at first glance.

It was highly effective, reducing litter by about 72% over a 4 year period.

One thing really stands out about it: appeal to pride.

Whoever created the slogan understood that of all the possible motivators behind not littering, intense pride of their community and state was the most effective one.

Takeaway: Think of all the motivators your readers or customers have. Pick the strongest one and create CTAs that evoke feelings of it.

Taste the Rainbow

Skittles Follow the Rainbow
Image created from Skittles Box Photo by Mike Mozart via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

This CTA was part of one of the longest running advertising campaigns in history. It was used in at least 41 different commercials.

While Skittles are pretty standard sugar candy, this campaign and CTA helped them differentiate from competitors. People buying this type of candy have a primary motivator: flavor.

We associate flavor of these types of candy with color, and what could be better than having a wide variety of flavors.

Takeaway: The brilliance comes from comparing the flavor diversity to a rainbow, the most colorful thing most people can think of. Try to liken your product’s strongest attribute to the image people think of for it.

Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself

Romans 13:9 - Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself

Just like WWJD, this phrase prompts people to try and act more compassionately in social interactions.

The CTA that is most memorable from it is “love thy neighbor.”

It’s short and easy to remember.

Takeaway: Most importantly, it expresses a constant desire of most people to act better. If you run a business where your product isn’t the final goal or solution, center your CTAs around the actions that your customers are trying to achieve. For example, a gym could use a CTA of “lift that weight” in posters around the gym to motivate customers.

Go West, Young Man

Go West, Young Man
Image via Wikipedia, in the public domain

This phrase likely came from the 19th century, but its origin is not clear.

However, according to The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, it likely came from the full quotation of: “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country”. Its intent was to spur young men to help expand America westward.

Just like the military, it targets a specific group of people: young men searching for direction.

Takeaway: Like in other CTAs, choosing a life’s purpose and direction is complicated, so simple instruction works best. In this case “go west.”

Do Not Be Wise in Words — Be Wise in Deeds

Do not be wise in words - be wise in deeds

This is a famous Jewish proverb that encourages people to not just learn how to be a good person, but to take action and transform that knowledge into good deeds.

While it’s a bit long for most CTAs, I included it here because it illustrates two useful techniques: repetition and contrast.

Takeaway: Despite being long, this phrase is memorable because it uses the same sub-phrase twice (“be wise in”), in different ways. Certain businesses can mirror this technique by using phrases like “don’t give up, give a little more” in their copy.

Just Say No

Just Say No - Nancy Reagan
Nancy Reagan “Just Say No” vi Wikipedia, in the public domain

The most iconic phrase of the war on drugs, first said by Nancy Reagan when a schoolgirl asked what to do if offered drugs.

This one phrase, not intentionally planned, became iconic over the 1980s and 1990s.

Takeaway: The effectiveness of this phrase comes from its simplicity. It’s short, memorable, and contains simple instructions to follow in a time of stress.

This very serious context can be used in less challenging contexts. If choosing to buy your product can seem overwhelming to your customers, give simple instructions in your CTA.

Be All You Can Be

This phrase served as the US Army’s recruiting slogan for more than 2 decades. It was meant to inspire citizens to take action and sign up for the army, used mainly in print and television ads.

It was created in 1980 by Earl Carter while he was employed by the NW Ayer Advertising Agency.

A few things stand out about this CTA:

  • It’s short, just 5 words.
  • It’s easy to say (all one syllable words).
  • Focused on “you.”
  • Calls to a widely-shared deep desire (being a better person).

Just Do It

just do it
Just Do It Logo via Wikipedia,

This CTA dates back to 1988 and is known worldwide. The campaign helped Nike improve its North American sport-shoe share from 18% to 43% in one decade.

Why is it so good?

When people go to buy shoes, they think of the challenges they will face — whether running on the track, street, court, etc.

In times of stress, as we’ve seen from other examples, the best instructions are simple ones. Sometimes we need to hear: “just do it.”

As an athlete, hearing that phrase evokes stillness and confidence in your mind. So when you’re buying shoes, picturing your competition, and hear that phrase, it feels right.

Lessons Learned: What Makes a Good CTA?

Many of those CTA lessons apply to specific circumstances, but there are a few patterns that appear in almost all of them.

Keep it Short

While that’s far from a complete sample of CTAs, it shows a few obvious trends, especially in length:

CTA length chart

The most common number of words in a CTA was 3, followed closely by 4. The highest number of words was 7, which isn’t even that long.

Short and simple is usually best.

Involve More Than Just Words

CTAs can be more than just words. They can also include:

  • Pictures (people, products, or scenery)
  • Color
  • Sound

If your CTA isn’t converting as high as you’d like, don’t just test the words, but these other elements as well.

CTAs Should Be Easy to Say and Remember

You want readers to read your CTA in their head and know exactly what to do, not stumble their way through it.

There are 3 main ways to do this:

  • Alliteration: studies have shown that alliteration enhances memory in readers.
  • Rhyming: rhymes are proven mnemonic devices that enhance recall.
  • Length: small chunks of 3-4 items (like words or numbers) are easiest to remember.

Try Starting With a Message and Trimming Down

If you’re having a hard time creating a CTA, read through your existing content and look for parts that stand out. Then, see if you can’t take a small piece of that to use as a CTA.

One way to systematize this is to make a brief outline of your final document. You can go paragraph-by-paragraph or be less rigid. But by providing a synopsis of what you’ve written, you will see what you are saying in simple terms.

Based upon this handy summary, you will be able to ask yourself how this information can be used by a reader. Based upon this, you will be able to create one or more calls to action.

Conclusion

CTAs are essential if you want readers or customers to take action. They’re also necessary if you want readers to take a specific action that aligns with your goals.

I highly recommend taking the time to go through the analysis of each example until you internalize why it was effective.

Finally, use the takeaways throughout this post, along with the lessons at the end to guide you when creating new CTAs for your business.

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