A penny for your thoughts makes it very hard to get by in this economy.
Is it just me or was there not as much hype around the Super Bowl ads this year? Sure there were the usual headlines of millions of dollars being spent per spot, but the whole thing felt a little more rote and by the numbers, no real surprises standing out with all the brands that, in their excitement, couldn’t wait until the game and released their ads early. Anyway, I hear the game was better this year at least.
Following some recent efforts of remaking their old ads, Budweiser thoroughly update their famous ‘Wassup’ commercial by replacing noughties dudes with twenties smart devices. The core concept is great, robotic voices eerily replicating casual conversation, but the rising ridiculousness as more devices from toothbrushes to kamikaze Roombas are brilliant at ramping up the comedy. The public safety message tying in Uber at the end is a bit of tonal whiplash, but overall a fun ad that hits the nostalgia and funny brain matter.
Have chosen the ad’s teaser (a concept I normally hate) for this entry, but the joke never gets funnier than that initial eureka realisation. MC Hammer sits at a piano, humming a new tune, when suddenly the Cheeto product’s greatest drawback becomes inspiration for a multi-platinum song. Fantastic example of flipping a negative into a positive on Cheetos’ part, and a perfect example of celebrity tie in that suits the brand perfectly.
Sliced bread has had it too easy for too long, or so say Little Caesars. Sure it hits every cliche in the book, but the execution between production design, editing and Riann Wilson’s megalomaniac performance really tickled me. That it took Little Caesars to finally cause everything to crumble over at Sliced Bread HQ is perhaps a stretch, but this ad left me for one in the mood for pizza.
As someone else with a mother who loves a phone call, this felt very relatable. Basically a product demo ad, with a big USP slapped all over, but the performances and twist of who could be using the new service did a good job of getting that message across clearly. T-Mobile works anywhere - and maybe not ideally for you - at any time.
Think Pringles made a really brave move here, as this is really more of a Rick and Morty piece of content than for Pringles. That’s probably why it works, doubling down on Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s zany, cynical sci-fi tropes, even going so far as to make Pringles the ‘bad guy’ in the scene, and plus the internet loves Rick and Morty, for good or ill. Sure it doesn’t really have a resolution, but with over twenty Pringles references in 30”, they’ll be considering it job done.
With the year 2019 turned out to be, I don’t think many minded when Christmas arrived at the earliest possible moment - November 1st the ads and supermarket packaging appeared - as a welcome distraction while the world burns around us. So let’s huddle round and roast marshmallows on the cindering remains with these, my favourite corporate manufactured emotion manipulators of the year.
A good year for Apple this Christmas on the ad front. This short film tells the story of a family going to spend Christmas with their widowed grandfather and all the bickering, laughs and tears it entails. The attention to detail is brilliant, the characters’ thoughts alluded to but unsaid, everything tying together to become important in the end and including the product as naturally and unobtrusively as possible - even the lazy parenting is understandable. And only those with black holes for hearts won’t be moved by that score from Up. I’m not crying, you’re crying.
Apple iPhone 11 Pro
Polar opposite from the wider brand ad, but if the brief was to show how amazing the camera on the iPhone 11 Pro is then consider me sold (metaphorically). Exciting, energetic, epic, it covers ground rarely seen in Christmas ad space by making an action sequence and putting you in the heart of it.
While the ad itself is nothing really to write home about, the means by which it was distributed, by marketing maestro Ryan Reynolds, makes it one of the year’s most memorable. Within a week of Peloton’s contentiously received offering, they sourced the actress and quickly fired out a response, which must have gained as much traction from Twitter as the original did in its whole paid for campaign (not that Peloton will be losing sleep over it, the amount of earned media over this debacle will be enormous).
For my money the funniest ad of the year. Simple premise, expertly directed to ratchet up the tension with two spot on performances. The kid, unlike so many others this year, stays the right side of precocious without becoming punchable, and ties in to the brand line of “For those who never compromise.” I still laugh every time I watch it (“Timmy… Timmy! Wh-What are we doing?”).
While the other supermarkets tried, and in my opinion failed, to out dazzle each other with big ideas and bigger budgets, Morrison’s did something completely different. They started with a well executed, if forgettable food porn ad, but then went one further when two colleagues came to them suggesting they make a film about something they do year round, giving food to a local food bank. The colleagues shot and appear in the ad, and the genuine generosity and authenticity will do more to endear them to whoever sees it (admittedly, I suspect, not many) than a CG dragon ever could.
Recently I was working on two ads that, as deadlines would have it, were filming within a week of each other. Beyond the fact they were both shoots and all the similarities that entails, they couldn’t have been more opposite ends of the style spectrum. Now they’re both on air and I’ve had a chance to catch up on my sleep (20-year-old location-drama floor-runner me would be embarrassed), here’s a brief comparison of the two.
First up was Heriot-Watt, a university in Edinburgh who wanted to get more applicants for their courses, having not advertised as much as their competitors in recent years. The brief had different elements they wanted to promote, including their heritage, range of courses and employability. Their current campaign is “Be Future Made,” which provided a good kicking off point. The client also had a strong idea of the kind of adverts he liked, inspiring, emotional and voiceover led. After a round of scripts, it became a little bit of A and a little of B, then we were swinging into production.
Heriot-Watt is an entire university and, therefore, huge. Meeting the client to discuss the script was so useful as it turned into a subterfuge recce, almost entirely informing the shot list. You never can know a client well enough until you get out and understand their world. We also firmed up the aims of the ad, to showcase the range of courses on offer - mostly scientific and engineering, but also including finance, social sciences and textiles, reference their international campuses in Dubai and Malaysia, and highlight the diversity of the students coming from a whole range of backgrounds. So, quite a lot to do in 30 seconds.
Time was always the concern on this job, trying to balance everything that needed to be included and in timescales that were not the most generous. Things that aided us were we obviously already had a location and in most cases it was pretty photogenic; Heriot-Watt had a group of student ambassadors we could use for filming, essential as we couldn’t have done it without them; and we assembled a good crew of seasoned pros able to work on the fly. To check the script was working I made an animatic from recce photos and internet images, along with my best epic VO, something I try to do for every job, and though quick, all was flowing fine.
In no time it was shoot day, a 06:15 call time to get to the location in Edinburgh. We had 10 unit moves around the campus to capture as many of the courses as possible, the shot list pruned from 40 to 25 shots and the production coordinator and runner had spent a day orienting themselves and making a movement order so we wouldn’t lose precious time getting lost in identical looking corridors like kids on the first day of high school.
The shooting style had to be as light as possible. Handheld, battery powered lights and everything needed to be set up in preparation for us arriving. When shooting in a well lit area, we dispatched the gaffer as a makeshift B Camera for pickup shots of exteriors, particularly during dry spells as the weather, of course, was nowhere near as cooperative as on the beautiful recce. The staff around the uni were a great help, setting up experiments, coding programs we needed and teaching a student how to operate heavy machinery. Phil (prod coord) and Barnum (runner) were terrific at keeping everything running and getting the students I was looking for where we needed them to be, myself not being able to see them before shooting (thanks GDPR). On Phil’s pedometer he clocked over 34,000 steps for the day, over 30km.
Not only did we get everything we were after, without having to compromise on quality, but we wrapped 10 minutes early, getting back into Glasgow at 20:30. With it all happening so fast it was hard to see the wood for the trees, but reflecting back that we got to film with lasers, lathes and a fist bumping robot, this was a particularly fun, interesting job. The client was a great help, throwing himself into it full heartedly, and I was delighted to hear that in the first week of running searches for Heriot-Watt increased by 600%. Plus I got to see it on the big screen (my first cinema ad) right where The Rock’s face would soon be in Hobbs & Shaw. Back pats all round.
Meanwhile, as all this was going on, another ad was in production for a client that has grown with us over the last 18 months, Carrington Dean. They were looking for a new branding ad that was to bring their new campaign, “Don’t let debt become your elephant in the room” to TV. For several reasons, timescales, the nature of the shoot and that I had only polished the script from someone else’s concept, I was to shadow the director on this one.
The idea behind this one was a woman in her house starts seeing elephants everywhere, as debt starts playing on her mind. Therefore pre-production was totally different, even discounting the lack of actual elephants. We had to do castings, art directing and location scouting, all of which had been provided on Heriot-Watt. This meant we had far more control over what the ad was going to look like, but also a lot of work in making it happen.
For this ad the main challenge to consider was tone. We didn’t want debt to seem trivial or to be made light of, even though loads of elephants suddenly appearing could easily be made funny, while at the same time not making it appear scary or insurmountable. The director did this by casting an actress with good expressions and timing, without going too large or comedic, and aiming for a more absurdist style.
Perhaps the most tangible difference between the two jobs was that while one was filming an entire uni campus, this was filmed almost exclusively in one room. While some of the crew was doing half marathons on Heriot-Watt, the only moving we were doing on Carrington Dean was from the living room set to the front door of the house we were using for some much needed fresh air; the 10 grown bodies, lights, smoke machine and summer sun (seems to always be nice when filming indoors…) creating quite the atmosphere.
To justify my presence on set, I appointed myself script supervisor, before also being asked to help as a 1st AD. This put me in the very contradictory position of saying, “Come on guys, we’re going to have to speed this up, we’re ten over, but also are you sure you got that, was the eyeline is maybe a bit off, should we do another one?” Being contained in one room meant more control over how everything would look, but naturally also led to procrastination and tinkering. Plus as this was one sequential scene, continuity was much more important, both for props and costume, but also the arc of setup, descent into elephants, and resolution.
As time got away, after spending more time on the key scenes/emotions, we started thinking creatively and logistically about what scenes were vital, if they could be cut/condensed, and if actions could be moved to where we already had a lighting setup. In a final deviation from my shoot the week before, we wrapped ten minutes over, both vastly different shoots having ended up filming around the same amount.
Post production on was equally different. Heriot-Watt looked much like my original animatic (though obviously much, much better), whereas a lot of experimentation went into Carrington Dean. Since it was building a narrative, it needed to tell the story in a very strict, short timescale. Ultimately the script ended up moving around, with payoffs becoming setups and full sequences cut to create a more cohesive ad. The sound sessions had totally contrasting priorities too, Heriot-Watt requiring a lot of direction on the driving voiceover while Carrington Dean built a soundscape of elephant roars as the cherry on the metaphor of debt.
Carrington Dean also got a great reception when it launched, the client telling us they had their busiest Monday/Tuesday ever (this from a company whose staff we made work weekends after a previous ad campaign - they must love us), and imagery from the shoot is popping up on billboards around the country. The client is lovely, and puts a lot of stock in our advice, so great to see them continue to have great results with us.
It’s the old waiting on a bus thing, we might not have a shoot for months then two come along in a week. But what is always the case is the clients and the jobs are never the same, each one bringing its own challenges and solutions. The great thing about this job is you never know what will come across your desk. Next up I’m filming a toilet getting interviewed.
Last night was the Super Bowl, aka advertising’s second Christmas! While I understand the game itself was more disappointing than the one that pretty much killed my burgeoning interest in the sport, the adverts were… also pretty disappointing. There were no headline snatching stunts, like Skittles making an ad for only one person or game changers like Tide invading every other ad in a way you now can't unsee.
Being in the UK and foregoing the snack stadiums and Monday off work this year, I’m catching these ads from the internet, so some may not be as they appeared during the game. It strangely does (or did) dilute the experience, not joining in consumerism’s self propagated fever dream and missing adverts for products we can’t buy here. We have to make do with Sky or the BBC. Where during timeouts they *shudder* analyse the game.
Pepsi - Is Pepsi Okay?
I’ve always imagined this as advertising’s greatest challenge, its Everest, its impossible dream - getting people to order ‘cola’ instead of ‘coke.’ This is a situation probably everyone in the Western world has encountered and Pepsi, using the opportunity of exclusive Super Bowl partnership to take it to Coke in their own Atlanta backyard, decided to address it. The execution is a little awkward, not sure why Steve Carell is the spokesman (though better than other recent Pepsi celeb partnerships), but the bravery of tackling this proposition head on really stood out for me. Also Pepsi is always better than Coke.
Michelob Ultra - The Pure Experience
I’m a sucker for good sound design, and this entry from Michelob Ultra does that and then some. From a surreal, idyllic location to thirst inducing close ups this slow, measured ad takes its time, but with that confidence it lands all the harder. The relatively rare but always impactful use of effective surround sound draws you in more than most, since sometimes to get spotted amongst the blaring noise you need to be silent. This one had the rare result whereas if I ever see Michelob Ultra (only recently launched in the UK), I’ll definitely be trying a pint.
Pringles - Sad Device
Gets loads of product in, a message about its benefits then into one of the best gags of the night. Job done. An advantage of this as well is to make the most of the stacking flavours, you’d need to buy multiple tubes of Pringles, so works really hard for the client. The joke works on a very existential level, does your voice control assistant feel anguish or torment, being unable to experience the world it knows so much about, cursed to only watch as its ungrateful masters indulge? Who cares? The perfectly pitched dismissal and spot on choice of music ties it together deliciously.
Devour - Food Porn
Who would’ve thought there were so many parallels to be drawn between pornography and frozen ready meals? A hilarious spot that gets so many miles out of both sight and entendre gags. The tone is perfect, treated seriously like a real addiction ad, and it’s not hard to imagine there would be some crossover between those with the parodied addiction and the target market. This is the uncensored 60” version, but the 30” that played during the game works too, where the more explicit references were cut, leaving it to the viewer's imagination. The discarded napkins in place of tissues definitely belong post-watershed.
Audi - Cashew
Easily the best rug pull of the year, what starts as a stylised, emotional story of a man connecting with his long lost grandfather is in fact just teeing you up for a sucker punch of a gag. The stark contrast between the angelic crescendo and the washed out office brilliantly enhances the joke. The man was about to die, and he was going to heaven in an Audi. It got me and it got me good. The fact he looks gutted to still be alive is a lovely touch. The messaging about going electric doesn’t really tie in, but the halo effect will help with that, since you were probably too busy enjoying Spirit in the Sky.
Ever since we packed up our pumpkins at the end of October we’ve been subject to the annual bombardment of capitalism on crack that is Christmas advertising. There’s been unfortunate rip offs - Sainsbury’s must have on set watching the John Lewis Bohemian Rhapsody ad in September thinking, “F***.” - banned social good ads - Iceland if you’re really against palm oil don’t just remove it from your own products, refuse to sell it outright, take a proper stand - and sequels we never asked for.
So here’s my top five Christmas ads this year. I think it’s been fair to say it hasn’t been a classic, with a much lower hit rate of standouts from the class of 2018. Perhaps this is no bad thing, as when each iteration tries to be bigger, better and more emotion assaulting there comes a point where it has to peak before it either goes in another direction or the cycle starts again. Just look at John Lewis.
John Lewis - Elton John
Actually let’s look at John Lewis, which after several years of diminishing returns of animated critters has changed track and gone big, celeb endorsement. I appreciated the grander scale, covering decades and globe trotting tours, taking you on a journey through a flamboyant life. The filmmaking craft is phenomenal from the editing to the set dressing to the costumes. It does a much better job of showing how gifts can be life changing, over the likes of Very for instance, in that this was a real story. It’s the first in a good few years that has left me feeling how they want me to feel.
Waitrose - Too Good to Wait
Waitrose, a John Lewis partner, had the inspired idea to ride John Lewis’s coat tails by making their ad about a family watching the John Lewis ad. So meta. It works because it’s treated with such little reverence, with good performances and a strong tagline that ties it all up, which I’m sure many who don’t see the hype about these showcase ads will sympathise with. This was just one in a series of people rushing through things to get to the food (the school choir one is also excellent) but for convention breaking balls it has to be this one.
Twitter - John Lewis
Another John Lewis related ad that using the cultural behemoth as a kick off for subversion. Every year you hear about that poor guy in America getting inundated with wrongly directed tweets since he is the owner of the handle @johnlewis. Twitter, brilliantly, decided to take this and make him the star of their ad. The tone is perfect, from John mundanely replying to stock enquiries to the reveal that the indie guitar cover being sung live building a delightfully surreal experience. Which, for this guy, every year must be.
Pedigree - Season of Good Dog
A surprise from a brand not usually big on Christmas ads, with a lovely holiday message not about Christmas, but about Good Dog, which took me far too long to realise is what the star dog thinks its name is. The attention to detail is fantastic, great writing making you believe this is from the dog’s perspective (“W-A-L-K went a different way”), coupled with dog themed carols, a Big Lebowski-esque dream sequence and subtle inclusion of Pedigree (“I couldn’t eat, but I did.”) and I look forward to see what they come back with next year.
Currys PC World - Magic of Christmas Upgraded
This was a struggle finding a standout fifth, but I think for me it’s the one that launched this year’s Christmas rush, Currys PC World just for the fun inclusion of their products in a Dickensian world. The production values are great, filling a whole techno Victorian street, complete with drones and many of the gags land better than in other ads, the horse and carriage with the banging sound system made me laugh out loud. Not close to the Jeff Goldblum series of 2015 (three years ago!!) which goes to prove every ad should feature Jeff Goldblum.