For 60 years TV commercials have arrived in our living rooms (and now more often, our laptops) uninvited, and often unwelcome. But occasionally one will turn up, and, like an old friend, be great company. It’s these visits that you talk about and remember for years.
These adverts are startling because the clients who invest in them are brave. They are beautiful because the auteurs directing them are gifted. And they are rare because the agencies who create them are few and far between. Thankfully we have resources, such as the D&AD Annuals, which capture these people and companies in history.
Some clients have been brave for a long time. Volkswagen created one of the first truly ground-breaking commercials in 1964. "Snow Plow" is an example of brilliant craft – in this case copywriting – being allowed to blossom. It takes its time. It makes its point. And it does it with confidence.
Fast forward to the 90s and Volkswagen were still taking their time – recall how "Hiccups", "Lamp Post" and "Chair" make you pause, and consider the brand’s proposition. The agency, DDB, and their client had a long-term understanding. Similarly, BBH and Levi’s love-in produced 1980s highlight "Laundrette". As a result, products were flying off the shelves, and the competition started to take notice.
In the mid-noughties, when the mobile phone market matured and the leading players vied for territory. Orange were working hard to make themselves synonymous with ‘Film’. Alongside their Orange Wednesday promotion were some of the best-written TV commercials of the decade. Featuring the fictional ‘Orange Film Board’, starring Hollywood names in awkward positions, we saw 21st Century irreverence in full flow.
The agency, Mother, were on fire. Rival 3 responded by going after music fans. The surreal genius of "Tupperzik", directed by Traktor, is an oft-overlooked gem. This healthy competition between brands led to creative overdrive.
Even rarer than the brave clients, and creative agencies, are the consistently brilliant directors. In the 70s commercials were directed by creatives who went on to make some definitive feature films. Sir Alan Parker made Bugsy Malone alongside Black Pencil winning Heinz Baked Beans adverts.
Tony and Ridley Scott’s hollywood oeuvre needs no introduction, but it was their TV commercials that illuminated living rooms in the 1970s. Hugh Hudson won many a Pencil before directing Chariots of Fire; Fiat Strada "Handbuilt by Robots" perhaps chief among them.
More recently pioneers like Jonathan Glazer, pushed the medium into cinematic, epic work. Think double Black Pencil winning Guinness "Surfer", which kick-started the 21st Century with a pounding soundtrack.
One may be forgiven for focussing on British ads. Perhaps there is something in our British eccentric nature that made Fallon think Cadbury Gorilla was a good idea? (It was). Now, globally, ads shine a spotlight simultaneously on the nuances of an individual country and on the worldwide appeal of a great idea.
In the past two years alone you could put a pin in the world map and pull out award-winning integrated work like Forsman & Bodenfors "Epic Split", starring Jean Claude Van Damme (Sweden), Denstu Japan’s Ayrton Senna tribute "Sound of Honda" or Dove’s "Real Beauty Sketches" from Ogilvy in Brazil. All of these led digital campaigns, built around TV commercials.
Distribution now means that an ad can run on mobile, cinemas, TV screens, digital OOH simultaneously, optimised for each medium. The blockbuster campaign of 2013, McCann Erickson Melbourne’s "Dumb Ways To Die" ran in every possible medium – including becoming a smash hit game. But at the heart of it, a TV spot that’s beautifully crafted, and like an unexpected visit from a friend, makes you laugh every time.