The best (and the worst) CGI animals in ads

Marketers' love affair with CGI animals continues apace. McVitie's latest tongue-in-cheek riff on the cute kitten YouTube phenomenon makes its TV debut tonight, while John Lewis' 'Monty the penguin' spot continues to dominate the airwaves and online.

Animals appear to be starring in more ads than ever. But unlike the era of the Tetley chimps, real animals have increasingly relinquished their roles in favour of their CGI counterparts...with mixed results.

Like any tool, the effectiveness of CGI very much depends on the creative wielding it; and viewers have been subjected to some ads that work neither in terms of realism, nor animation, but which stand awkwardly between the two.

At the other end of the scale, this evening (4 December) sees the launch of McVitie’s first Christmas TV campaign for more than 30 years. The ad for the biscuit brand’s Victoria selection box stars a veritable menagerie of cute animals emerging from the box, from an Alaskan Malamute puppy, a Persian kitten, a rabbit and even a (presumably inebriated) baby narwhal rising to the surface of a punchbowl (someone call the RSPCA!).

To celebrate the rise and rise of these slightly unreal furry friends, Marketing spoke to Nils Leonard, chairman and chief creative officer of Grey London, the agency responsible for the McVitie's ad, who offered his opinion on some of the best and worst CGI animal ads of the past.

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"Animals have always been used in ads," he says. "John Webster [the creative behind greats like the Hofmeister Bear and John Smith's penguins] used them powerfully to surprise people and make brands famous.

"Today, I think the interesting thing to note is the divide between the historic use of animals as storytelling characters and the cute phenomenon, which is relatively new."

Accordingly, the McVitie’s zoomorphic epic treads a fine line between cutesy, kitschy and silly, enveloped with a warm Christmassy fuzz.

"Apart from Sainsbury’s (which I think is incredible), everyone’s made a Christmas ad in the same colours as the John Lewis ad," Leonard contends. "It’s like one story in seven different outfits. We really wanted to be an antidote to the John Lewis tear-blubber thing.

"When developing the McVitie's ads we looked at that phenomenon on social media and found not just cute animals, but animals that were ridiculously cute and people making them cuter by putting them in human contexts - like wearing polo-necks. With McVitie’s, we wanted to play in that area, for sure, but we wanted to take it to a ridiculous level."

So, in no particular order, here are some great, and not so great, ads from over the years, some featuring heavy CGI usage and some seamlessly blending real animals, animatronics and CGI.

First Direct - Little frill

Leonard: "The technical advertising craft on this is really great. First Direct have owned black-and-white for so long. Black-and-white is usually reserved for 'serious' bits of film, but used with animals, it’s very funny and a little bit random."

Comparethemarket - Oleg the meerkat

Leonard: "I think the meerkat’s lack of realism is fine. It doesn’t matter if the meerkat is not in perfect synch, because it's a character piece. But I wish they’d moved him on. They need to be thinking about how to make this idea longer and change its shape, how can he collide with other media or surprise people again.

"Comparethemarket started noisy character advertising. But it’s becoming part of the background and they should start to worry about that now."

O2 - ‘Be more dog'

Leonard: "I think that everyone really wanted to love this ad. The line is excellent but the ad as a whole doesn’t work as hard as it could, because of the execution. For O2, it was a compelling message, like a planner’s ad.

"The craft lets it down; the CGI, the cuts, even the grade. It’s like Whiskas meets Pedigree Chum. It’s partly the craft and the CGI, but it’s really the direction and pace."

Three - Dancing pony

Leonard: "It’s remarkable, and stands out in its category. The truth is that people use their phones to find this sort of stuff on YouTube, so what Three have done is bring it to life in an ad. It’s really well done. It’s not deep strategically, but you know they said, ‘We’re going to make a pony dance,’ cracked up, then went and did it well."

Guinness - Surfer

Leonard: "This ad is timeless. There are some stories we all know without realising it. The whole ad works like a poem - that white waves can become white horses benefits from an untold truth. There are loads of lovely instinctive bits in the ad, like the sudden bar noise in the middle, no real need for it but its deepening your connection wit the piece.

"What I also loved about it is that, whereas 'Be more dog' is an animal analogy for a story, the white horses in ‘Surfer’ are inconsequential, incidental. They added them to take the ad somewhere special. It’s very rare that you can persuade clients to share that sort of vision."

John Lewis - Monty the Penguin

Leonard: "They are in a tough place with so much expectation placed on them. This is not as brave as a lot of their previous work, and with a lot of animal ads airing at the moment you’d have thought that John Lewis would have avoided featuring a penguin.

"And it’s using the same old trick, although having started the category of schmaltzy folk soundtracked emo film, maybe that’s OK. The craft is really good here, and its undeniably a pop culture smash."

SSE - Orangutan

Leonard: "If I’m really honest, the direction of the piece by Frédéric Planchon is spot on - he did a grand job. But as an ad it’s way off the mark, and strategically it's lost, given the brand it's advertising.

"The intention was to play an intelligent part in the environmental conversation. They made the wrong call and bought this emotive approach and message that they hoped would resonate. But the message doesn’t resonate, because it comes from SSE, an energy company - it comes from the problem.

"So they end up with an unexplained wistful Orangutan on a poster in Archway."

Freeview - cat and budgie

Leonard: "I can imagine why you’d buy the idea on paper. But in execution it looks like they ran out of money, or got obsessed with the wrong stuff, the ad fails to feel big and the execution fell down.

"They tried too hard with the cat’s lips, for instance. I can imagine this whole ad would be better in one take, with less CGI. Great filmmakers understand that often trying less hard with the CGI leaves the story to shine."

Andrex - labrador puppies go CGI

Leonard: "They’ve tried to move the Andrex puppy on by using CGI. Or have they tried to simplify production by using CGI? Either way, the technique is not the task, making it good is the task. CGI is a means to an end, not the end itself."

Muller Rice Rice Baby - ‘Rice rice, baby’ grizzly bear

Leonard: "You’re never going to convince me that a real bear actually did this, and that’s OK. This ad just wants to make you laugh. My favourite bit is the deliberately dodgy paw that hands him the pot of rice – the bear looks a bit crap. Sometimes the genuine, honest crapness of something is actually what makes it good."