Desert Island Ads
The advertising industry is like a train station, full of people on different journeys, jostling for space on a small platform. Some are trying to figure out where they’re going. Others are indifferent. I’ve met very few with a true calling. Most people just end up there. My grandfather was one of the first art directors in Lintas.
My dad, Rex Berry, was head of marketing in Bloomingdales, New York. My uncle, Norman Berry, had his own London agency for a while, then became ECD at Ogilvy, later taking over for David Ogilvy. I was therefore probably destined to end up in the train station; after all, the men in my family were all train drivers.
But I’ve always been a creative type, given to exaggeration, drawing and writing. And I fell in love with the movies from a young age. Advertising satisfied my desire to tell stories, but actually make a living from it, unlike my unread screenplays.
It also gave me the glorious opportunity to think of ideas and solve puzzles. I’ve been inspired by many pieces of work in my career. Conceptually audacious, disciplined, exquisitely written, faultlessly executed ads that I am happy to be manipulated by, time and time again. Below are a few. And thanks to Covid-19 and lockdown, I’ve had a chance to revisit them.
Union Carbide -‘Watch the birdy’
Made in 1967, this 2min 30sec ad is as old as I am, but still feels astonishingly fresh. By today’s standards, this work may seem sluggish and anachronistic. But this ad, more than any other, taught me about dramatizing the efficacy of a product. It’s a masterclass in confident copy writing and the power of simple demonstration. It would fall foul of YouTube’s 3-second hook algorithm. But the power of the slow-burn story telling is undeniable. The chillingly measured voice calmly laying out the benefits of the insulation, combined with the tense narrative of the chick’s fate hanging in the balance, is a tour de force of visual and verbal juggling. Unfortunately, I don’t think most 21 century thumb-fidgeting consumers would pause long enough to find out if the little birdy lives or not.
Apple – ‘1984’
I saw this one during its one-time airing on the Super Bowl back in New York and felt like I was watching a glitch in the Matrix, more than a commercial. The next day, people were not talking about the unexceptional football game. They were talking about the woman with the hammer and the iconic, daring brilliance of this ad. It certainly tipped me towards a career in advertising and utterly changed my perception of a brand. Written by Steven Hayden, the Apple board of directors rejected the original script outright. But visionaries Jobs and Wozniak famously offered to pay for the film’s production in order to force the committee’s hand. It looks grim and dystopian. It doesn’t show the product. It’s resolutely negative until the final moments. For all these reasons it would have spectacularly failed, had it been tested. But luckily, the bullying Big Brother of research wasn’t allowed to delete this work of art based on the anathema of originality and the absence of a familiar formula.
McDonald’s – ‘Brotherly Love’
Until the recent concerns over supply chains and the new agenda of healthy eating, McDonald’s advertising made a virtue of its ubiquity and mass-consumption by focusing the advertising on the potential for people to bond over fast-food. It was the occasion, not the greasy burger and chips, that mattered. This ad, from the early 2000s is a brilliant example of crisp story-telling, nuanced performances and deft editing. During this kitchen sink drama, the ad also manages to effortlessly weave in a value message about Happy Meals as the selfless brother upends his piggy bank in search of meagre funds. And the final beat as the father sweeps his son’s feet off the table is a beautifully observed, tender and tough gesture that sucker-punches me in the tear ducts every time.
Wideroe Airlines – ‘Magic Trick’
Imagine the banality of the brief: make frequent flights over Norway courtesy of Wideroe Airlines, compelling. How do you get that pedestrian fact to soar? Many marketeers would have demanded pristine interiors of planes, happy families and number of flights per day. They would have wanted proof points. Instead, we’re treated to a delightful vignette with two people that have nothing to do with the offering. No amount of strategy or consumer insight can induce a lateral idea of this caliber. But the scenario is not just whimsy for its own sake; it’s anchored by the fact that Wideroe flights are predictable, which elegantly distils the benefit. The decision to draw the viewer in at the start with the charming tableau of the boy is also inspired because it awakens one’s own child-like curiosity to discover what has captured his attention. I also love it when the kid scratches his nose.
Lego -‘The Box’
Sticking with the theme of childhood wonder and curiosity, comes an ad from Lego that also withholds information in order to create intrigue. It’s also a marvelous and logical extension of Lego’s brand essence: the power of imagination. What better way of demonstrating Lego’s lasting appeal than to write a story that forces the viewer to use their imagination, rather than showing a tangible model? This is a brand operating at the highest level of confidence. And that reputational swagger gives permission to the creatives to not show the product. The thought of an extraordinary Lego creation is more powerful than the reality. Another lovely detail to note is the uninspiring surroundings of the child when we first meet him. By making an extreme contrast between the boy’s drab world and the exciting potential of Lego, the narrative gains even more momentum.
Playstation – ‘Double Life’
Back in the so-called golden age of advertising in 1960s, it seemed like copy writers in Madison Avenue were all battling each other with the weapons of persuasive language. Yet now, the received wisdom is that crafted VW copy, albeit a high-water mark, is less relevant to contemporary marketing which relies more on eye-candy. Then along comes an ad for a game console that doesn’t show any video game footage but instead employs thought-provoking poetry with talking heads to peddle facile, mind-numbing entertainment. Apart from the superb wordsmithing, rousing music and perfectly pitched casting, this work is a testament to the bravery of a client who clearly respected its niche audience and their intelligence and was not afraid to cut through the clutter of conservative, Shutter-Stock, smug millennials and reach out to a more edgy, problematic and disenfranchised group. I wish I had this on my reel.
Walmart – ‘Clown’
Walmart. We all know they sell loads of cheap and cheerful stuff. So don’t bother showing me all the discounts and the miles of merchandise. I don’t want to see that. I want to see a well-meaning, Bozo of a dad, jump in the air and spike his foot on a toy unicorn. This ad is 10 years old and it never fails to make me laugh. The cocky set up of the father, the panicking children, the blasé face of the wife as her husband roars in agony. It’s a party I never want to leave. And just listen to how the exposition of the Walmart value piece is thrown away. It’s just basic information, nothing more. The client recognized that and didn’t fixate. Instead, they let the creatives clown around and indulge, once they had done the heavy lifting. Rarer than a unicorn, that.
Vim – ‘Prisoner’
There’s no question this old American ad gender stereotypes women. Would it have worked with a son and dad? Absolutely. Nevertheless, it’s a deeply funny, innovative commentary on the cliché of cleaning drudgery. It wrong foots us from the beginning with the mother’s prison-orange overalls and the sincerity of the performances. You can almost hear the penny drop in the briefing as the planner said ‘proud homemakers often feel imprisoned by cleaning duties’. Of course, there’s a vice and a virtue to using consumer insights. The truth of everyday life often speaks louder than the product benefit, so you remember the truism, rather than the brand. Here, the creatives just about escape the jail on that one.
Comcast – ‘Fast Rabbit’
Communication companies will forever be locked in an arms race over internet speed claims. The consumer doesn’t really care. They assume it’s all pretty much the same. Including the ads. One shows fast, swishy graphics. The other hires Usain Bolt. So how do you disrupt what is essentially B2B navel gazing? You come up with an analogy that is so silly and hyperbolic you not only stick in people’s minds, you satirize the whole category. Many ads that rely on CGI can end up feeling lazy, as if over-compensating for a thin idea. Not this one. The achingly funny mock seriousness of the copy, coupled with precise art direction makes this one of the best examples of ‘fantasy’ advertising I have ever seen. And to top it off, you get to hear a grown man say: ‘The rabbit/panther thingy with turbines and tail-wind on ice, shaved.’
Ram Trucks – ‘God made a Farmer’
Another Super Bowl ad from 2013. No media event in the world applies the same pressure on the advertising industry to birth greatness. And many ads in that prime time slot have become media events in their own right, from Clint Eastwood’s exceptional ‘Half Time in America’ speech for Chrysler to the recent, ludicrously genius Tide takeover. However, I chose this piece for Ram Trucks because it was never written to be an ad. It was composed by a religious, conservative radio broadcaster by the name of Paul Harvey for the occasion of the Future Farmers of America convention in 1978. And that’s, of course, what makes each and every word so passionate and genuine. Combine this homespun requiem with the imagery of hard working Ram trucks and evocative, beautiful portraits of agricultural front line workers and you have bottled lightning. The echo of the convention hall that frames each heartfelt word resonates long after the two minute ad finishes. A small miracle.