The Greatest Commercials Ever Made
And an instructive way to look at all advertising.
Apologies for the clickbait-y headline, but this isn’t a list of famous TV commercials like Apple’s “1984” spot and Budweiser’s “Frogs” spot and others that have nothing in common except for the fact that they’re acclaimed.
So let’s get right to the point…
The greatest commercials of all time are music videos.
I Want My MTV . . . or YouTube, or Whatever
Think about it. At its essence, each music video is an ad for a song (the product) and an artist (the brand).
I doubt this is a novel idea, but it had never struck me in quite this way before, even though lots of successful commercial and feature directors get their start with music videos.
Yeah yeah, I know it’s not 1999 and music videos don’t have the same reach and cultural cachet as they once did.
But wait — they arguably have even more reach. Music videos are the most-watched category of video on YouTube today. Many are exceptionally well made and quite artful and seriously push the outside of the envelope, as Chuck Yeager might’ve said. Many are watched millions of times, sometimes billions of times, including countless repeat views.
And that leads me to why I think that, beyond being basically another type of commercial, music videos happen to be the greatest, most successful model for commercials yet devised — it’s because they aren’t conceived as or experienced as advertising at all.
Don’t Be So “Addy” (aka Thirsty)
In a creative review I was in a while back, another agency creative kept saying that he liked this or that concept because it didn’t feel “addy” — that is, its strength as an ad was that it didn’t seem like an ad. He was 100% right to think in that way.
People are super savvy today and everybody seems to loathe advertising, partly because of greedy/irresponsible behavior like tracking, privacy violations, meretricious “analytics,” and other garbage from some digital advertising companies (ahem, Facebook), but also because it’s everywhere, much of it is mediocre at best, and everybody’s over being put upon constantly.
The best advertising, therefore, is successful for the very reason that that aforementioned ad guy identified. It’s shoved in front of our faces uninvited just like all the other ads we’re hit with, but it happens to have some endearing, captivating quality, a way of drawing us in, catching our attention in a surprising way — perhaps with humor, or with beautifully striking imagery, or through a thoughtful story, or with some advanced animation or other visual effects — enough to disarm us and make us forget we’re watching an ad.
The best music videos often rely on those same devices too, all with the untouchable advantage of promoting a product that is universally loved (i.e., music).
Anytime you’re watching a music video, even a poorly made one, the last thing that’s on your mind is that you’re watching an advertisement. But that’s exactly what it is, and that’s exactly why they’re so successful. And just like music videos, the best ads today just aren’t “addy.”
The Point of a Music Video
After all, why do artists make videos for their products? To get people’s attention. To change people’s perception. To increase streaming and sell the song and album (and ticket$). To increase awareness of their art and seize real estate in our heads. In other words, the exact same as for all advertising.
To drive the point home, there seem to be more and more TV commercials that, when you remove the end card at least, could well have been music videos. Like the latest iPhone spot, and last year’s Apple HomePod spot directed by Spike Jonze, and those old iPod spots (as ever, Apple and MAL know what’s up).
Some of the most fantastic recent commercials were even made by musicians, like this Converse spot with Tyler, the Creator, and this pitch-perfect and perfectly meta Sprite ad with Vince Staples. These ads are so good they merit repeat views, just like music videos have always tended to.
The phenomenon of repeat views isn’t unique to music videos. There really are TV commercials that make you want to watch them again too. I’ve gone to search out a few myself, like this brilliant, weird Halo Top ad, or this unsettling old Skittles ad (it’s like a condensed sci-fi story or Edgar Allen Poe tale), or this perfect Old Milwaukee “Super Bowl spot” (the media buy was for just one county in Iowa) made by Will Ferrell.
More Alike Than Different
Here’s a little exercise. For every type of music video — and there are many — it’s not too hard to find its counterpart in the world of TV commercials:
Straightforward music videos showing the artist (brand/product) performing. These are probably the most ubiquitous type of music video. Think of them as the car commercials of music videos, showing the artist performing on stage (or in some unlikelier place). This is not unlike watching that BMW X5 cruising down an urban street before summiting some picturesque Icelandic bluff.
Music videos that showcase elaborate choreography (or that lean on some other corresponding art form, like illustration, animation, or sculpture). Perhaps “Thriller” jumps to your mind for choreography, but let’s go with this Fatboy Slim hall-of-famer. We already mentioned that great Apple HomePod dance spot, but this wonderful Toyota Prius ad features elaborate choreography, animation, and other highly technical visual effects (and kind of feels like another music video, yeah?).
Music videos that pull on our sentimental heartstrings or play on our nostalgia. This Johnny Cash one strikes both those chords. On the more lighthearted nostalgia side, there’s this one from Charli XCX and Troye Sivan pining for the ’90s, and this one from Ariana Grande playing up teen rom-coms from the aughts. A corollary in broadcast advertising would be those annual John Lewis Christmas commercials, like last year’s moving Elton John one.
Conceptual music videos that tell a narrative story and/or feature twist endings. I’ll always love this Radiohead video (they’re still at it with the twist endings by the way). The brilliant Tide ads that Wieden+Kennedy made for last year’s Super Bowl are a fine example of this.
Conceptual music videos that lean on cinematic techniques or creative artistic direction. So many music videos qualify here, from one-shot feats (how could they have left out this amazing one from Wax?!) to insanely complex sets built and shot in-camera (that’s my personal favorite music video ever, and we have the great Michel Gondry to thank for it) to ones that feature groundbreaking video techniques that later influence cinema. In fact, Michel Gondry also directed this Smirnoff commercial, from which the concept of “bullet-time” was lifted for The Matrix.
Music videos that highlight social causes. Here’s Radiohead again, this time with a video made to fight child trafficking. Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” tackles multiple issues and absolutely merits repeat views for all of its details, much like this much-lauded ad from BBDO highlighting the charity Sandy Hook Promise to spread awareness about horrific school shootings.
Music videos that poke fun or otherwise allude to other music videos. Like L.A. punk band FIDLAR’s low-fi video for “40oz. On Repeat” (this would fit in the “nostalgia” category too for all of its ’90s music video references). Then there’s this outstanding Progressive Insurance ad exquisitely lampooning all those lame Chevy commercials. (That’s the second Progressive spot I’ve linked — their agency, Arnold, is crushing it.)
And on and on.
There are irony-drenched music videos just as there are irony-drenched ads.
There are celebrity-driven music videos (love it forever) and celebrity-driven ads.
There are director-driven music videos and director-driven ads. (They’re arguably all “director-driven,” aka “directed” — but I mean the ones that expressly bring in a big-name auteur to give the spot some cachet. Like when Beats hired Guy Ritchie for this fun World Cup spot.)
I even remember as a little kid seeing big blockbuster music videos premiered on network TV (the networks did this for MJ and I think for Guns ‘N Roses). Such a big play is equivalent to the biggest moment in advertising — the Super Bowl.
Even those basic scrolling lyric videos can be equated to feature-focused direct-response ads or infomercials.
You get the point I’m sure. The reason it’s pretty easy to find counterparts between music videos and regular TV commercials is because the former is really just a sub-category of the latter.
Be Out There
So before brainstorming for that spot, maybe it can help to think about music videos first. It can be a nice launchpad to concepting, regardless of what you’re making. When you think of the most memorable music videos of all time, there are all types — all types of music, all types of film styles. For your commercial, which approach would complement the idea you’re trying to sell?
Of course, there are terrible, cringe-worthy music videos just like there are terrible, cringe-worthy commercials. When an ad is forgetful or annoying or fake or cheesy or unintentionally risible, it’s a waste of money. This maxim applies to both music videos and their normal commercial cousins.
One major creative principle of advertising is to never pitch something you don’t really want to make. Now think of some of the coolest music videos you’ve seen (I’ve compiled some more below). Even if the “product” isn’t something you’d add to your Spotify playlist, it’s easy to see how stimulating and rewarding and fun it must have been to make them.
These spectacular music videos happen because artists know making stuff that’s out there will raise their profile and make them look cool. Is your brand willing to get a little bit weird, or over-the-top, or provocative, or self-deprecating, or absurd, or avant-garde with your ads? Or are you too afraid to make something that’s odd enough to stand out? Nobody cares about your brand anyway. They just don’t. We should all be more afraid of wasting time and budgets on forgettable tripe.
Like I’ve said elsewhere, the best commercials (and the greatest music videos, which are commercials too) merit repeat views because of their intelligence and artistic integrity. And while intelligence and artistic integrity are often for sale, they just can’t be faked.
Looking for creative inspiration? Check out these music videos:
“FUN!” by Vince Staples (an amazing twist on Google Street View…)
“Pursuit of Happiness” by Kid Cudi (ahead of its time)
“Gosh” by Jamie xx (shot in China’s weird Potemkin replica of Paris)
“Dem Changes” by Thundercat (such a funny yet poignant visual metaphor for heartbreak)
“JACK” by BREACH (takes both match-cutting and hair-styling to new…places)
“Praise You” by Fatboy Slim (never forget)
“Plutomania” by Lavender Child (so artsy!)
“Cloud of Hate” by Superchunk
“Pills” by St. Vincent
“LSD” by Genius ft. Sia, Diplo, Labrinth
“Material” by Flasher (surpassingly clever, with the right amount of self-deprecation)
“Boys Latin” by Panda Bear (beautiful, intelligent, and strange — life’s sweet spot)
Posted on January 14, 2019