When it comes to the most memorable commercials, the lines are often blurrier than you might think.
Advertisements have typically been viewed as existing aside from entertainment. Commercials are the things that come before the movie, or that drop in the middle of your favorite TV show. They’re the yin to entertainment’s yang, contrasting elements in a symbiotic relationship—and, ultimately, always separate. Of course, reality is far more complex. Some of the best advertising has been entertainment in its own right for as long as ads have been around.
The ads that have stood the test of time have done so more often than not thanks to their entertainment value. The marketing geniuses at Coca-Cola, which has a long history of creating beautiful ads, took things a step further with their 1971 ‘Hilltop’ commercial, whose ‘I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke’ jingle spawned two chart-topping singles, and is still recognized all over the world decades later. However, the widely held belief that Coke invented Santa’s red and white suit is, we’re sorry to say, a myth. Other campaigns have gone even further to overtly associate themselves with entertainment—and even highbrow artistic endeavors. The annual Super Bowl draws as much attention globally for its raft of new commercials—each competing to outdo the rest in terms of innovation and memorability—as it does for being the NFL championship game (Forbes claims that half the event’s viewers tune in just to watch the ads).
It was at the Super Bowl that the national premiere of Apple’s famous ‘1984’ commercial took place. The ad was directed by Ridley Scott, who had become a household name thanks to his iconic work on the stylish and thought-provoking science fiction masterpieces Alien and Blade Runner. Drawing on Scott’s science fiction credentials and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the ad saw a woman in red and white running through a dystopian fortress filled with grey-faced drones, hurling a sledgehammer to destroy a screen from which a sinister Big Brother-esque figure lectured his enslaved audience. The mysterious, unseen product being advertised was the first Apple Macintosh personal computer, but the striking commercial was as much a cinematic, stylish short film as a piece of advertising.
BMW took this idea even further with its campaign ‘The Hire.’ Clive Owen played an enigmatic fixer known only as ‘The Driver’ across a series of short films directed by world-renowned filmmakers like Ang Lee, Wong Kar-wai and Alejandro González Iñárritu, and starring the likes of Gary Oldman, Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke and Madonna.
They told fully fleshed-out stories, and in the pre-YouTube age, DVDs featuring the films became highly sought after.
Some advertisers have taken a leaf out of television’s playbook, creating a narrative that plays out over a series of commercials—episodes, if you will—such as Geico’s increasingly off-the-wall ‘Cavemen’ series, which follows two prehistoric protagonists insulted by the insurer’s “so easy, a caveman could do it” slogan. It even spawned a short-lived TV show spin-off. While trailers are a form of commercial that for obvious reasons have always had stronger direct links to entertainment, the most hyped of these have had some amazing and strange effects on consumer behavior. The first trailer for George Lucas’ much-anticipated (and ultimately disappointing) Star Wars: The Phantom Menace caused a bump in attendance of the three movies it was screening before: The Waterboy, Meet Joe Black and The Siege. Fans were reported to be buying tickets to these films in droves, with many leaving before the movies began. The Star Wars trailer was all the entertainment they were interested in.
The world of advertising is in the midst of massive changes thanks to the digital revolution, and the concept of ‘advertising as entertainment’ continues to evolve along with it.
Canvas Worldwide CEO Paul Woolmington points to UK chocolate brand Cadbury’s utterly bizarre 2007 commercial featuring a gorilla drumming along to Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight’ as an early example of viral marketing powered by its sheer entertainment factor—and one “uninhibited by today’s social platforms’ commercial control on ad virality.” The commercial was credited for revitalizing the profile of Cadbury, which had been struggling under competition and a salmonella scare.
The 2018 holiday season saw Google combine entertainment with two other valuable elements—celebrity (however faded in this particular case) and nostalgia—to recreate scenes from Home Alone with a 38-year-old Macaulay Culkin, showing how much easier his pranks could be with the help of Google Assistant. At the same time, a UK department store delivered the latest installment of its beloved, highly anticipated and much debated festive ad series, this one following Sir Elton John back through his life to the Christmas morning when, as a little boy, he was given his first piano. “Adam and Eve DDB has created an institution with their annual holiday spot for the UK high street retailer,” says Woolmington. “This is ad as pure unadulterated entertainment.”
The value of this form of advertising isn’t hard to understand. The perceived tension between ads and entertainment comes from the idea that the former is unwanted, boring or a distraction from the main event.
The ability to craft advertisements that are entertaining and interesting—that consumers might consider valuable and actively seek out rather than avoid—is powerful. However, it’s important not to neglect balance. Pure entertainment and advertising have different goals—the former, to entertain, the latter, to promote a brand or product—and if advertisers focus too closely on immersing their audiences in their storytelling, their messaging runs the risk of becoming lost. ‘The Hire’ very cleverly keeps BMW front and center in a way that doesn’t interfere with its narrative, but in some cases, it’s possible for consumers to enjoy a campaign but instantly forget what it was advertising or even fail to realize that it is an advertisement at all. “I often think about brands like Red Bull who are more than a beverage company, instead of calling itself a lifestyle and content company,” says Woolmington. “How many times do we really associate the actual beverage consumers buy in a supermarket with the entertainment they create?”
The relationship between ads and entertainment is a complicated one. The definitions are far from sharp, they share in each other’s qualities, and ultimately one cannot exist for long without the other.