“Advertising is fundamentally persuasion, and persuasion happens to be not a science but an art.”
We’re with Bill Bernbach: advertising is art.
Just like art, great advertising stirs emotion, makes you take an opinion (positive or negative) and showcases technical skill and commitment to craft.
It’s easy to feel cynical about this. Advertising, after all, is often a euphemism for manipulation.
But then, so is art.
Take ol’ Pope Julius II. When he commissioned the painting of the Sistine Chapel, he didn’t do it for anything so honourable as the love of art. He did it to put his rival, Pope Alexander VI, firmly in his place. He did it to enhance the papacy’s power over its puny religious subjects. It was subjugation through majesty. It just so happens that something beautiful was born from it.
“Advertising is like the Sistine Chapel. It is subjugation through majesty.”
Advertising and art have the same aims: to capture attention and to affect decision-making. In art’s case that might mean cementing someone’s belief in god or the power of the pope. In advertising’s case, it means enticing people to buy a product.
Because great advertising, just like great art, isn’t just a collection of pretty brushstrokes. It’s persuasion, it’s converting, it’s selling.
A great advert can be beautiful, funny, cheap, expensive, vulgar, elegant – all these things. But it has to convince the viewer that their product is worth exploring, considering and buying.
This is the criteria we set when we picked our top ten TV adverts. Sure, our choices might be beautiful, funny, emotional. But above all these things, through showing the benefit the product brings to people’s lives or by creating an emotional brand connection that encourages further exploration, the adverts sell the product.
And isn’t that what advertising’s all about?
So, with the mise en scène sorted, let us present to you: Woven’s ten favourite TV adverts of all time.
We’ll start with the obvious – Guinness’ ground-breaking ‘Surfer’.
There are very few more confidentTV adverts. It starts with a 19-second-long silence, and, just as you’re beginning to wonder if your volume button’s broken, those immortal words are spoken:
“He waits. That’s what he does.” Then that rising, ominous Leftfield soundtrack rolls in, and you’re hooked.
Beautiful, cinematic shots follow, as the surfer battles and wins out over epic waves, the ones he’s seemingly waited for his whole life. Mirroring, of course, the satisfaction gained from taking your first pull of a slowly poured Guinness.
All too arty-farty and metaphorical? For some, sure. But as a piece of positioning, carving Guinness out as a bravura brand with soul at its heart, it’s unsurpassed to this day.
Honda’s ‘Dream Run’
Honda are one of the most innovative advertisers out there. The invention, heart, drama and wit they invest into their TV adverts encapsulates the joy of driving and maintains their reputation as technological pioneers.
‘Surreal Dream’ plays on the Honda strapline of ‘The Power of Dreams’, as our hero tries to escape the mundanity of real life in his literal dream machine. Funny, clever and beautifully shot (surely doffing its cap to Scorsese’s Inception), it’s a calling card for those who dream of getting away, wherever that may be.
Bud. Wei. Ser. Enough said.
Aldi’s ‘I don’t like tea’
Considering it’s just twenty seconds long, this brilliant Aldi ad is a multi-layered animal. Not only does it promote Aldi as a cheaper place to buy your groceries, it says you don’t have to sacrifice on quality, either.
And it does so by not falling into the comparative advertising pitfall of belittling your competition. It actually praises the rival brand, as the husband enjoys drinking it. It’s just that he also enjoys drinking the cheaper option, too.
And, if both tea brands are as enjoyable as each other, then the only other decision to bear in mind is price – and Aldi win that battle hands down.
Core messaging, comparative advertising without resorting to desperate measures and a funny, relatable pay-off – all in twenty seconds. That’s advertising gold.
VW’s ‘The Man’
Born from their disarmingly honest yet whip-smart ad campaigns of the 1960s (read more about them here), VW’s ‘The Man’ takes the bold premise of associating their product with a loser – someone who loses at casinos, in investments and in matters of the heart.
As we see our glamorous failure departing in his Golf after a bad night’s gambling, the message is twofold. First, unlike money and romance, a VW Golf can be relied upon, and everyone needs a little bit of that in their lives. And second, the Golf is a car for the everyman and not the preserve of high-flying corporate types or Thatcherite elitists. It’s where the ‘clever money’ is. It’s intelligent, it’s political and it’s reverse snobbery perfectly delivered.
(Also, you know a car ad has achieved iconic status when it’s used by Jeremy Clarkson to take the mick out of Maserati – see The Grand Tour’s take on this classic ad here.)
Gears of War’s ‘Mad World’
One of the Xbox’s biggest-selling and most-loved franchises, Gears of War tells the story of a post-alien invasion world, in which humankind is an endangered species and only those with big muscles and bigger machine guns stand a chance of survival.
Which is why the decision to soundtrack this destructive setting against Gary Jules’ Mad World was a masterstroke. The contradictory calm and melancholic song is a poignant backdrop to the carnage and mayhem experienced within the game.
Stunningly shot and with an emotionally defiant ending (spoiler: our hero becomes a protein-rich snack for some alien arachnid hive queen), the advert launched Gears of War to legendary video game status.
Cadbury’s ‘Smash Martians’
An oldie but a goodie, Cadbury’s 1970s version of Smash managed to take something objectively vile (sorry, Smash fans) and sell it to the masses based not on taste but on the secondary benefits of ease and efficiency of preparation. Proof positive, if it were needed, that people buy benefits, not features.
The advert proved so successful that it was voted ‘TV ad of the century’ by Campaign and, up until recently, the Martians were still a part of its packaging design. Not bad for an ad that came out five decades ago.
Heinz’s ‘Good Things Come To Those Who Wait’
Forget Friends and Top Gear, Matt Le Blanc’s career pinnacle came early on when he starred in this Cannes Festival Gold-winning Heinz Ketchup ad.
Similar to Guinness’ ‘Surfer’, Heinz draws on the concept of patience being a virtue – turning the anguish-inducing feat of coaxing out your ketchup from a glass bottle into the positive notion that good things come to those who wait.
Clever lot, these marketing types…
Ram Trucks’ ‘Farmer’
A piece of pure emotive poetry, Ram Trucks’ TV advert entranced audiences thanks to its use of evocative American heartland imagery overlaid with broadcaster Paul Harvey’s sonorous 1978 speech, delivered to a Future Farmers of American convention.
The advert connects the dedicated and indomitable approach needed by American farmers to survive, with the hard-working, honest reliability of a Ram Trucks pickup. So that the all-American values associated with farmers – national pride, duty to family, determined grit – also become synonymous with Ram Trucks.
Honda’s ‘The Cog’
Have we saved the best for last? Honda, the only brand to appear more than once on our list, innovatively displayed the engineering intricacy and precision that goes into their vehicles with this two-minute domino-effect masterpiece.
Seven months in the making, ‘Cog’ garnered universal acclaim, winning several D&AD awards, receiving the highest ever score by the British Television Advertising Awards jury, and by the jury’s chairman as “the best commercial I have seen for at least 10 years.”
So, that’s our top ten TV adverts of all time, as chosen by the erudite ad addicts of the Woven studio. What do you think? Any glaring omissions? Drop us an email and let us know your thoughts.