My Favorite Commercials

By Samuel.

I like advertising. I think it’s one of the most interesting aspects of human growth and consumerism. It’s a reflection of the culture at both its most pristine and its absolute worst. It’s easy to deride as disingenuous schlock, but to do is to ignore its intentions and its culpability in culture. After all, more kids know who Ronald McDonald is than Mickey Mouse.

I couldn't very well help it.

To say advertising has become an inherent part of the American lifestyle is admittedly redundant. Importantly, though, advertising is almost universally in the background. Commercials and their like are rarely ever looked upon with anything other than annoyance and derision. They’re the break in the movie that you’d rather not watch in cable, they’re the annoying 5 minute wait at the football game where everyone just stands around, they’re pure filler. Of course, the Super Bowl is the exception, but even those commercials are one-off jokes and scantily clad women. Might be good to look at, but they lack substance.

But then, commercials have never been about substance; they’ve been about product. There is, of course, the attempts to attach the product to a grand ideal or principle. The post-9/11 ads sold American security and togetherness–those commercials seem almost sickly comical now, but rang true then–while car commercials almost universally sell independence and freedom. These are audacious to be sure but they are often foiled by consumers’ cynicism and over-awareness. True, ads tell people what they want to hear, but people don’t want to know that they’re being placated.

Again this seems pretty intuitive with a little thought into the subject, but these observations only come into full effect when they are broken and challenged. Following are a few of my favorite commercials.

I’ll start with my favorite:

Kodak – ‘Live Forever’

Dir. Madison Davenport

(There’s a long version, but I don’t like nearly as much. It deserves to be seen though, [here])

If you know me at all, it’s fairly obvious why I would like this commercial so much. If they released a high definition version for $5 I would immediately buy it. The crappy Youtube cut doesn’t quite do the pictures (a fairly integral part of the ad) justice.It was also on tv for a very short amount of time; I think I only saw maybe three times before looking it up on Youtube years later.

Going the inspirational route in a commercial is a tough one. You have to do it in a minute and you still have to sell your product. Kodak kind of takes some cheap shots in regards to this, using both children in glorious close-ups and powerful historical photos. But what I like about this commercial is its ability to recognize what it itself is.  Yes, it’s selling the Kodak brand, but it’s also selling photography and the commercial is shot with the attention of a photographer. Simply put, the commercial is beautifully shot; you can pause it at any frame and it will look like a photo in and off itself (if it isn’t already one).

Yes, it uses photos of grand historical value, but does not tie them to the Kodak brand as a more hokey commercial would. It doesn’t try to say Martin Luther King would’ve bought Kodak film. It doesn’t say that King is a legend because his pictures were taken by Kodak film. It simply recognizes the power of a photo of King to inspire as he himself no longer can. Importantly though, the majority of the photos shown are of the homebrew kind: A kid blowing out his birthday cake, a wedding, two smiling faces looking at the camera. These photos are what the audience is made to connect with directly.

It’s not hard to decipher or very oblique, as a commercial shouldn’t be, but it is artistically imbued and it has a vision:

Photography is powerful because it is honest memory and it can be shared.

My favorite shot is that of an old man looking upon a small framed picture. It is slowly revealed to be an old flash picture of a woman, presumably a dead wife or mother. Not well-composed, not pretty, and not at all good, the picture’s quality is in nothing but its sentimental value and for that, it’s the most beautiful picture in the room.

Toyota Cabrio 2000 Ad – ‘Pink Moon

If this commercial doesn’t make you a fan of Nick Drake, I don’t know what will. It’s worth noting that this commercial essentially started the indie music movement into commercials because it used Drake’s song so well. It was the first sign that the advertising industry could respect the artistic integrity of a musician while also selling a product. It’s resulted in a lot of crap, but Apple’s iPod would be little without their ads’ music.

There’s a lot to like about this commercial. It respects the music it uses and integrates into the commercial, it shows youth as more than drunken idiots, and it’s a testament to two things: freedom and friendship. Again, all fairly obvious, but that’s the point. I think I may like this commercial more than I should because it’s one of the only commercials that derides the party scene so typically seen in advertising. It’s a ballsy choice for advertiser to make because generally speaking, people like parties. But the choice pays off, as it resonates with a much deeper part of the psyche than the pure id. The friends that ride in that car have more a connection than any one in the party–there isn’t a single moment of dialogue, because the shared experience goes unspoken. Quietly enjoyed.

I think I personally like this commercial because I always feel like that person when I ride in the back of a car with the window down. I end up enjoying the ride more than the destination.

Skittles – ‘Touch

The only funny commercial, this one deserves attention because it’s an excellent take on the story of King Midas and it’s simply hilarious. There was a brief time where a bunch of these strange, ridiculous commercials came out and were pretty popular and though the “Little Lad Who Loves Berries and Cream” is probably the most popular, I think this Skittles one is a lot more creative. It’s also really, really sad and dark, which is very rare in commercials. Granted, it’s all taken from a comical perspective, but that man is one of the saddest things I’ve seen come out of advertising. He can’t hold his own child, he can’t dress himself, and he can’t meet new people. I’m not even exactly sure how he’s employed. Give me all the abortion commercials, all the sad puppy/Enya commercials you want, this guy trumps them all.

Because his condition is hilarious and delicious.

Apple – ‘Think Different’

This commercial’s a double edged sword for me. I really like the commercial itself and its sentiment. The voice-over is wonderful and the idea simple and to the point while maintaining a poignancy.

Much as I like the commercial for its simple composition and wonderful aesthetic qualities, I do have to make a note that I disagree with its use as an ad. Essentially, it is an advertisement for originality and adventurism. The dream card is a hard one to pull off and in a commercial its extremely difficult to make it ring true. This commercial, I think rings true, but for the wrong reasons. I do think it is honest and genuine–much as an ad can be–but advertising both originality and brand is impossible. The two are on opposite ends of the spectrum. I think it might be unfair because I have not criticized the other commercials I posted, but those two have ideas indelibly tied to their product–cars in many ways do mean freedom and photography is a powerful art–while originality is not necessarily tied to Apple products.

I think this may be just because I’m not a huge fan of Apple, but their products mean something entirely separate to me than what this ad tries to convey. Think, for example, that this is the same company that released the “I’m a Mac” ads and it may leave a slightly bitter taste in your mouth. Apple is hardly a company represented by “the crazy ones;” I would be much more inclined to call that company Pixar. (In fact, this ad would be wonderfully appropriate to Pixar.) And “troubelmakers?” Hardly.

But I think the saddest thing about this ad is that no modern man fits in it. I don’t think it’s just because of timeless quality of the ad or the fact that we have yet to see who changes the world. I think we simply no longer believe in the so-called “Troublemakers.” Obama’s the only person I can think of that fits, and that’s hard to take without a grain of salt. Who else? Kanye? A man run by ego and media blowouts? The people in these ads were all part of a distinct counterculture that’s been lost. Hipsters hardly hold the torch and what else is there? Even the ’90’s had Cobain, but I fear this generation has only its apathy to ride on.

I apologize for the brief rant, but given Apple’s penchant for appealing to just those that may call themselves the modern counterculture it’s hard not to look on the subject.

It’s curious that these ads directly counter the sentiment of the popular youth counterculture and I think its an indication that the sentiment is still alive, it’s just weakened. Hippies derided the ad world as shallow and superficial, so why is it now bearing their torch?

And that’s why I like advertising.

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3 Responses to My Favorite Commercials

  1. Renee says:

    Oh! I’m so happy you did commercials because I’ve seen some pretty good ones lately and have been thinking someone was going to do something about it. And of course that Kodak commercial is phenomenal.
    That Cabrio ad is very you.
    I’ve always been a fan of that skittles commercial.
    And that apple commercial is awesome. I’m surprised I’ve never seen it.

    Here’s one I saw a few months ago that I loved that I haven’t seen since.

    • Samuel says:

      There’s actually a whole class of ads that are exactly like that one and I watched a lot of them in looking up stuff for this post. After seeing it a million times it becomes a little tired, unfortunately. I’m not a huge fan of those types of commercials because it’s very rare that they’re truly touching and they often don’t stand up to multiple viewings. This is my favorite of those kind of melodramatic ads:

      The reason that the Cabrio and Kodak ads are so good is that they aren’t terribly heavy-handed or overly pandering. They don’t have the voiceover at the end that ties it together for you, which I think hurts the Liberty ad the most.

      Also an insurance company trying to sell kindness and responsibility is kind of naturally disingenuous in the current economic climate.

      It’s a good ad, but I think it could have been a lot better.

  2. Stretch says:

    Kodak commercial seen once over 25 years ago. Can’t seem to find it. Can any of you help.
    Scene: Airport
    Man looking at photos of soldiers in Viet-Nam era uniforms.
    Other men coming off of airplane and hugging.
    Tag line: “… when I called these boys ‘My men.'”

    I cry just thinking about it. Is it any where on the web?

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