The idea of advertising as entertainment isn’t anything new. For example, during the adolescence of broadcast television, most programs were entirely branded experiences: variety shows like Kraft Television Theatre, The Colgate Comedy Hour, or the Chesterfield Supper Club (Yes, Chesterfield cigarettes) ruled the day. While this overt approach began to fall out of favor in the late 1950s, one needs only to turn on a major sporting event, reality television program, or awards show to find omnipresent ‘Brought To You By’ messaging.
The modern concept of a ‘commercial’ has its roots in short films that would be projected at the cinema before the main feature, in schools, during training seminars, or at sales meetings. Every major player in virtually every industry you can imagine produced films like this, from Ford to Dow Chemical. They were advertisements, to be sure, but they were framed as documentaries, educational films, narrative shorts, and vignettes. A personal favorite here at Celtx is the classic A Case of Spring Fever by industrial film pioneer Henry ‘Jam’ Handy. Produced for screening in American classrooms and sponsored by Chevrolet, it tells the nightmarish tale of a man named Gilbert who unwittingly erases the concept of springs from reality and is then driven to madness by a trickster sprite named Coily that only he can see.
While ostensibly a humorous physics lesson, it isn’t difficult to notice that the thing which benefits most from the existence of springs in this film, apart from Gilbert’s sanity, is his 1940 Chevrolet Special Deluxe. However, branded content doesn’t have to mean stodgy and unsubtle. If one had to pick the watershed moment where the notion of what a commercial could be was indelibly changed, it would be during the third quarter of Superbowl XVII when Apple’s legendary 1984 was broadcast to an unsuspecting national audience.
Directed by Ridley Scott and shot by acclaimed cinematographer Adrian Biddle, the1984 ad was completely unlike anything audiences had seen before: it featured discordant music and surreal sci-fi visuals in a darkly atmospheric setting. It was still a one minute television spot, but felt purely cinematic – even experimental. Moreover, it was bereft of any imagery or description of the product it was advertising. 1984 became a cultural milestone. Perhaps since people didn’t know what they were looking at, they couldn’t stop thinking about it – the ultimate advertising coup. Perhaps there was a prestige angle, elevating Apple’s image by painting them as aesthetes as well as computer manufacturers. Perhaps it was simply tongue-in-cheek satire. Whatever it was, 1984 was a game changer.
Just as the abstract, artsy feel of 1984 went on to be aped by countless perfume commercials, the commissioning of world-class filmmakers to infuse branded content with their own stylistic trademarks became a hallmark of flagship advertising. BMW’s The Hire series from the early 2000s took this idea to the next level.
The Hire is a series of eight slick, heavily stylized action shorts directed by the likes of John Woo, Tony Scott, Guy Ritchie, and Joe Carnahan. The campaign was also run entirely on the internet – these shorts were not broadcast during the Superbowl or played in cinemas. People had to seek them out themselves, and they did in such numbers that BMW eventually released the entire series on DVD. It was a stunning success.
And what was the secret? They were hugely entertaining. The premise is simple enough: Clive Owen is a mercenary driver who navigates a web of intrigue in a series of increasingly luxurious BMW automobiles. The cars themselves were the biggest characters in the films, which tapped into the logical extreme of what consumers are thinking about when they consider buying a BMW: power, speed, charisma – traits that are also associated with action heroes. So why not make the product into an action hero? Having The Hire directed by the world’s greatest action filmmakers is just icing on the cake – it’s a perfect blend of product placement and wish fulfillment. This kind of self-awareness in branded content can also be capitalized on for humorous effect, as was the case in Wes Anderson’s hysterical American Express ad from 2004:
If there’s a takeaway from this for commercial producers, it’s that the key to creating great branded content isn’t necessarily centralized around the product itself, but rather isolating the broader idea of what people want the product to be, what they imagine it could do, and what it should feel like to buy and use it. It’s escapism, fantasy, atmosphere, and sometimes winking acknowledgement of the artifice of the medium itself. These principles inform the same impulses that make us enjoy films – the suspension of disbelief.