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Have you seen the film of the ad? – movies and commercials

Tuesday, February 21, 1995

You know the tv commercial where two men in an office washroom are discussing the imminent sacking of a colleague, when the doomed workmate emerges from a cubicle and starts singing? What?s it all about?

It?s hard enough to remember what it?s for (Allied Dunbar pensions and life assurance), without trying to work out why it says anything about the product aside from the most basic, ?he?s not fussed, he?s got a pension?. However, the advert is a fine example of a recent trend in commercials to stop talking about the product.

Instead, the desire is to make 90 seconds of entertainment for an intelligent tv-literate audience. Make us like the ad as a piece of art first, and then maybe we?ll think about a pension.

The way many advertisers are doing this is by borrowing creatively from movies, to the extent that commercials are now often much more inventive and visually stimulating than the ?real? programmes they interrupt.

The Allied Dunbar advert is, for example, an unlikely combination of two elements. The setting in the washroom with the unseen listener is modelled on a scene in Robocop, Paul Verhoeven?s satirical and violent science fiction film. However, when the man starts singing ?Let?s Face the Music and Dance?, we?re suddenly watching a Dennis Potter tv play.

It?s long been recognised that TV commercials follow the same genres as other types of television. So we have the soap opera-style ad, such as the Nescafe Gold Blend campaign, the daytime tv-style ad, with glowing first-person endorsements for baby products from real mums, and even the costume drama-style ad.

The most famous example of this style is the Hovis campaign from the early 1980s. Here the production values and artistry were so impressive that the ad with the little boy pushing his bike up a hill looked as beautiful as the other quality period-piece of that time, Brideshead Revisited.

However, now it is not just genre-types that are being borrowed from film and tv, but specific plots, settings and scenes in a post-modern frenzy of quotation and pastiche. We’ve got used to seeing the film of the book, but now we’re seeing the advert of the film.

Two examples show the two ways this can be used. In the current Nescafe commercial, a young vet helps out a dour Yorkshire farmer, and ends up leaving his jar of coffee behind. It is obviously based on All Creatures Great and Small, and this creates a recognisable atmosphere very quickly.  The insertion of the brand into this familiar framework associates instant coffee with the relaxed and comforting world of James Herriot.

However, aside from updating the setting ? to avoid the anachronism of the young vet swapping his modern instant coffee for ration book vouchers ? few changes are made. The original material is invoked but not investigated.

The current ad for the Peugeot 106, however, is much more rewarding since it takes its model, the Ridley Scott film Thelma and Louise, and makes something new from it. Two young women are driving through Hollywood lamenting the fact that ?everyone wants to be in the movies?. Never a truer word, since even this advert wants to be in the movies, as our heroines find themselves being filmed while appearing to drive off a cliff.

By now, those viewers that have seen Thelma and Loiuse are expecting the pair to plummet triumphantly to their deaths. However, the advert surprises us by showing the car merely driving through a cloth backdrop.  The layers of irony are piled deep: to begin with, the advert is quoting a film made by a former ad-man (Ridley Scott directed some of the Hovis commercials before starting in films).

Secondly, it makes us reconsider the original film by showing us directly what we try to suppress when watching a movie ? the fact that?s it make-believe. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davies no more drove off an actual cliff than the couple in the advert do, and so curiously, the copy reminds us that the original isn?t real either.

Of course, if you haven?t seen the film, you watch the ad in a different way, but the question of which is the original is still raised. One day, you?ll settle down to watch Thelma and Louise, and find yourself saying ?the end?s a bit like that car ad?.

The current VW Polo advert appeals to its own brand?s advertising history while also making clever use of a Coen brothers film. Volkswagen have dropped cars in their commercials for years, but this time in dropping the new Polo from the top of a skyscraper they use the same tumbling point-of-view shots and fast-cutting as The Hudsucker Proxy.

It is easy to criticise the advertisers for cashing on other people?s creativity, but if it?s valid for Joel and Ethan Coen to use some of Frank Capra?s ideas in The Hudsucker Proxy, is it not just as valid for advertisers in turn to use the Coen brothers? work? Once these images, ideas and settings are abroad in the culture in whatever form, then they?re creative fair game for someone to make something new from them.

On this note, advertiser?s storyboards must be groaning under the weight of forthcoming commercials based on the films of Quentin Tarentino.  Seeing Reservoir Dogs reworked to advertise a bank, or Pulp Fiction flogging a car valeting service is almost too trendy to contemplate.

(first published in The Irish Times, Thursday Feb 21st, 1995)