We live in strange times.
Turn on the television and every news story seems to cycle between polarized viewpoints and tales of our ever-changing relationship with technology. But between the breaking news alerts and the talk shows, there are the ads, which — for a country built on consumer culture — can often reveal deeper insights into the state of American life than any other programming: what worries us, what we are dreaming of.
For the same reason, 2019 marked a year where criticism and discussion of ads became increasingly relevant to political and social discussions. It closed a decade where consumers have woken up to the invasive nature of digital advertising and are demanding higher standards for content from advertisers.
In order to meet this demand, a trend towards cinematic ads — with longer lengths and larger budgets — has sought to deliver content to audiences and platforms that yearn for attention-grabbing stories. This has led to some incredibly high-budget mashups and directorial stunts, as well as ads that carried sharp political undertones.
Here are three ads that have shaped our conversations on the role of advertising in 2019, and give us a glimpse of what’s to come.
The New York Times — “The Truth is Worth It”
Despite a strong overall economy this year, 7,800 people have lost their jobs in the media industry through a series of mergers, mass layoffs and the closure of dozens of small daily newspapers across the country. With this in mind, demonstrating the value of investigative reporting has never been more important to preserve an industry that provides an essential public service for democracy.
Out of all legacy newspapers, The New York Times remains the most innovative — introducing content across new verticals like podcasts and TV that bring their audiences closer to the newsroom, allowing them to experience breaking stories through a new lens. The age of anonymous bylines is long gone. Now, authors and the stories behind their reporting are front-and-center across these platforms.
To showcase the stories behind the stories, The New York Times rolled out “The Truth is Worth It,” a campaign that revisits some of the most groundbreaking reporting in recent years. The ads, with their dancing typography and thrilling storylines, not only show the effort that goes into the making of a great headline, but also how indispensable the work of journalists is today.
Hennessy — “The Seven Worlds”
Only a few weeks after the anachronistic Budweiser-meets-“Game of Thrones” ad announced a new season of the popular HBO show during the Super Bowl LIII, another spot challenged the extent to which brands are willing to take the cinematic experience.
During the televised 2019 Oscars, Hennessey unveiled an iconic short film to embody its Hennessey X.O cognac line. Directed by none other than Ridley Scott, the mostly-silent film embarks on a lengthy quest to traverse a strange universe in search of the seven taste “notes” of the liquor: Sweet Notes, Rising Heat, Spicy Edge, Flowing Flame, Chocolate Lull, Wood Crunches and Infinite Echo.
The self-described “oneiric” (dream-like) scenes carry the same luxurious tint that cuts across LVMH brands. Rendered with cutting-edge Hollywood visual effects, they also reveal a kind of contemporary escapism. This is not an ad one catches on TV and easily forgets – this is the kind of short film that people want to share and explore together. But the ad also does something else: It hearkens back to an allegorical style reminiscent of surrealist paintings, a way to explain a strange world in stranger terms, through vivid, allegorical, and often displacing, imagery.
Nike — “Dream Crazier”
Not to be outdone by other cinematic commercials, or by the brand’s own celebrated ads from past campaigns, Nike returned in full force this year with its “Dream Crazier” spot. The commercial proves that the brand can continue making thought-provoking work. Narrated by Serena Williams, it highlights historical moments where women — displaying the best of their athletic abilities — are labeled as “crazy” for the dedication and passion they show the world.
Williams’ last words, “Show them what crazy can do,” sums up the spirit of the Nike brand and the drive behind the many historic moments the video relates. It demonstrates that advertising can serve a function beyond marketing by chronicling our past and present, and “setting the record straight” on what we perceive as our greatest human achievements.
This exploration of the long-form and documentary function of ads has given the medium a renewed power to influence and relate to its audience. As these three commercials show, there is a lot of potential for greater experimentation both with cinematic quality and narrative, and also a renewed responsibility for advertisers to bring attention to issues that matter to their brands and to their customers. 2020 should hold even greater content experiences for us ahead — and television ads will continue to speak as loudly about who we are as a culture as any other work of media.