Since its inception, the advertising industry has tried to present ads as entertainment, and it’s never been closer to succeeding.
Although Americans watch less live television today than we have in the past, TV ads have started to become more a part of pop culture than ever before. With online viewing platforms allowing us to circumvent traditional ads, viewers have started watching the most compelling ads for fun.
Social media has enabled friends to share ads with one another, allowing the spots that achieve viral status to garner tens of millions of YouTube views. It’s no surprise, then, that 2013 was the first year in which the advertising industry made more money from online content than broadcast TV, according to CNET.
There has been a wide variety of viral ads since the dawn of the social media age, with most of them falling into four basic categories:
1. The unbearably cute, personified by Budweiser’s “Puppy Love,” which debuted during the Superbowl
2. The absurd or hilarious, personified by Pepsi Max’s “Test Drive.”
3. The heart-throb, personified by “Giving” a spot for a Thai mobile phone company that US consumers will never interact with, despite its viral popularity.
4. The social statement/critique, personified by Chipotle’s “The Scarecrow” and Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches.”
The final category is by far the most sophisticated and compelling type of ad in the viral landscape. People do not share these ads because they are entertaining, but because they are revelatory and inspiring, which may very well translate to entertainment for the most socially conscious among us.
In the back of our minds we know the ultimate goal of these ads is to sell a product, yet we still watch them by the millions and allow them inspire us despite these intentions. Social consciousness has officially been commodified. Rather than representing the ever expanding scope of the advertising industry, however, this development says more about the state of our pop-culture, which clearly does not adequately address the issues we care about.
All of the aforementioned ads are not only similar in terms of their viral notoriety; they are also similar in their length, production values and use of titles and storylines. Although it might initially seem like a foolish question, the informed viewer is forced to ask, “Are these advertisements or short films?”
For the first three categories of viral internet ads, the designation of short film seems a bit generous. But as these ads increase in sophistication and in the perceived social significance of their content, it becomes easier to view them as standalone films. Not to mention the fact that they tend not to mention the product they’re selling until the final five or so seconds. Doesn’t the viral, anonymous informational (albeit highly political) film “Wealth Inequality in America” fit in relatively well with the Dove or Chipotle ads?
But now it’s 2014, and we’re already starting to look beyond advertisements as short films — we’ve officially entered the era of feature films as ads. Heather Havrilesky suggests that The Lego Movie has seriously upped the ante in the race for most affecting and entertaining advertisement in a March article in New York Times Magazine, “The Brilliant, Unnerving Meta-Marketing of The Lego Movie.”
The film’s critical and nuanced commentary on the present nature of consumerism hits the viewer like cold water to the face, simply because of the fact that it’s a kid’s movie.
Havrilesky makes this realization all the more astonishing by pointing out that the film as an advertisement uses the same subliminal and self-critical marketing techniques that it depicts on screen, saying that, the film “is hyper-aware of its own fictionality and this earns the right to simultaneously denigrate and elevate itself as divine.”
Perhaps Dove and Chipotle could stand to be more aware of the fictionality of their own campaigns. Maybe the best thing to do in the increasingly complex world of advertising is to emulate Lego’s childlike appreciation for the logical and ethical layers within its own marketing campaigns.
Ben Schneider is a freshman majoring in international relations and English. His blog, “The Way We Live Now,” runs Tuesdays.