Signs & Wonders: Television Ads As Pop Art

John Grassi

Every once in a great while, an ad will rise above the white noise and actually transcend the fetid swamp of commercial television.

Film critic Tom Shales once referred to a Batman sequel as a “wanging, clanging calliope from hell". I often get the same impression from television ads, as I fumble for my remote’s ‘mute’ button before the onslaught begins. Yet every once in a great while, an ad will rise above the white noise and actually transcend the fetid swamp of commercial television. Consider the magical 90 seconds of Oreo’s “Wonderfilled” ad that debuted during a recent episode of Mad Men.

The gift of an Oreo transforms storybook villains (wolf, vampire, shark) into cool, affable hipsters. It’s a terrific ad and perfectly placed, as if Don Draper and Peggy Olson dreamed it up. One can imagine Don’s cool insight regarding the ad: We’re not selling cookies—we’re selling happiness and contentment. And then Peggy chiming in: Right, the ad is really about friendship.

Another innovator within this otherwise barren landscape is Apple. Apple's recent iPad Christmas ad is a high profile example of masterful jingle-pop. Instead of sending a Christmas card, a young girl serenades her grandpa with a Christmas carol over Skype. The ad is sentimental, even sappy, and yet perfect. The spot certainly hits its target -- one can imagine seniors rushing out to buy an iPad for their grandkids. Yet the ad is effective because aesthetically it rises above its commercial objective.

Consider Don Draper’s soliloquy for the Kodak Carousel. He could be describing the iPad ad: “The technology… takes us to a place where we long to be—to a place where we know we’re loved”.

The music selected for these ads, Owl City’s wistful Oreo ballad and the Apple girl’s sweet acoustic version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” are both pitch perfect. It seems that the ads were built around the jingles, and not vice-versa. It’s also unfair to refer to these spots merely as ads and jingles, for they achieve something that pop culture often fails to deliver: a powerful and lasting impression that resonates in memory.

Looking back at the more successful ads from previous decades, one of the most memorable is Coca-Cola’s 1971 “Hilltop” ad, featuring the jingle, “I’d Like to Teach the World To Sing”. Released at the bloody height of the Vietnam War, the ad captures the zeitgeist of a war-weary public.

The redheaded singer who appears at the end of the Hilltop ad looks remarkably like Janis Joplin, who OD’ed a year before the ad ran. Today, the Coke ad seems antiquated and politically correct with its international hippy choir. Yet as a child growing up in the ‘70s, I vividly remember the ‘Hilltop” ad had tremendous impact with its hopeful message of a world “living in harmony.”

Just as an ad can uplift, it can also break your heart. For tragedy, nothing compares to the 1955 public service announcement on Highway Safety featuring James Dean. Shot just a few weeks before Dean’s fatal car crash, narrator Gig Young chats with Dean on driving safety. Dressed in cowboy gear on the set of his last film, Giant, Dean sits down for a brief interview:

Young: We asked Jimmy over because he’s a racing man himself… in real racing cars on real racetracks. How fast will your car go?

Dean: Oh…hundred six, seven.

Young: Jimmy, we probably have a great many young people watching tonight. For their benefit, I’d like your opinion about fast driving on the highway.

Dean: People say racing is dangerous… but I’ll take my chances on the track any day than on the highway.

At the time, the National Highway Safety slogan was “The life you save may be your own”. At the end of the ad, the improvising Dean shockingly changes the slogan:

Dean: Take it easy driving. The life you save might be mine.

Dean’s ghost is captured here in a way that his films never quite manage. We see Dean in his real skin, his guard down. The iconic shape-shifter finally appears in his authentic persona—a shy Indiana farm boy who became an American legend.

It would be intellectually dishonest to deny these ads their aesthetic due. The original intent of their corporate sponsors doesn’t matter. A work must be judged by its aesthetic merit, and not by the commercial interests behind it.

Most books, films, and music are made for profit, yet only a select few rise above the commercial motive. And so it is with the ads mentioned here. They transcend commerce and become something else, something that rings true within the human heart, something that we call art.

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