As 2015 comes to a close, we've picked our Ads of the Year, including Geico's "Unskippable" at No. 1. And now it's time to look at the trends that informed some of the year's most creative work. In no particular order:
If 2014's female empowerment ads were all about what it means to be beautiful, 2015's were about what it means to be strong. Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey were among the year's most buzzed-about athletes (Rousey even turned Carl's Jr.'s sexism on its head). RAM's female-focused ad about courage was one of the year's most stirring. And Always' "Like a Girl" campaign found a new rallying cry with a single word: "Unstoppable."
In 2014, Honey Maid and a few other brands made high-profile ads with gay couples. In 2015, dozens of other companies (Campbell's, Wells Fargo, etc.) followed suit—achieving the remarkable feat of making such ads almost unremarkable.
It was a huge year for gender issues in pop culture, and some marketers bravely joined the conversation—among them, Google, Japanese cosmetic brand Shiseido, Pot Noodle and Magnum ice cream, whose "Be True to Your Pleasure" campaign was one of the coolest of the year.
Ricky Gervais, Ewan McGregor, Isla Fisher and Neil Patrick Harris were among the celebs who delivered bemused, cynical, even openly (if jokingly) reluctant endorsements this year—comically biting the hand that fed them.
Saving the Planet
Creativity informed environmental work in 2015 like never before. M&C Saatchi Stockholm's brilliant interactive site for SPP used a slider to toggle between clean and polluted versions of the year 2045. Pentagram designed climate change posters completely out of emojis. DDB Stockholm's Rag Bags famously turned shopping bags into recycling containers. And Fred & Farid embodied client Biocoop's mission by rethinking every element of its ad production process to be as green as possible.
Ad agencies also made lives better this year through creative innovations. Most notably, there was Grey London's LifePaint for Volvo, the celebrated invisible safety spray designed to make cyclists and others visible on the road at night, as it becomes reflective in the glare of headlights. Among the other inventions: the "Lucky Iron Fish," advertised by Geometry Global, which helped Cambodians battle iron deficiency; and Grey Singapore's "Life Saving Dot," which provided iodine to Indian women through the decorative bindis on their foreheads.
Meerkat and Periscope both launched early in the year, and the race was on for brands to try their hand at live video content. Target, Red Bull, Mountain Dew, Coach, GE, Taco Bell, DKNY and Nissan were among the early adopters, broadcasting everything from private events to office tours to announcements of product offers.
The biggest logo debates in 2015 were about the simplest designs. Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush's stripped-down logos caused the biggest stirs in the political world, while Google had the most-discussed corporate rebrand—which was itself a simplification. The cleverest logo of all came from Sonos, which was brilliantly designed for online use—thanks to an optical illusion, it appears to vibrate as the user scrolls down a page.
Was there a brand in 2015 that didn't create an emoji—or a whole keyboard's worth? Starbucks, Dove and Star Wars whipped up hashtag-triggered custom emojis on Twitter. But Coca-Cola topped them all—getting emojis on Twitter and into working web URLs.
Yes, brands trolled each other (Burger King's McWhopper proposal to McDonald's was a highlight). But the biggest win came from a consumer trolling on behalf of a brand—Mike Melgaard posing as a Target customer service rep on Facebook and hilariously excoriating commenters critical of the retailer's move to gender-neutral toy labeling.
Robots were huge at Cannes Lions, as Sir Tim Berners-Lee spoke of the coming AI revolution and Dentsu had an android host a talk. But the sneakiest bot of all came to South by Southwest—Ava, an AI from the movie Ex Machina, who joined Tinder and catfished admirers into visiting the film's Instagram page.
Out-of-home ads have been wired for years, but some of this year's were truly awesome, from Ogilvy's tweeting potholes in Panama to Breakfast's insanely cool Forever 21 machine that re-created Instagram photos in thread. The best, though, was WCRS's billboard with a battered woman whose bruises healed as more passersby looked at her—a brilliant way of reminding people not to ignore the problem.
Looking for some (literally) bloody good advertising? There was plenty of it this year, thanks to a macabre trend of using actual blood in the production of ads. BBDO was particularly sucked in—with BBDO Proximity Thailand making ink from dead smokers' diseased lung tissue, and BBDO Russia creating paintings in human blood drawn from dead mosquitos, for an insect repellent brand.
Older "It" Girls
While Hollywood continues to shun older women, the fashion world is embracing them like never before. Among 2015's notable models: Joan Didion, 81, for Céline; Joni Mitchell, 72, for Saint Laurent; Iris Apfel, 94, for both Kate Spade and Alexis Bittar; and Twiggy, 66, for L'Oréal.
A Galaxy of Star Wars Ads
Has Star Wars met a brand tie-in it didn't like? Intergalactic partners for The Force Awakens include HP, Duracell, Fiat Chrysler, Kraft Mac & Cheese, Lucky Charms, Adidas, Pottery Barn, Subway, Verizon, Kay Jewelers and dozens of others. Yet this Anchorman 2 level of promo insanity hasn't dented excitement for the film at all. Seems we literally can't get enough.
Actual words made a comeback in print and outdoor ads. FCB Lisbon's ad for Harmony Condoms stretched the phrase "Oh my God" into a remarkably long-lasting 1,000-word sentence. DDB Stockholm published a tart long-copy McDonald's ad narrated by a pickle. Publicis London's clever outdoor ads for Depaul Nightstop—placed around corners, with text on each side—told a different story about homelessness depending on your angle of view. And Brazilian author Paulo Coelho beat them all, publishing the entire text of his novel The Alchemist in single newspaper and outdoor ads.
Erotic films were the hot new vehicle for cancer PSAs this year, with DDB Bolivia and M&C Saatchi Sydney both getting actors in real adult content to pause and demonstrate proper breast and testicular checks. One of the year's funniest campaigns was testicularly themed, too—Clemenger BBDO Melbourne's great underwear ads with a pair of chatty balls.
Advertisers make the darnedest things. Among this year's most peculiar creations: Taylor Herring and Millennium FX's freakishly real-looking polar bear, who wandered London terrifying people (and promoting a Sky Atlantic show set in an Arctic town); TBWA\Hakuhodo's incredibly intricate ice cubes, carved for Suntory Whisky; and our favorite, Ogilvy Argentina and Salta beer's tooth implants—which double as bottle openers—for rugby players who've lost teeth in games.
The biggest web story of the year—the crazy worldwide debate over whether a particular dress was gold and white, or black and blue—provided endless fodder for brands in social media. But the Salvation Army (and agency Ireland Davenport) had the most powerful response, showing a battered woman in a gold and white dress, with the headline, "Why is it so hard to see black and blue?"
VR remains more of a promise than a reality for most brands, but it increasingly preoccupies creatives looking to provide a leading-edge experience. Brands like Mountain Dew, Infiniti, AT&T, Volvo, Jim Beam and Merrell all experimented with it this year; Oculus Rift owner Facebook launched virtual reality-style ads; The New York Times delivered Google Cardboard to all its print subscribers; even View-Master, the classic toy, got into kids' VR—all signs that the first mass creative success in the medium is not far off.
The FAA approved the use of drones to shoot ads in late 2014, and marketers as varied as Acura, Nissan, Toyota, Patrón, Nike, Adidas and American Express have swarmed the skies ever since. Thanks to public's obsession with them, drones are also the subject of commercials—like the exhilarating Audi spot from Venables Bell & Partners in March, with a driver fleeing a school of killer flying machines.
Fake formal attire was big this year. Quiksilver invented a wetsuit that looked like a suit and tie, and Fruit of the Loom debuted its Professionals Collection of sweatsuits printed to look preppy.
The world's least creative photography was put to fun uses in 2015. Scion got a bunch of stock-photo people to drive a car. And Vince Vaughn memorably appeared in a series of stock photos with his co-stars for the movie Unfinished Business.
Dogs, cats, goats, pigs. All fine, fine advertising characters. But this year's go-to beast had a more mythical pedigree. The revered unicorn showed up repeatedly, most notably in a cinematic Canal+ spot cheekily explaining why we don't have unicorns today, and in the Squatty Potty viral where one of our uni-horned friends poops rainbow soft-serve.