The 10 Best Commercials of 2011

The year's most impeccable craft and storytelling in advertising

Many people groaned last winter when it became clear that Super Bowl XLV would be packed bumper to bumper with automotive ads. It’s not a category that’s exactly wowed with its creativity in recent years. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when many of the car spots proved not only tolerable but wonderful. Now, with the year almost passed, it’s become clear that two of those ads in particular—Chrysler’s “Born of Fire” by Wieden + Kennedy and Volkswagen’s “The Force” by Deutsch—weren’t just among that evening’s best spots. They turned out to be among the year’s best.

Those two ads are joined by a third car commercial, Nissan Leaf’s “Gas Powered Everything” by TBWA\Chiat\Day, in Adweek’s ranking of The 10 Best Commercials of 2011, presented here. Those auto spots were all expertly conceived and executed, with great atmospherics, details, and flourishes. And interestingly, they’re all so different—an environmental appeal in a bleak alternate universe; a rugged defense of Motor City’s heritage and pride, featuring a powerful celebrity cameo; and a kid in a Darth Vader mask just trying to exert a little mind control around the house. Together, they represent the best automotive advertising has to offer.

Elsewhere, the list celebrates work across a wide variety of products, themes, styles, and geographies. You’ve got candy bars and zombies, cats with thumbs, and film-directing bears. You’ve also got two spots focused on the environment, and two explicitly about the humanizing power of technology—fundamental concerns in an age when our lives, and the world, can feel like they’re spinning out of control.

Congratulations to all the agencies and clients on the list, and the creative-services companies that helped bring their visions to life. Now, go make something even better.

10) SNICKERS • Focus Group

Agency: BBDO, New York • Director: Jim Jenkins, O Positive
Editing: Number 6 • Effects: Framestore
A triumph of macabre humor, this Snickers spot from BBDO imagined the world’s most savage focus group—four sharks who’ve been invited to a little human taste-testing session. “OK, so which one tasted better?” asks the wonderfully peppy focus-group leader, as she points to posterboard photos of a man and woman. The sharks hilariously choose the guy because, before they ate him, he had just eaten a Snickers Peanut Butter Squared bar, presumably making his flesh delectably rich and tasty. (The woman had eaten boring old peanut-butter cups.) The concept, sick and twisted, is brilliant. But the genius is in the details—the little gestures like the lead shark’s flipper movements as he searches for words to explain himself; the stunning CGI and voice work; the deadpan, cartoony merging of the monstrous and the mundane. The ending is a winner, too, as one shark declares, a bit sheepishly, that he’d “love another taste.” A new human is trotted out for gustatory pleasure of the conference-room predators, one of whom requests that the guy “eat both squares, please!” One of 2011’s tastiest confections.

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9) NISSAN LEAF • Gas Powered Everything

Agency: TBWA\Chiat\Day, Los Angeles • Director: Dante Ariola, MJZ • Editing: Mackenzie Cutler • Effects: The Mill
What if everything ran on gas? Then again, what if everything didn’t? Those disparate visions provided the setup and payoff for this bleak, dystopian Nissan Leaf spot by TBWA\ Chiat\Day, which imagined a world in which all our devices, from clock radios to cell phones to dentist drills, guzzle gasoline like cars and spit out choking, noxious fumes. A spare piano score and the endless, dreary putt-putting of little motors provide the soundtrack for some remarkable visuals—a coffee maker yanked to life by a starter rope, a laptop replenished at a gas-filled watercooler, an office full of quietly smoking computers—all depressingly lit in flat green hues. Our antihero, a drone whose glum resignation subtly implicates the viewer in the stained legacy of oil-powered transport, eventually spies an all-electric Leaf across the street—while guiltily filling up his own Chevy Volt (a gasoline-electric hybrid) at a gas station. Roused slightly from his torpor, he nonetheless remains paralyzed and unsmiling as watches the Leaf drive off—a sober ending to one of the year’s most darkly memorable spots.

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8) CRAVENDALE • Cats With Thumbs

Agency: Wieden + Kennedy, London • Director: Ulf Johansson, Smith and Jones Films • Editing: The Whitehouse • Effects: MPCWhy do cats stare when you’re pouring milk? The answer seems obvious. They’re cats. They love milk. But this irresistible spot by Wieden + Kennedy for British dairy Cravendale wondered if the cute little kitties might not have a more nefarious agenda. After a lifetime of waiting on their owner’s generosity, perhaps they want to take matters into their own paws. Maybe they’re ready to band together and raid your milk supply. They would need just one thing, and this spot humorously gives it to them—opposable thumbs. Suddenly, the polydactyl felines are seen picking up balls, filing their nails, flipping through books, and doing a little needlepoint. But they’re just biding their time and honing their sinister plot. Sure enough, soon they’re snapping their fingers, West Side Story style, and preparing to gang up on the selfish, cereal-eating human and steal his milk. Cats are always big in ads, but this spot chased off all rivals this year. And we may get a sequel. As one of the spot’s feline stars wrote on Twitter this fall: “Know this: you have not heard the last from me.”

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7) DEEP SILVER • Dead Island Trailer

Agency: Deep Silver Planegg, Munich, Germany • Director: Stuart Aitken, Axis Animation • Editing: Stuart Aitken (Axis), Anton Borkel (Deep Silver) • Effects: Axis AnimationGhastly and heartbreaking, this trailer by Scotland’s Axis Animation for the zombie video game Dead Island built up an astonishing emotional intensity with a simple visual trick—running the footage backwards. We open on a slow pullback from a young girl lying dead in the grass. Suddenly, she is yanked skyward, falling in reverse toward a shattered window—and crashing back into a hotel room scene of unspeakable horror. Blood is flying; rotting creatures are everywhere. A mournful piano plays, intercut with desperate gasps and sounds of running. Amid the terrifying confusion, we begin to understand that the girl and her parents have been attacked by zombies while on vacation. The action continues in reverse to the moment of the attack, when the father still has time to save his little girl from the fate we’ve already witnessed. Reverse footage has been used in ads before. But paired with horror, it’s a revelation. The visual disorientation and unnatural body movements—a ballet of the damned—provoke a sense of dread that feels wholly new, even for such a well-worn genre. And the girl’s resurrection, which we know is an illusion, perfectly mirrors the false hope in the early rattlings of a waking zombie. Utterly harrowing yet undeniably beautiful—the year’s best gaming spot.

Warning: Spot is graphic and may be disturbing to some viewers.

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6) CANAL+ • The Bear

Agency: BETC Euro RSCG, Paris • Director: Matthijs Van Heijningen, Soixante Quinze • Editing: Jono Griffiths
Effects: Mikros ImageBears have long been among the best-loved creatures in advertising. But this hilarious French commercial for the Canal+ movie channel by BETC Euro RSCG—the third animal spot in our top 10—found a wonderful new role for one furry friend in particular. He’s not just the exploited talent. He’s the director! The spot opens on a movie set, as the bear—aka “Paul Bearman”—is seen interrupting a violent medieval battle scene to give advice to his actors and crew. The ad proceeds as a mockumentary, with Bearman explaining his passion for cinema. Turns out he’s the typical Hollywood director—a bit of a diva, a complete control freak, but a real renaissance bear when it comes to his craft, micro-managing everything from the special effects to the music. This only odd thing is, he looks a bit thin, with a weird, upholstered look to his belly. The ending—perhaps the best of any spot this year—wonderfully explains that he’s a taxidermied bear who’s been lying prostrate in someone’s living room for years, falling in love with the movies from night after night of watching Canal+. “Pourquoi pas moi?” he says. He may not make it in Hollywood, but for now, he’s conquered advertising.