Ads of the Year

The year's most entertaining, intriguing, powerful and beautiful spots

Headshot of Tim Nudd

After three decades, Sir John Hegarty and Dan Wieden are still trying to one-up each other. That was immediately clear at Cannes this summer when they took the stage together to celebrate the 30th anniversaries of Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Wieden + Kennedy, founded within weeks of each other in 1982.

Wieden took the first shot, showing an amusing video in which he earns various degrees and ordainments through the Internet that give him the title Lord Rev. Dr. Dan Wieden—to equal, or perhaps even eclipse, the (actually) knighted Hegarty. Later, Sir John freely admitted to hating much of Wieden's work—because it's so good.

Playful ribbing between legendary creatives whose place in advertising history is secure? Sure. But it also revealed two men still passionately striving for more, feeding off their rivalry—and a good old-fashioned jealousy of each other's work—as their agencies vie to produce the great advertising of the new century.

In 2012, BBH and W+K did just that—creating between them five of the year's 10 best commercials, including the top two, as chosen here by Adweek. Their work is joined by an assortment of other brilliant spots covering a wide range of products, styles, ideas and executions. There are death-defying stunts and political manifestos; fairy tales and magic tricks; heroic women and utterly foolish men. There's the daring and the goofy; the inspirational and the indelible; the outsized and the obscure. All the spots reaffirm the joy in commercials that are meant to be savored, not sidestepped.

For Hegarty, it was a particularly special year—his last as BBH's global creative chief. (He sold his remaining stake in the agency to Publicis Groupe the month after Cannes.) And what a swan song it was, as "Three Little Pigs," BBH's masterpiece of craft and storytelling for The Guardian, edges out W+K's "Jogger" for Nike as our pick for the year's best ad.

Yes, Hegarty won this round. But you can bet the Lord Rev. Dr. Wieden is out there somewhere, plotting his revenge.

Carlton Draught, "Beer Chase"

Agency: Clemenger BBDO, Melbourne, Australia

Director: Steve Ayson, The Sweet Shop

Beer advertising has a long, proud history of inspired stupidity. This year, few ads in the category were as moronic—in a good way!—as this instant classic from Australia's Carlton Draught. Following literally in the footsteps of the brewer's previous faux-epic crowd pleasers like "Big Ad" (2005) and "Slo Mo" (2010), "Beer Chase" opens with four bros celebrating a heist with a cheeky pint. These blokes are so endearingly dumb that they almost fail to notice that the pub is full of police. The ad quickly and humorously cuts to a chase scene, though it takes place entirely on foot, as the guys decide not to drink and drive their getaway car. As a cheesy '80s anthem plays, the boys hoof it through city streets, down alleys and over hills, losing the cops one by one until they eventually blast their way through a roadblock—well, actually, they climb gingerly over it, as the police absurdly duck and cover. Finally, our heroes—pints still precariously in hand—leap from a bridge and land on a booze cruise, where they party on. The ad wraps with the tagline "Made from beer," a wonderfully half-witted ending to 90 seconds of pure entertaining silliness.

Full credits here.

Axe, "Susan Glenn"

Agency: BBH, New York

Director: Ringan Ledwidge, Rattling Stick

Perhaps no spot this year felt as refreshingly out of character for a brand as Axe's "Susan Glenn." For years, the meat-heady marketer has painted its customers as dweeby chick magnets who miraculously, and frankly inexplicably, attract buxom beauties. Suddenly changing course, this spot from BBH New York was a sophisticated, nostalgic ode to the proverbial girl who got away. Peter Rosch's poetic copy has a timeless quality. Ringan Ledwidge—the only director to appear twice on this list—brings it masterfully to life with surreal, stylish visions of fond yet tortured memories from high school. The dream sequences are as romantic as any advertising put to film this year, proving that getting the girl isn't half as interesting as longing for her (and perhaps undermining Axe's traditional brand promise along the way). Kiefer Sutherland's rich narration helps build the delicate atmosphere, and his appearance in the final scene doesn't swamp it. "Everybody has had that person who renders them useless," BBH's Ari Weiss told Adweek in July. This spot, likewise, is irresistible with a charm that lingers.

Full credits here.

Procter & Gamble, "Best Job"

Agency: Wieden + Kennedy, Portland, Ore.

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu,

Anonymous Content

The feel-good commercial of this summer's London Olympics wasn't about the athletes at all. It was about their mothers. Wieden + Kennedy hired Babel director Alejandro González Iñárritu to tell the story of "Best Job," P&G's latest salute to moms, whose dedication makes the world's top athletes possible. It's easy to think of the spot as schmaltzy. Indeed, the conceit is sentimental. But watching frame by frame, you see that it's remarkably varied and skillfully interwoven, traveling from continent to continent, from homes to sporting arenas, from black to white. Yet every scene celebrates the single relationship—the ultimate one, in the end—that has helped so many young Olympians realize their dreams. Moms have a supporting role, not the starring one. This spot gave them the spotlight, returning the love they so freely give. And it was received with open arms—by mothers everywhere, by their children and by the Emmy Awards, which named "Best Job" the best spot of 2012.

Full credits here.

Chrysler, "It's Halftime in America"

Agency: Wieden + Kennedy, Portland, Ore.

Director: David Gordon Green, Chelsea Pictures

It's a rare commercial that can stop a rowdy Super Bowl party in its tracks. Yet Chrysler managed just that in homes and bars across the country last February with this hard-boiled two-minute manifesto from Wieden + Kennedy that dared to speak for America—in the voice of Detroit. Months before Clint Eastwood addressed an empty chair, he spoke to the people, challenging them in tough times to find hope beyond despair and to see Detroit not as a black eye but as an inspiration. "This country can't be knocked out with one punch," he says gruffly. "We get right back up again. And when we do, the world's going to hear the roar of our engines." The actor's odd furniture scolding at the Republican National Convention belatedly took some of the sheen off this spot, revealing the depth of its artifice. Still, it was the one Super Bowl ad that dared to go beyond advertising and join a larger national conversation. It did so with muscle and style. In the end, it was the game's best national ad, and a worthy successor to Chrysler's Emmy-winning "Born of Fire" spot from the year before.

Full credits here.

Red Bull, "Red Bull Stratos"

Partners: Riedel Communications,

FlightLine Films

It takes a special kind of nerve to plan a stunt that could cause a human being to explode 24 miles above the Earth as millions watched live. Red Bull took that risk with Stratos, a months-long project that culminated on Oct. 14 with Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner leaping safely from the edge of space to the New Mexican desert below. In doing so, the energy drink rewrote the rules of content marketing, sponsorships and PR. With the heavens as a singular backdrop, the stunt tapped into a basic craving to test the limits of human potential. As Baumgartner made the longest and fastest free fall ever, Red Bull set its own record—with 8 million people watching live on YouTube. Though not a traditional commercial, the 90-second mission-highlights video is a stunning piece of film with several iconic images, including the leap from the capsule. "I'm coming home now," Baumgartner says before plunging into the void, landing eight minutes later, then dropping to his knees in triumph. With more than 30 million views, the montage may lack the craft of our other top 10 ads, but it powers into our list by sheer force of will—Baumgartner's and Red Bull's.

Full credits here.

Old Milwaukee, "Field Cut Off"

Director: Jake Szymanski

Production Company: Gifted Youth

The best ad of Super Bowl XLVI didn't air nationally or even regionally. It aired in one town—North Platte, Neb., the country's second-smallest TV market. Comedian Will Ferrell had popped up a few months earlier in low-budget Old Milwaukee commercials in other Midwestern towns, waxing poetic about the joys of the heartland and no-nonsense beer. Now, he was back in what would be the pinnacle of a wonderfully peculiar and at times flat-out brilliant campaign. The Super Bowl spot was grander than the others—and exquisitely stupid. As Ferrell walks through a field in blue plaid shorts while stirring music plays, someone tosses him a beer. He pops it open and begins to say "Old…" when the scene abruptly ends with a fast splice. Subversive and hilarious, the ad lampooned advertising on its biggest night. The quirky and inspired media buy cost just $1,500—four ten-thousands the price of a national Super Bowl spot—to broadcast to a city of 25,000. Yet it vastly outperformed most of the night's national ads in Twitter mentions and YouTube views. Funny, innovative and socially smart, this kind of content points to the future. Just because you can still bludgeon Super Bowl viewers into submission doesn't mean you have to.

Full credits here.

DirecTV, "Charlie Sheen"

Agency: Grey, New York

Director: Tom Kuntz, MJZ

The annoyances of cable TV may seem minor. But in fact, boring programs and poor customer service could be life threatening, setting in motion a series of unfortunate events that will send your life spiraling into the toilet, leading to misery, personal degradation and death (or at least, fake death). That was the darkly mirthful premise behind Grey's hilarious campaign this year for DirecTV. Creating compelling mass-market ads for a TV provider is harder than for cars or beer. But Grey did just that with a novel, quotable, meme-inducing structure for the voiceover narration, paired with amusingly bleak visuals from director Tom Kuntz. Particularly inspired was Charlie Sheen's cameo as "the unofficial poster child of bad decisions and life spiraling out of control," says Grey's Doug Fallon. The actor repaid the faith in him tenfold, delivering the funniest wordless performance of the year with his absurdly committed look at the end. Speaking at Cannes in June, Bill Clinton said this was his favorite ad campaign of the year. Join the club.

Full credits here.

Widerøe Airlines, "Grandpa's Magic Trick"

Agency: McCann, Oslo, Norway

Director: Marius Holst, 4½

Want to go for a ride? This sublime ad for a regional Norwegian airline will take you places. It has gorgeous scenery, fantastic acting, a tantalizingly slow build and enchanted payoff. The story begins with a farm boy imploring his grandfather to do a beloved magic trick again. Grandpa repeatedly declines until a slight rumble and breeze pick up, and his hands suddenly come together as if possessed. Turning sideways, he brings his closed palms to his lips, then appears to blow out an airplane into the sky with a whoosh. (The tiny jetliner is actually taking off over distant mountains.) Quiet, simple and beautiful, the ad recaptures the sense of wonder about flying that's been sorely missing from the industry of late. (The scene also hints more practically at the regularity of Widerøe flights to rural areas.) This far-flung gem, originally shown only in Norway, became a global Internet hit. "The local market is, of course, the most important for them," the McCann creatives say. "But the international attention is an inspirational bonus."

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.