Ad of the Day: These Lovely Solar Ads Trace the Long and Winding Road of Fossil Fuels

Arnold embraces stop-motion in SolarCity campaign

A new kind of creative energy powers Arnold Worldwide's latest ads for SolarCity.

For the time being, the agency has pulled the plug on its bizarre campaign starring bird-faced Egyptian sun god Ra in favor of a visually lovely, more mature approach to promoting alternative energy. 

Three half-minute spots use distinctive, appealing stop-motion to explain "How Power Gets to You"—that is, "traditional" power, portrayed as less appealing than solar. Rapid-fire voiceovers and busy animation accentuate the convoluted, often redundant processes associated with coal, gas and oil. But in the end, the pace slows, with panels installed on rooftops warmed by the sun. This, we're told, is a simpler, more direct and—naturally—better means of powering our daily lives.

"We're selling solar, so we liked the idea of telling the story using natural materials," Sean McBride, Arnold executive creative director, tells Adweek. "And we're also telling the story of a fossil fuel process that's very complicated—so, to us, using intricate detail made sense. We looked at a bunch of animation styles before landing on cut-paper stop motion."

In the clip below, note the bright, whimsical quality of the dragonfly and its prehistoric world, which is contrasted with the constantly coughing coal miners who toil in their grim preparation plant:

"The coal mine explosion scene took about nine hours to shoot, even though it only lasts a few seconds," says McBride. "The characters and scenes were designed digitally before being carefully made, by hand, by dozens of artists. There are a few things we added in CG—stars, some soot—but the vast majority of what you see is made of paper."

Next comes a tutorial on natural gas. Highlights include starry spirals of plankton and algae, and one nasty-looking drill boring through rock past fossil remains:

Lastly, we take a night ride with assorted cars and tanker trucks on a busy highway, and visit an oil refinery, where a chef de cuisine helps out in a high-tech lab:

For the first few seconds, the ads seem to favor fossil fuels, but that's exactly the effect the agency had in mind. "I personally like the idea that a viewer might start out assuming these films are about one thing, only to think something very different 30 seconds later," says McBride. "We've all grown up thinking fossil fuels are the most normal thing in the world. But when you look at these processes with fresh eyes, you see that fossil fuels are anything but normal."

The campaign attempts to reframe the energy debate, avoiding familiar themes such as "clean vs. dirty" and "cost vs. savings." Yet saving money and reducing pollution seem like awfully strong selling points, and one wonders if this work—for all its artistry—packs enough wattage to make lightbulbs snap on above viewer's heads. 

"The folks who were or are going to be swayed by warnings about global warming have, frankly, already switched to solar," says McBride. "This is about finding a new way to get people to reconsider a familiar issue; finding a new way in."


Directors: Becho Lo Bianco, Mariano Bergara

CD: Antonio Balseiro

Agency: Arnold Worldwide

Jim Elliott, Global Chief Creative Officer

Sean McBride, EVP Exec Creative Director

Pete Valle, Sr. Copywriter

Sam Mullins, Assoc. Creative Director (Art)

Phoebe Cole, Broadcast Producer

Hillary O'Rourke, Assistant Producer

Lisa Mercier, VP Sr. Broadcast Business Affairs Manager

Kate Swanson, Broadcast Business Affairs Manager

Elliott Seaborn, Managing Director

Vallerie Bettini, SVP Marketing Director

Production Company: 1stAveMachine