Guest Critic

Advertising is a derivative business. Said more positively, advertising reflects popular trends and topics.

After all, the best advertising operates as part of the culture surrounding it—that’s how brands become icons. And to me, creating cultural icons sounds like a noble career pursuit. So, scenes from movies, music-video techniques, popular songs and news stories all end up seasoning the TV- commercial bouillabaisse.

A lot of spots in this month’s review borrow heavily from other sources. Frankly, that doesn’t bother me. Because the final measure still comes down to how cleverly you redirect those inspirations on your client’s behalf.

My favorite example from this month’s package caught my eye the moment it aired: Comcast’s “Pyramid.” From its horrendous ’70s gameshow styling to its spectacular low-end effects to the star power of both Dick Clark and Loretta Swit: this spot nails a comedy trifecta. It is itself “Comcastic!”—a lingual twist any brand manager would kill for, as it incorporates the product name into the tagline. Genius, absolute genius. Yes, this kind of parody has been done before, but rarely so well. I laughed out loud.

Spots from the California Milk Board also thrive on parody. Mock sportscasters feign outrage when they discover ballplayers using milk as a performance-enhancing substance. With spot-on casting and inspired set pieces, it’s all very clever and topical. Unfortunately, somebody somewhere decided the players should behave guiltily. This more directly mirrors the whole Caminiti/Canseco uproar, but it doesn’t help the comedy. I love how smart this work is, I just wish I’d laughed more. Had the joke been played on the media instead of the athletes, I might have.

A quibble: Milk is not a sports beverage. That would be Gatorade, a brand with a spot on this month’s list that itself relies on supremely derivative famous sports clips. But I can’t talk about that…

As a guest columnist writing about ads, there’s probably nothing more derivative than saying you love the Target spots. How can you not? Once again, they blend head-bopping music and graphics in a groovy manner that rivals Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The details in this spot amaze me—the liquid cocoa look of the shimmering, shirred curtains alone makes the spot worth watching. Very nice.

Wait, I know what’s more derivative in advertising than loving Target spots—parodying fairy tales. We’ve all seen it, we’ve probably even done it. But rarely so well as Halls does with “Wolfboy.” Portraying the Three Little Pigs as greasy, slacker hillbillies spins this oft-told tale into fresh, new territory. The creatives deftly turn viewers’ sympathies to the wolf through the simple styling cue of his endearingly pathetic fanny pack. Better still, like all great storytellers, they know exactly when to end the spot—before the obvious destruction, which plays far more richly in the imagination. Sign me up for some of that “vapor action.” This is great stuff.

And lastly, the vignette construction of eBay’s “Anthem” is as derivative as they come, and yet its inventive casting and original visual device sing in full Technicolor. The pitch-perfect “magic moments,” the eBay-colored “it” and “Daydream Believer” all work to keep you engaged and grinning madly the entire time.

Yes, derivative can be good. And sometimes, very good.

Dennis Ryan is chief creative officer at Element 79 in Chicago.