The Spot: High on the Hogs

'The Guardian' huffed and puffed and made one of the year's best ads. Did it sell papers?

IDEA: Newspapers aren't known for their compelling self-promotion. Yet in the grip of their existential crisis, that's what they need—a riveting argument for their own value, evolution and place in the cultural conversation. In late February, London ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty delivered just that for The Guardian. Its brilliant two-minute spot, reimagining the Three Little Pigs as a modern news story, vividly demonstrated the paper's concept of "open journalism," which urges readers to collaborate in the news process by sharing commentary, images, even original reporting. Beginning with the Big Bad Wolf's death, the spot shows The Guardian deftly gathering, analyzing and curating the fast-moving swirl of facts, speculation and opinion on the case—working with readers to develop a deeper understanding of it. The response to the ad has been extraordinary. "The film kick-started global debates about the future of news reporting, about open versus closed, about citizen journalism, about the digital future and about the role of great advertising," said David Pemsel, CMO of Guardian News & Media. "We were thrilled."

COPYWRITING: The spot is essentially a product demonstration—showing how The Guardian covers stories that travel and change through public discourse and reader contributions. "We couldn't rip something from the headlines for fear of our ad dating too easily," said BBH creative director David Kolbusz. "Fairy tales are timeless and familiar."

The spot opens on a cauldron of boiling water. "Big Bad Wolf boiled alive," says the headline on The Guardian. The story soon evolves beyond a murder to include political and social issues like homeowners' rights, health and medicine, insurance fraud and the mortgage crisis. Readers' thoughts are captured throughout in voiceovers and on-screen text. "We took subjects that were currently making headlines and used them to shape the story—home invasions, the banking crisis," said Kolbusz. "Because the narrative was so labyrinthine, writing it was a laborious, methodical process."

ART DIRECTION: The spot has a mix of visual styles from different eras. There is a gritty element, but the pigs themselves have a sophisticated, antiquated look, their costumes modeled on early-20th-century illustrations. "This helped The Guardian feel like a modern, progressive force within the story," Kolbusz said. The whimsical otherworldliness—as opposed to a more raw authenticity—makes the spot feel allegorical rather than satirical. Structurally, it's arranged like a movie trailer. "Trailers for films like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo gave us the confidence that you could tell a very complicated story with a number of plot twists in a short space of time," said Kolbusz.

FILMING: Director Ringan Ledwidge shot the spot over two long, cold days in February—exteriors one day, interiors the other. All the interiors were set builds. "Everything Ringan makes looks beautiful, which really helped offset the darkness of the material," said Kolbusz.

TALENT/SOUND: The human characters are all flat and stereotypical—the reporter, the police chief, the judge. They drive the narrative, but it was "equally important that they all felt peripheral," said Kolbusz. "The central character was The Guardian." The soundtrack is dramatic but not overwhelming, giving the sound design room to breathe.

MEDIA: The two-minute spot aired on TV stations owned by Channel 4 in Britain. The online version became an international sensation. A creative marvel, the spot has also improved The Guardian's metrics. "We have seen heightened interest and engagement on all of our platforms," said Pemsel. "Page views, interactions and comments, video views, subscriptions and sales of the newspaper have all increased."