Drones Are Flying High With Buzzy Brands Like Pizza Hut and Nike

Taking ads to a whole new level

Headshot of T.L. Stanley

Watching drones in action during commercial shoots tends to bring out the kid in Kevin Buth, creative director of ad agency Zambezi.

"They sound like a huge swarm of bees, and they can travel up hundreds of feet in seconds," said Buth, who has worked on a number of drone-aided spots and short films for clients TaylorMade and Ashworth golf products. "They're going 20 miles an hour and then stopping on a dime. It's impressive."

The physical gymnastics are cool, no doubt, but for Buth and other ad executives who are increasingly using drones to create commercials, it's more important that the vehicles help tell a story.

"You don't want the method to overtake the message," Buth said. "You need to use drones like seasoning."

It's been about a year since the Federal Aviation Administration has allowed the use of drones for films, television shows and commercials, partly to stop runaway production. Previous restrictions in the U.S. had sent producers to Canada, Europe and elsewhere for entertainment and marketing projects.

Since the new FAA rules, commercial producers are leading the way in drone usage, and Aerial MOB, a go-to drone vendor in Southern California, reports that about 60 percent of its business comes from advertising agencies these days, said CMO Tony Carmean.

Automakers have been early adopters of the flying droids, with everyone from Acura to Nissan to Toyota using them to film moving cars, chases and stunts, though brands as varied as Patrón tequila, Nike, Adidas and American Express have used drone footage in ads.

It's cheaper than heavy equipment like cranes and helicopters, ad mavens said, with drones costing as little as a few thousand dollars a day, and it takes a fraction of the time to gather quality footage. (Hiring experienced drone operators is a must, execs said.)

Digital production house Shareability often turns to drones for its brand videos, including those for Pizza Hut, Famous Footwear and Fit Tea, with CEO Tim Staples saying they "add a majestic quality" and "can make a YouTube video look like a feature film."

Los Angeles-based Team One, with partners Furlined and The Mill, used drones to create a popular live-action trailer early this year for 2K's video game, Evolve. The spot features panoramic views of lush scenery and aerial shots of a Lord of the Flies-style battle.

Team One has six of its own drones in-house as part of its mission to keep up with emerging technology. Execs have been experimenting "to see what's possible" for clients including Lexus, said executive creative director Alastair Green, and the footage has ended up in decks and other brand presentations.

"The pressure's on for all of us in advertising to create more content with higher production values on a budget," Green said.

Because "we live in a world of ad blockers," agencies need to use every available technology to snag consumers' attention, said Neal Burns, branding expert at the University of Texas at Austin. "If you give us something we've never seen before, like bird's-eye footage or a sweeping vista, we might take notice."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@TLStanleyLA terry.stanley@adweek.com T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.