The 10 Best Commercials of 2011

Many people groaned last winter when it became clear that Super Bowl XLV would be packed bumper to bumper with automotive ads. It’s not a category that’s exactly wowed with its creativity in recent years. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when many of the car spots proved not only tolerable but wonderful. Now, with the year almost passed, it’s become clear that two of those ads in particular—Chrysler’s “Born of Fire” by Wieden + Kennedy and Volkswagen’s “The Force” by Deutsch—weren’t just among that evening’s best spots. They turned out to be among the year’s best.

Those two ads are joined by a third car commercial, Nissan Leaf’s “Gas Powered Everything” by TBWA\Chiat\Day, in Adweek’s ranking of The 10 Best Commercials of 2011, presented here. Those auto spots were all expertly conceived and executed, with great atmospherics, details, and flourishes. And interestingly, they’re all so different—an environmental appeal in a bleak alternate universe; a rugged defense of Motor City’s heritage and pride, featuring a powerful celebrity cameo; and a kid in a Darth Vader mask just trying to exert a little mind control around the house. Together, they represent the best automotive advertising has to offer. Elsewhere, the list celebrates work across a wide variety of products, themes, styles, and geographies. You’ve got candy bars and zombies, cats with thumbs, and film-directing bears. You’ve also got two spots focused on the environment, and two explicitly about the humanizing power of technology—fundamental concerns in an age when our lives, and the world, can feel like they’re spinning out of control. Congratulations to all the agencies and clients on the list, and the creative-services companies that helped bring their visions to life. Now, go make something even better.

10. SNICKERS • Focus Group

A triumph of macabre humor, this Snickers spot from BBDO imagined the world’s most savage focus group—four sharks who’ve been invited to a little human taste-testing session. “OK, so which one tasted better?” asks the wonderfully peppy focus-group leader, as she points to posterboard photos of a man and woman. The sharks hilariously choose the guy because, before they ate him, he had just eaten a Snickers Peanut Butter Squared bar, presumably making his flesh delectably rich and tasty. (The woman had eaten boring old peanut-butter cups.) The concept, sick and twisted, is brilliant. But the genius is in the details—the little gestures like the lead shark’s flipper movements as he searches for words to explain himself; the stunning CGI and voice work; the deadpan, cartoony merging of the monstrous and the mundane. The ending is a winner, too, as one shark declares, a bit sheepishly, that he’d “love another taste.” A new human is trotted out for gustatory pleasure of the conference-room predators, one of whom requests that the guy “eat both squares, please!” One of 2011’s tastiest confections.

9. NISSAN LEAF • Gas Powered Everything

What if everything ran on gas? Then again, what if everything didn’t? Those disparate visions provided the setup and payoff for this bleak, dystopian Nissan Leaf spot by TBWA\ Chiat\Day, which imagined a world in which all our devices, from clock radios to cell phones to dentist drills, guzzle gasoline like cars and spit out choking, noxious fumes. A spare piano score and the endless, dreary putt-putting of little motors provide the soundtrack for some remarkable visuals—a coffee maker yanked to life by a starter rope, a laptop replenished at a gas-filled watercooler, an office full of quietly smoking computers—all depressingly lit in flat green hues. Our antihero, a drone whose glum resignation subtly implicates the viewer in the stained legacy of oil-powered transport, eventually spies an all-electric Leaf across the street—while guiltily filling up his own Chevy Volt (a gasoline-electric hybrid) at a gas station. Roused slightly from his torpor, he nonetheless remains paralyzed and unsmiling as watches the Leaf drive off—a sober ending to one of the year’s most darkly memorable spots.

8. CRAVENDALE • Cats With Thumbs

Why do cats stare when you’re pouring milk? The answer seems obvious. They’re cats. They love milk. But this irresistible spot by Wieden + Kennedy for British dairy Cravendale wondered if the cute little kitties might not have a more nefarious agenda. After a lifetime of waiting on their owner’s generosity, perhaps they want to take matters into their own paws. Maybe they’re ready to band together and raid your milk supply. They would need just one thing, and this spot humorously gives it to them—opposable thumbs. Suddenly, the polydactyl felines are seen picking up balls, filing their nails, flipping through books, and doing a little needlepoint. But they’re just biding their time and honing their sinister plot. Sure enough, soon they’re snapping their fingers, West Side Story style, and preparing to gang up on the selfish, cereal-eating human and steal his milk. Cats are always big in ads, but this spot chased off all rivals this year. And we may get a sequel. As one of the spot’s feline stars wrote on Twitter this fall: “Know this: you have not heard the last from me.”

7. DEEP SILVER • Dead Island Trailer

Ghastly and heartbreaking, this trailer by Scotland’s Axis Animation for the zombie video game Dead Island built up an astonishing emotional intensity with a simple visual trick—running the footage backwards. We open on a slow pullback from a young girl lying dead in the grass. Suddenly, she is yanked skyward, falling in reverse toward a shattered window—and crashing back into a hotel room scene of unspeakable horror. Blood is flying; rotting creatures are everywhere. A mournful piano plays, intercut with desperate gasps and sounds of running. Amid the terrifying confusion, we begin to understand that the girl and her parents have been attacked by zombies while on vacation. The action continues in reverse to the moment of the attack, when the father still has time to save his little girl from the fate we’ve already witnessed. Reverse footage has been used in ads before. But paired with horror, it’s a revelation. The visual disorientation and unnatural body movements—a ballet of the damned—provoke a sense of dread that feels wholly new, even for such a well-worn genre. And the girl’s resurrection, which we know is an illusion, perfectly mirrors the false hope in the early rattlings of a waking zombie. Utterly harrowing yet undeniably beautiful—the year’s best gaming spot.

Warning: Spot is graphic and may be disturbing to some viewers.

6. CANAL+ • The Bear

Bears have long been among the best-loved creatures in advertising. But this hilarious French commercial for the Canal+ movie channel by BETC Euro RSCG—the third animal spot in our top 10—found a wonderful new role for one furry friend in particular. He’s not just the exploited talent. He’s the director! The spot opens on a movie set, as the bear—aka “Paul Bearman”—is seen interrupting a violent medieval battle scene to give advice to his actors and crew. The ad proceeds as a mockumentary, with Bearman explaining his passion for cinema. Turns out he’s the typical Hollywood director—a bit of a diva, a complete control freak, but a real renaissance bear when it comes to his craft, micro-managing everything from the special effects to the music. This only odd thing is, he looks a bit thin, with a weird, upholstered look to his belly. The ending—perhaps the best of any spot this year—wonderfully explains that he’s a taxidermied bear who’s been lying prostrate in someone’s living room for years, falling in love with the movies from night after night of watching Canal+. “Pourquoi pas moi?” he says. He may not make it in Hollywood, but for now, he’s conquered advertising.

5.  TALKTALK • Homes Within Homes

This adorable, exquisitely crafted TalkTalk spot from CHI & Partners in the U.K. told the story of little figurines come to life, isolated in miniature homes across a vast human living room and yearning to be together. A doll, a superhero, an Eskimo family in a snow globe, a cuckoo in a clock, a station master in a train set—they can all see each other, but they can’t communicate … until they get hooked up with TalkTalk’s broadband and phone service. Their shared delight at finally, magically connecting is set to the joyous crescendo of “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers, casting a glow upon the brand as a sponsor of enchantment. The agency considered using 3-D animation, but achieved a much richer look with handcrafted characters painstakingly filmed in stop motion. (Each second of animation took a staggering eight hours to shoot.) Few spots this year came anywhere close to the melancholy-turned-heartwarming grandeur of this one, with its brilliantly realized, childlike narrative managing to wrap the coldness of technology in an enduring human warmth.

4. GOOGLE CHROME • Dear Sophie

Using the simplest of visuals, Google has become one of advertising’s most compelling storytellers. “Parisian Love,” a sweeping story of romance told entirely through dynamic screen shots of Google searches, was a surprise hit on the 2010 Super Bowl. In 2011, the company expanded on that model for an inventive, infectious campaign for its Chrome browser under the line, “The Web is what you make of it.” As the “Search Stories” campaign did in 2010, the Chrome spots stitched together remarkably affecting narratives entirely from screen shots, subject lines, keystrokes, and clicks—this time moving beyond the search bar to showcase Google products like Gmail, YouTube, and Google Maps. Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber lent star power to the campaign with ads showing how they built their empires online. But the campaign’s crowning achievement was “Dear Sophie,” a humbler execution, set to a simple piano score, that showed a young father using Google tools to fill a digital scrapbook with notes, images, and videos of his young daughter, which he intends to share with her “someday.” The spot invariably leaves viewers choked up, and casts Google, often seen as a tyrant, as a facilitator of love. Data never felt so human.

3. CHRYSLER • Born of Fire

This two-minute Chrysler 200 spot from Wieden + Kennedy, which broke on the Super Bowl in February, won the 2011 Emmy Award for best commercial. It’s easy to see why. The year’s toughest, proudest, most defiant advertisement, it offered a gritty defense of a city, an industry, and a way of life, single-handedly bringing some of the old swagger back to Detroit and attacking those who would doubt the city’s heritage and conviction—or its ability to produce a worldclass luxury vehicle. “What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life? Well, I’ll tell ya. More than most,” says the voiceover, so hardboiled it could have been forged in a factory. Eminem’s Oscar-winning “Lose Yourself” begins thumping, as the homegrown rapper appears behind the wheel of a 200. Passing several Detroit landmarks, he stops and walks into the Fox Theatre. Backed by a choir, he points at the camera and says, “This is the Motor City. This is what we do.” A tour de force and one of the high points of Super Bowl XLV, the ad wraps on the year’s best tagline: “Imported from Detroit.”

2. CHIPOTLE • Back to the Start

Chipotle served up the most stirring and thought-provoking environmental spot of 2011 with this stop-motion gem from CAA and Nexus director Johnny Kelly, with a major assist from Willie Nelson. Having pioneered the use of organic, locally grown ingredients in fast food (and launched a foundation to support sustainable farming), Chipotle wanted to communicate its green philosophy in an artful and poignant way. The resulting spot tells the story of a farmer who builds his small operation into a giant industrial machine—penning in his animals, fattening them with chemicals, chopping them up in slaughter machines, and polluting nearby rivers in the process. Eventually he has a crisis of conscience, and reverts to his old way of doing things—releasing the animals to roam and graze, adding wind turbines to his fields, and giving his organic, free-range meat to a visiting Chipotle van. The visuals are breathtaking. But what makes the spot truly transcendent is the music—a commissioned cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” by Willie Nelson. The song is lyrically perfect, emotionally rousing, and sung gorgeously by the 78-year-old country legend. Overall, the spot is a marvel of craft, visually and musically. And it answers its own call, with all proceeds from the sale of Nelson’s song on iTunes going to the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation.

1. VOLKSWAGEN • The Force

Resistance is futile. At 7:33 p.m. ET on Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011, Volkswagen unleashed one of the great crowd-pleasing TV ads of all time on Fox’s broadcast of Super Bowl XLV. “The Force,” from Deutsch/ LA, ingeniously conceived and perfectly executed, more than lived up to its name. It took two familiar ad themes—kids and Star Wars—and merged them to create that most rare species: a true global (who knows, maybe intergalactic) pop-culture phenomenon. Backed by the imposing sounds of “The Imperial March,” a child in a Darth Vader suit roams his suburban home, attempting to bend inanimate objects (and the family dog) to his will with Jedi mind tricks. He fails utterly—until Dad gets home in his Volkswagen Passat. The kid races out to the driveway and focuses all of his metaphysical energy on the midsize sedan. It roars to life obediently—thanks to Dad activating the remote starter from the house. The boy steps back, thunderstruck by his own supernatural powers. The spot’s metrics are astounding: 44 million views on YouTube, a reported 6.8 billion impressions worldwide, more than $100 million in earned media—all from such a simple execution. The spot, while visually strong, isn’t a wonder of craft or technique. It’s a triumph of fun, unadorned storytelling, which clearly goes a long way. Few ads in history have been as charming, as clever, as perfectly paced, or as well loved as this. Simply the best of 2011.