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By one estimate, the average American watches some 24,000 commercials a year and advertisers plow some $200 billion into air-time running them. That makes for a crowded adscape to penetrate. Advertising that made the 100 Best List (The 100 Best TV Commercials and Why They Worked, Times Books, July 1999) recognized fresh concepts that were superbly executed, that cut through clutter and snagged viewers' attention and raised the bar on what advertising could be.
They represent various techniques, proof there are many ways to tell a story and coax a smile. Some of the 100 Best are whimsically seductive, others uproariously funny. Some broke the rules and overturned conventions. Others played by the rules, albeit ingeniously, taking a strong selling proposition and serving it up in a fresh, engaging, surprising and unusually persuasive way. They reached out and touched us.
But it's how they did that--and why--that really captivated me. The book is an exploration of advertising's hidden agendas. More than to entertain or amuse prospective customers great advertising acts as strategic drayhorses.
Take for example the British Airways futuristic Close Encounters-like 90 second spot with eye-popping visual effects called "Manhattan Landing" that ran in 1983. In this expensive and startling blockbuster, the well-lighted borough soars across the Atlantic to Heathrow in London like an aircraft, to the amazement of people below. At the time, British Air was perceived to be a small regional carrier. BA's mission: to trumpet that it ''flies more people to more countries than any other airline,'' and more over the Atlantic than the total population of Manhattan.
The commercial accomplished the advertising's hidden agenda -- and created another hurdle. Two years later people were regarding British Airways as " Bloody Awful," a cold and shambling bureaucracy lacking in imagination and disinterested in its passengers. Advertising again came to the rescue with a marvel of human choreography -- hundreds of colorfully dressed people in breathtaking synchronization formed a human visage that winked and smiled. That spectacle's hidden agenda: to warm up the airline.
A Citroen commercial "Le Clemenceau" used major drama -- a car drives off an aircraft carrier deck, splashing into the sea only to emerge on the deck of a nearby submarine that's surfacing. That watch-the-birdie legerdemain was designed to distract viewers from the fact Citroen had no news, no new models or improvements.
Apple's eerie and engrossing 1984 spot which never showed the product or said what it was, had the job of shoring up Apple's shaky futures while stopping the world, launching a youthful rebellion against "oppression" declaring itself the computer for the masses, and putting power in the hands of the people.
And that gorilla stomping all over American Tourister's luggage in 1969? At the time soft sided baggage was the rage, but American Tourister didn't make any. The commercial's agenda: promote the attributes of durability.