If you want to turn the story of a little boy and an oversized Flump with windypops into a heartstring-tugging phenomenon, you probably need to maximise the sense of whimsy and childish wonder. So John Lewis hiring Michel Gondry, the visually inventive Frenchman behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to direct their Christmas advert makes a lot of sense. But is it always a great idea to attach a big-name director to your latest zeitgeist-chasing marketing push? The results, as these examples show, can be … mixed.
It may be hard to recall a time when Apple was still the plucky underdog, but in 1983 that’s the position the gazillion-dollar lifestyle-tech mega-corp found itself in. To announce its new Macintosh personal computer to the universe, it hired stylised mood-master Ridley Scott to remix Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four into an epically unsettling dystopia waiting to be smashed. The monolithic ad screened during the 1984 Super Bowl, and the Mac suddenly got big.
Between passion projects, the Lost in Translation director keeps her hand in with reliably beautiful promos for companies like Gap, Dior and H&M. Her recent campaign for Calvin Klein underwear feels like some sort of Platonic ideal for knicker ads: gauzy, atmospheric and gorgeously shot in luminous black and white, featuring Kirsten Dunst, Rashida Jones and some sexy but rather submerged-sounding synth-rock from Phoenix, her hubbie’s band.
Gio Comparo – the face and booming voice of the price comparison company – has been a TV ad fixture for years. What must the roly-poly foghorn have thought when Ben Wheatley, England’s foremost nightmare-wrangler, was hired to direct a Go Compare ad in 2013? Would Gio find himself immolated in a wicker man, riddled with gunfire or dosed with psychedelic mushrooms? Nope. There’d just be some brilliant fly-on-the-wall business with a cute dog in a pitch meeting.
Not angry, Steven. Just disappointed. In go-getting 1994, Spielberg unexpectedly followed up his extraordinary double-whammy of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List by helming a lavish ad for the oil and gas supermajor, reimagining BP’s research facility as a sort of Willy Wonkaesque wonder emporium. The package deal included a score by John Williams and special effects by Industrial Light & Magic, resulting in a dispiritingly slick slice of corporate greenwashing.
The Sixth Sense’s dreamweaver-in-chief likes to cameo in his movies, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch for him to star in the American Express ad he directed in 2006. In it, Shyamalan muses about his storytelling gifts over coffee in a restaurant, observing – or imagining? – sub-Twilight Zone vignettes starring the diners around him. It’s a jumbo-sized express delivery from Planet Hubris that arrived just before Lady in the Water belly-flopped into cinemas.
The dyed-in-the-wool champion of socialism getting into bed with the world’s biggest burger-pushing corporation? It sounds like the twist in a bad Shyamalan movie but it’s all true: the Palme d’Or-winning Loach directed a McDonald’s ad in 1990 during a slow period in his feature film career. As you might expect, he still feels terrible about it. “It sits really badly on my conscience,” Loach admitted in a recent documentary about his life and work.
By conflating the first PlayStation with club culture, Sony had unexpectedly made a gaming console seem like a cool lifestyle accessory rather than a kiddie’s toy. When it came to launching PlayStation 2 in 2000, it hired David Lynch to oversee the crucial initial awareness campaign. The headscratching result – a series of dream-logic monochrome nightmares with the tagline “Welcome to the Third Place” – felt, bravely, like truly unfiltered Lynch-o-vision.
When he was hired to launch a new Kenzo fragrance in 2016, Spike Jonze essentially covered one of his own greatest hits: the Fatboy Slim video where Christopher Walken joyously jives round a deserted hotel lobby. Here, Margaret Qualley from the Leftovers pulls loopy faces and throws some outrageous shapes to a soundtrack of thumping gonzo dancehall. Qualley’s green dress is lovely but otherwise it’s an irresistible raspberry to the usual blandly sumptuous visual and aural vocabulary of perfume ads.
The giant of Italian cinema dabbled with directing ads in the last decade of his life and career. While technically working as a gun-for-hire for clients like Barilla pasta and the Bank of Rome, Fellini’s commercial work often felt like a continuation of his movies, merging the everyday and the fantastical, not least his Campari ad set in a train carriage where exotic views can be flipped through like TV channels. A shame, then, that we never saw the maestro tackle When’sa Your Dolmio Day?
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