Skip to content

Animation and the Compelling Commercial


There is a stunning short animated film making the rounds in movie theaters, about a farmer who goes from agrarian to industrialized production and back again.  In a single two-minute shot, a green pastoral landscape gradually transforms into a series of drab warehouses.  Cute oblong pigs with tiny scuttling legs get pumped with pharmaceuticals that inflate them into immobile spheroids, which then get crushed into pink cubes of meat that match the impersonal complexion of the new urban environment.  The camera neatly mirrors that subtly violent process of abstraction by slowly changing its perspective over the land: an angled bird’s-eye-view of an open horizon becomes a schematic, straight-down aerial shot of the production line.  While not exactly understated, the short is ambitious, elegant, and strangely moving.

The film is sponsored by Chipotle to promote sustainable farming techniques, which essentially makes the short a commercial for Chipotle.  (In the fashion of successful commercials, it doesn’t show its sponsored hand until the end, when the newly-organic farm is visited by a truck with a Chipotle logo, prominently centered so you won’t miss the point.)  So, what allows this short to have a popular audience makes it difficult to take the short seriously.  Rather than play to a festival crowd or be stuffed into an obscure compilation for animation buffs, this brief drama can catch an everyday crowd unawares and make them grateful for a tiny bonus that they didn’t even pay to see.  This was a reaction I had, as I was waiting for Drive to start, and it isn’t too different from what I imagine classical film audiences experienced when cartoons were standard parts of the program.  But because this is a commercial, it can easily be dismissed as such, even inspiring some rancor at being taken in by it.  This was my other reaction: I knew it would be a commercial from its placement next to NBC promos, but seeing the Chipotle logo at the end still reeked of personal betrayal.

Ignoring the short’s artfulness on the grounds that it’s a commercial hardly offers a way to describe its technique, and can’t answer to the possibility of a genuine response to it.  But ignoring its status as a commercial hardly accounts for the characteristic ways we respond to commercials.  Or, to put it more concretely: I know it’s ridiculous to say that the best film I’ve seen so far this year is a Chipotle ad, but that doesn’t keep me from being compelled to say it.

This isn’t atypical, either for animation or for advertising.  To take just one other example, Richard Williams caused a minor sensation in the late 1970s with an ad for Jovan cologne, with a level of detail that would have been impossible to achieve in a longer format.

Animation critic and historian Michael Barrier was prompted by this commercial to reflect on the form more generally:

In one respect, animated television commercials are like the graffiti on New York subway cars: the form typically defeats any creative energy that is applied to it.  However dazzling a commercial may be, its sole purpose is to sell us something.  If the commercial transcends that purpose – if it moves us to laughter or to tears – the animator has muffed the job.  You cannot reconcile joy or sorrow with the urge to rush out and buy a new Chevrolet or a box of corn flakes.  Commercials can afford to be clever, but nothing more.

The most interesting commercials are those that are not only clever but suggest great power in reserve.  “We could do much more,” such commercials seem to say, “if only we were free to do so.”  Seeing such a commercial is a little like seeing a movie star carrying a sandwich board; we are conscious of the message and of the artist almost hidden behind it.  The one adds piquancy to the other.  (Barrier, “Richard Williams, Reaching: An Interview,” Funnyworld 19 (1978), 8)

In this carefully-qualified context (the commercial form as a kind of slitted box through which a brilliant animator can occasionally peek), Barrier is able to go on to celebrate Williams’s achievement as something special:

Of recent commercials, the most interesting by far is the 30-second commercial made this year for Jovan Sex Appeal…  The animation–done almost entirely by Williams himself–is in the graphic style of Frank Frazetta, and is based on “Against the Gods,” a Frazetta poster…  In Williams’ hands, Frazetta’s melodramatic posturing is transformed into remarkably realistic animation, leavened with wit.  (The symbolism–the Frazetta character draws his sword just after applying the Sex Appeal to his face–is a little hard to miss.)  The result is a bit of film that is faithful to the best of Frazetta, and yet is free of Frazetta’s excesses.  Frazetta has never looked as good, and, probably, neither has Williams.  (ibid)

For a critic like Barrier (who does not give out praise easily), these are quite high accolades.  Barrier’s suggestion that Williams has never looked better is especially poignant: shortly before this commercial, Williams had directing chores on a resounding failure of a feature film, Raggedy Ann and Andy.  Meaning that Williams’s credentials as an artist, at that moment, were stronger in the realm of commercials than in the realm of entertainment.

Given the desire to take animation seriously as an art form (from the 1970s with self-made animatophiles like Barrier and Leonard Maltin, and coming into academic fruition by scholars like Donald Crafton and Suzanne Buchan), I don’t think the strangeness of this situation is adequately addressed.  A very large portion of animators’ professional work is commissioned in commercial form.  Johnny Kelly, director of the Chipotle commercial, is a perfect example of this.  Currently employed at Nexus, a small London-based production company, Kelly’s built a small but impressive portfolio of commercial work with a recognizable style.  He likes mixing media, his color palette tends toward soft pastels, his designs reduce forms to their most basic geometric parts (almost like UPA’s character designs in paper-cutout or puppet form), and he has a talent for dramatizing space in virtuosic long takes.

The quantity of such animated work in commercials, in itself, isn’t puzzling.  It might be written off as day-job work, like Kafka’s career as a bureaucrat or Spinoza’s life spent polishing lenses.  But this would make any important or compelling work (like Williams’s Jovan spot) seem like an accident, or part of an excessively romantic picture of the lone individual talent against the uncaring system.  While the paradox of the compelling commercial is exceptional, it’s not at all uncommon.  Animation’s history is littered with examples of it:

Len Lye for Shell Oil

Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker for Nescafé

Norman McLaren for NBC, and Oskar Fischinger for Muratti cigarettes…not to mention the postwar explosion of animated commercials in America.  Animation’s history is hardly thinkable without commercials.  (It’s also hardly thinkable without other commissioned works like educational and training films, movie title sequences, TV graphics, and station identifications; but these forms don’t inspire knee-jerk negative reactions like commercials do.)

The regularity with which examples like this come up, back to the very origins of animated film, suggests something more complicated than isolated incidents of heroic animators fighting against the droll, soulless market.  There seems to be a deeper relation, something like a natural affinity, between the demands of advertising and the possibilities of animation itself.

In other words, it’s a subtle mistake to assume that “advertising” and “art” categorically work at cross purposes.  Part of the value in animated commercials lies in making this fact especially clear.  Barrier’s comparison of an animated commercial to graffiti is apt: not because its form defeats its inventiveness, but because it relies on inventiveness to arrest our attention in an unexpected way, and it must compete with the surrounding landscape to be effective and memorable.  Animation’s plasticity–its dependence on loose resemblances of design rather than photographic fidelity to the world, its ability to move things we did not know could move–makes it an easy fit for the chief weapon of marketing: novelty.

The discomfort towards talking about advertisements as artworks seems to turn on just how that novelty is to be taken.  Is it the novelty of the aesthetic judgment, an absolutely singular experience whose uniquene purposelessness elevates our humanity?  Or is it the novelty of product differentiation, a mere appearance of novelty calculated to sell us what we don’t need?

Noting the difference is as important as it is difficult–partly because we can only conceive novelty in negative terms.  We know something new when we see it, but we can only define newness as something like “that which we haven’t seen before.”  In Aesthetic Theory, Adorno discusses “the new” extensively as a problem unique to the modern era.  While modern art’s power hinges on novelty in its ability to change or critique its environment, “the new” is nonetheless “a blind spot, as empty as the purely indexical gesture ‘look here’” (20).

Nor is “the new” a category that art can call its own:

Nouveauté is aesthetically the result of historical development, the trademark of consumer goods appropriated by art by means of which artworks distinguish themselves from the ever-same inventory in obedience to the need for the exploitation of capital, which, if it does not expand, if it does not–in its own language–offer something new, is eclipsed.  (21)

Adorno’s story (if I understand him correctly) is something like this: Individual producers of consumer culture compete with each other by differentiation, which lead consumer culture as a whole to keep expanding outward.  This process creates peculiar challenges to art, inasmuch as it wants to retain its function as art.  If art is to exist for its own sake, free from the debasement of consumption, it must actively separate itself from that larger system of expanding consumption.  But separation a priori means differentiation; and because consumer culture is unceasingly differentiated, art must unceasingly differentiate itself in turn.  Art ends up obeying the same logic of endless novelty as the system.  The primary task in each arena becomes renewing itself and remaining relevant, forever looking for new angles to exploit.

Along this line of reasoning, it’s not coincidental that modern art emerges at roughly the same time as modern advertising (and, of course, as cinema–all around the turn of the twentieth century).  Consequently, aesthetic novelty and consumable novelty are in constant danger of slipping together.  Critic Clement Greenberg (who tirelessly championed “the new” in art), bespoke an implicit awareness of this danger when he noted that if the modern abstract artist does not sufficiently challenge himself, his work tends to look like interior decoration.  (He was referring to an exhibition of Fernand Léger, and opined that an interior decorator was still preferable to an academic painter of older styles.)

This is fairly pedestrian theoretical territory of the challenges of an avant-garde; but because novelty is a problem shared by aesthetics and and the market, it causes a great deal of conflict over what’s at stake for an animated commercial.  An animator whose commercial moves us to laughter or tears or strikes us dumb may, in a limited sense, have “muffed the job” by failing to directly cause us to buy something.  But by this standard, most advertising fails anyway; if companies had such direct critera, advertising would have ceased to exist long ago.  In a quieter sense, the animator has succeeded spectacularly: capturing our attention and putting a logo on it.

It’s tempting to try to keep the logic of a mediocre Léger painting separate from the logic of a good Chipotle ad by claiming that the corporate logo inherently keeps commercial work from genuine aesthetic novelty.  Whatever “Aha” wonder we may get from a piece of animation may be said to simply be silenced by the mere attempt to give it commercial purpose.  The challenge of perceiving the world anew is quickly given a cheap way out.

But this answer seems to me to avoid two problems.  First, there’s the problem of novelty itself.  By its very nature, novelty is unpredictable and destructive (even, potentially, of the logo’s attempt to keep it under control).  Second, there’s the problem of the genuine response I began with.  Once a moment in a commercial is found compelling, however fleeting, it can’t somehow be retroactively found un-compelling.  I can feel betrayed, but I can’t deny what I saw and felt.

Novelty can’t be unseen, and, for better or for worse, that novelty can be found anywhere.  Animation’s past and present success depends on it.