Maybe this is just me, but I think that commercials are fascinating. It’s interesting to learn about the tricks that advertising executives use to burrow into our minds and make us want the product they promote. The ad execs’ toolbox is a big one, filled with things like rock songs, catchy jingles, celebrities, and other such things.
One of the ad men (and women)’s biggest tools, however, is animation. Executives know that animated movies and TV shows are beloved parts of our childhood. They also know that animation brings us warm, happy feelings today. Therefore, ad men team up with animators as often as possible and use those happy feelings we get from animation to get us to buy things.
This is an awesome thing. After all, animation has given us some of the greatest commercials ever made. Let’s take a look at a few of them!
“I Want My Maypo!” (Maypo, 1956)
This commercial owes Brad Bird a big debt: through The Iron Giant, he kind of brought this commercial back. It’s a good thing, too, because this commercial is great. This classic ad is the brainchild of John Hubley, a former Disney animator who had never worked on a commercial. When the Maltex Company turned to Hubley to help boost the sales of their maple-flavored oatmeal, Maypo, Hubley stepped up to the challenge. Hubley came up with a mascot (Marky Maypo), a script, and two great actors (including his own son as the voice of Marky). The animation is a little sketchy, but in an enduring, 1950s sort of way. The ad is probably best remembered, though, for its famous catchphrase, “I want my Maypo!” That line is kind of a pop culture monument now; along with appearing in The Iron Giant, it was also the inspiration for MTV’s famous slogan, “I want my MTV!”
“Moonshot” (Coca-Cola, 1969)
Let’s go back to 1969. At the beginning of the decade, American president John F. Kennedy had announced his intention to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and NASA began to move closer to that goal. Apollo 8 wouldn’t be the mission that would achieve that milestone, but it had a special job of its own: photograph the dark side of the moon. Prior to the mission, the world was abuzz with speculation about what the astronauts would find. Coca-Cola picked up on that buzz and put out this commercial. During the course of the ad Apollo 8 achieves its mission, but finds something on the dark side of the moon that no one expected to find. Apparently, Coke’s popularity isn’t limited to Earth alone!
“How Many Licks?” (Tootsie Roll Pops, 1970)
Most commercials don’t have a long shelf life; they run on TV for a couple years or so and then disappear. This commercial, though, has been shown on TV for decades. Why? Even though the animation is dated, the ad is still entertaining and it boasts one of the greatest slogans in history. The commercial has been cut to the bone over time, but the essence remains the same: a boy wanders from animal to animal, asking, “How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?” He eventually goes to Mr. Owl, who takes three licks of the sucker, bites it, and lets the boy know that it takes exactly three licks. That answer might as well be true, for that’s about all a person can handle before biting.
“Through The Grapevine” (California Raisins, 1988)
This is just a personal preference, but when it comes to animated commercials I particularly like those that utilize claymation. For the longest time I wasn’t sure why this was, but after I watched this ad I came to a conclusion: my love for claymation commercials (and Motown Records, but that’s another story) starts here. I don’t know if it was this way nationwide, but this commercial was in heavy rotation on Southern California TV through the 1990s and I saw it a lot as a kid. I’m glad I did, too; this commercial (produced by Vinton Studios, which also produced a series of ads for Domino’s Pizza, as well as the original ‘Talking M&Ms’ commercials) has a lot of warmth baked into it. From the soft, fluffy design of the man who discovers the raisins dancing, to the smooth motions and expressive faces of the raisins, to the classic Marvin Gaye tune they sing, this commercial is a classic.
“Arrows” (Listerine, 1993)
It’s hard to imagine a time when Pixar was struggling to make ends meet, but there was such a time. It started when Steve Jobs bought the company and ended with Toy Story. Fortunately, the company found a way to generate some revenue; ad execs, impressed with Pixar’s short films, turned to the fledgling company and asked them to produce commercials. Pixar worked on ads for several companies, but their most famous commercials were done for Listerine. All the Listerine commercials are great (after all, they were directed by the likes of Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and John Lasseter), but this is my favorite. It wasn’t directed by one of the bigger names of Pixar (it was directed by Jan Pinkava), but it is the first Pixar commercial to win a Gold Clio Award (basically the Oscar for commercials), so it’s significant. It definitely deserved the award, too!
“Faint” (M&Ms, 1996-Present)
There’s a special handful of holiday commercials that are shown every holiday season, year after year. I’ve talked to people about these, and it seems like the general consensus is that the Hershey’s Kisses “hand bells” ad is the best. While I agree that the Kisses commercial is great, I have to say that this one is my personal favorite. I’ve always loved the “Talking M&Ms” commercials for their kooky sense of humor and this ad is a prime example. I love the warm lighting of the ad, the detailed set design, and the voice work of Billy West as the red M&M and the one and only J.K. Simmons as the yellow M&M. Simmons gets the best line in the commercial; the ad would have been funny enough just ending when the red M&M & Santa faint, but Simmons puts the candle on the cake with one simple line: “Uh…Santa?” Pure comedy gold!
“Building” (Coca-Cola, 2014)
This is the second Coke commercial in this article, and there’s a good reason for that. I’m of the opinion that no other company has had more classic ad campaigns than The Coca-Cola Company. Even among all Coke’s ads, this one stands out. As a red balloon floats around an apartment building, we peek in the windows and see many touching scenes: a young couple “meet cute” outside the building, a mother and daughter cook and dance together, a mom and dad help their son pack for college, and an older couple celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, among others. The ad doesn’t have a lot to do with the product, but it sure is moving. Heck, I’m crying as I’m typing this!
There are a lot of great animated commercials out there, but, unfortunately, there’s not enough room to talk about them all here. This is just a small selection of a much wider field. Tell us what your favorites are in the comments below!
What are your favorite animated commercials? What should we cover in the next “Forgotten Gems of Animation” article?
AJ's love of movies began when his mom took him to see The Lion King on a warm California day in 1994. He left the theater with his mind blown and with a strong desire to become a filmmaker. AJ's fascinated with films of all kinds, but animated films have always held a special place in his heart, particularly Disney animation, the work of Chuck Jones, and Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson's Peanuts specials. His favorite animated films include (but aren't limited to) Frozen, Beauty And The Beast, Surf's Up, The Bugs Bunny/RoadRunner Movie, and Toy Story 3. Along with films, AJ also loves pop and rock music, hiking, the beach, comic books, traveling, writing, acting, and baseball.