The 15 Best TV Advertisements Directed By Famous Modern Filmmakers

david lynch

Photo: Miles Aldridge

The world of TV advertisement is a tough one. Depending on time and a strict budget to sell a product to millions of daily consumers, it creates a stressful atmosphere where the director must cram every piece of advertisement strategy that manages to grab its target audience in the fastest way possible. The longer the ad runs, the more the producers pay, the less attention the viewers have.

Due to these ruthless time constraints, there’s no space for credits: the featuring actor’s star power are normally the one recognizable factor that can click with audiences. Because of this, we don’t often apply the same authorship rules we do to films or music videos: how can a TV ad have a visual style? How can a director fit his idiosyncrasies with such a limited time span and a huge set of publicity rules he must abide?

The truth is: he can. Oh, he definitely can. It’s not like movies themselves aren’t vehicles for product placement and brand-selling, it’s actually one of the best ways to garner crucial investments so it can be properly made and distributed to audiences. On the other hand, this doesn’t take away from the fact that the emphasis of the ad world is on the product that’s being sold, not on the director/artist(s) himself.

Still, there are some advertisements that are greater than regular attention-grabbing, loud-speaking publicity. There are some of them that when given to the hands of a talented director manage to rise above the rest. They’re stricken with a smack of personality, and devoid of regular narrative or visual constraints. These small but wonderful ads distill the filmmaker to his or her essence in a way film normally cannot.

This is a list and analysis of some of those ads.


15. Mark Romanek – Masked Warriors (Call of Duty, 2013)

Masked Warriors is perhaps one of the most striking signs of the times of recent years when it comes to the advertisement medium and the audiovisual in general. Being primarily released with the YouTube video sharing platform in mind, this Call of Duty teaser trailer has over twelve million hits, which is a very nice number for just a teaser.

Call of Duty is a big name in first-person shooter videogames, and Mark Romanek has made a name for himself being a prolific video music director and a critical darling with his sophomore film Never Let Me Go, starring Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley.

Which is why Masked Warriors depicts a new paradigm in advertisement: television isn’t the only medium anymore that’s worthy of transmitting audiovisual messages and certainly not the only one where a director with a vision can shine. Romanek applies his eye for beautiful yet grim imagery with this apocalyptic setting, displaying a row of literally masked warriors under an on-the-nose voice-over that hits the theme of the video over and over.

It’s the lighting and careful costume design that make this one stand out, which owes no small part to Mr. Romanek and his years of experience.


14. Sofia Coppola – Miss Dior Chérie (Dior, 2008)

One of the two advertisements on this list to have a quirky and rosy visual style, Sofia Coppola’s first foray into the ad world draws its inspiration from its distinct setting: Paris. It’s a commercial as driven by setting and music as Coppola’s 2006 Marie Antoinette, and it even has a gorgeous blonde woman as a protagonist. It’s as iconic as Lost in Translation or Virgin Suicides; we follow the perspective of a female character through a day of consumerism.

Because it’s a short advertisement, it hasn’t the melancholic strain of Coppola’s films, or the satirical vein from her most recent works. Miss Dior Chérie is as fresh and clean as you’ll ever find a Coppola film: with a bright and rosy visual palette and a song by Brigitte Bardot (model Maryna Linchuk also has an uncanny resemblance to the former French actress) that carries a slight hint of nostalgia and deeper meaning nevertheless construct a beautiful, happy-go-lucky and ultimately superficial TV commercial.


13. Tarsem Singh – Xperia Z (Sony, 2013)

Tarsem Singh’s commercial for Sony’s Xperia Z smartphone is beautiful to look at. It moves in a faux slow motion style that adds to its coolness factor. Couple that with a modern-sounding cover of David Bowie’s Sound and Vision and you have a XXI century advertisement hit.

The publicity spot is filled with Tarsem’s trademark saturated imagery and keen eye for composition, plus it doesn’t hurt the fact that the video’s setting, India, has an otherworldly quality that’s different from most American or English advertisements.

The commercial is a masterful case study for publicity videos, having a thirty second prelude that quickly speaks to the audience knowledge of the evolution of technology and their own nostalgia, chronicling the rise and importance of Sony’s brand in recent history. Television, camcorders, PlayStation and now a smartphone: every single one of those gadgets recording transcending and unique moments, with a colorful palette that stimulates the viewers’ eye in a pleasing way.


12. Tony Scott – Beat the Devil (BMW, 2002)

The late and great Tony Scott was a divisive but adored director. On the one hand, he’s got pop culture icons such as Top Gun under his name, and cult favorites like True Romance. On the other, he also directed features like Déjà vu and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.

Despite his sprawling and varied filmography, he struck gold when he directed the short film Beat the Devil for BMW’s film series The Hire, which was produced for the internet between 2001 and 2002. The short stars big names like Clive Owen, Danny Trejo, James Brown and Gary “Norman Stansfield” Oldman as the Devil himself. He even wears red lipstick!

It’s the longest advert on this list because it doesn’t adhere to the proper strict rules of regular TV commercial spots. With a nine-minute running time, it tells the story of legendary James Brown reclaiming his soul from the devil, which he sold for fame and fortune. Even if it doesn’t make you want to straight-up buy a BMW, it will at least leave you with a big grin on your face.


11. Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola – Candy L’Eau (Prada, 2013)

Having both worked together on films like The Darjeeling Limited and 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson and son of legendary director Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Coppola were tasked to create three small ads (or one short film) for Prada’s Candy L’Eau fragrance.

Starring Blue is the Warmest Color’s Léa Sydoux, the advertisement is a French-speaking homage to the French New Wave, fitting perfectly on Anderson’s film cannon and visual style. It particularly riffs on movies like Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, what with the two men after the one woman and the complicated relationship therein.

Truth be told, the ad is more of a Wes Anderson vehicle than a Roman Coppola one: it features the quirky director’s rosy color palette; the well placed and fast moving camera pans; three adults that behave like naïve children, and emotionally awkward situations.

Léa Sydoux is fantastic on the role she’s given, and lookalikes Peter Gadiot and Rodolphe Pauly aren’t too shabby themselves.


10. Spike Lee – Air Jordans (Nike, 1989)

Starring as Mars Blackmon, Spike Lee directed a series of amusing commercials for Nike’s Air Jordans, acting alongside basketball super star Michael Jordan. Mars Blackmon is the same character Lee previously played in his film 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It. However, it was his catchphrase in the commercials that popularized the character: “it’s gotta be da shoes” he keeps telling Mr. Jordan, when talking about how he’s such a great basketball player.

The black and white imagery, quick-cut editing and in-your-face dialogue that characterizes much of Lee’s work is present in the advertisement, making for a too-cool-for-school attitude that sure was and is popular around kids. It knows its target audience and works toward it with the director’s very singular style.


9. David Fincher – Beer Run (Heineken, 2005)

Being a prolific director such as David Fincher mustn’t be easy. Besides his pretty regular film work (despite his status as an auteur he’s made five films in the last ten years) and music video contribution for the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Justin Timberlake, Fincher’s worked in advertisement too. Truth be told, any of his works for Coca-Cola and Levi’s could be featured on this list, but Heineken’s Beer Run stands out because of one simple reason: it has Brad Pitt.

The star power of the actor can never be underestimated, and in the case of television advertisement even more so. Because of the limited running time of most ads, the viewer may not even recognize the brand, but he will always associate a given product with the actor that gives life to it on-screen. That’s why Brad Pitt’s contribution to Fincher’s ad can’t be disregarded as a small matter; it’s actually a big deal.

Most of Fincher’s ads involve in some way or another running. Be it the police in roller skates or a suited-man fleeing from barking dogs, running is always involved. On the other hand, Brad Pitt (the actor plays himself) never actually runs in Heineken’s commercial: it’s more of a strut than anything else.

The director brings his gritty realism from Se7en and socially-conscious satire from Fight Club and comments on the turn of the century paparazzi culture, having first a bunch of photographers follow Pitt around whilst he goes on his so called ‘Beer Run’, and then thousands of them.

It’s pretty simple but it works: having one and a half minute of Brad Pitt risking his social privacy by going out and buying a Heineken is a smart choice, publicity-wise.