10 Great Commercials Disguised As Auteur-Directed Short Films
Somewhere on a darker timeline, Werner Herzog is narrating a commercial for men’s cologne. “Do you not then hear this horrible scream all around you that people usually call silence?” he asks, his voice gravelly and jagged. Maybe he’s narrating black and white footage of a desolate farmhouse.
That’s uncomfortable, right? Watching a well-known director venture into advertising can feel weird—nobody wants to watch their favorite artist sell out. But there are outliers among these commercials.
What is it about a great commercial that keeps us from rolling our eyes? A good place to start is a strong vision behind the camera. Directors like Wes Anderson and Ridley Scott have such notable styles that it’s hard to blame either man for producing the occasional ad. Other creators, like Spike Jonze, found a way to partner with brands most of us perceive as cool; you’ll notice Jonze lends his colorful gifts to companies like Apple and avant-garde streetwear brand Kenzo rather than, say, Quiznos.
Ultimately, companies partner with talented directors hoping to sell you an object or service, but there’s a loftier goal. These commercials value style over product information. They try to sell a comprehensive worldview, an aesthetic, or the dream of what you could be if only you owned the right computer, wine bottle, or car.
1. Ridley Scott’s “1984” for Apple
The world of advertising was forever changed during Super Bowl XVIII when Apple ran an ambitious, sci-fi-inspired ad directed by Ridley Scott, who was fresh off back-to-back stunners Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). At that moment in Hollywood, Scott could have chosen to make any film, but he decided to make what is now considered the greatest TV commercial of all time.
The ad, inspired by George Orwell’s dystopian novel, doesn’t just push Apple’s personal computers—it implies that the company wants to free its consumer base from cultural oppression through innovation. Whether or not you agree that Steve Jobs bettered the lives of millions with his products, it’s hard to watch Scott’s ad without feeling a surge of emotion.
2. Spike Jonze’s “Kenzo World” for Kenzo
This commercial is so fresh and youthful that Taylor Swift allegedly ripped it off in the music video for her 2018 single “Delicate.” Through Jonze’s eyes, dancer Margaret Qualley is one part socialite and one part manic monster, jerking her body to the rhythm of “Mutant Brain,” an original dance track by Sam Spiegel & Ape Drums feat. Assassin.
The ad suggests that Kenzo’s fragrance is only meant for the wildest and most free among us. If you’re turned off by the way Qualley moves, the commercial makes clear that you’re not cool enough to wear Kenzo and should best move along.
3. Crystal Moselle’s “That One Day” for Miu Miu
There are several stand-outs among Miu Miu’s short branded documentaries, but Moselle’s extended look at female skateboarders is the crown jewel. Released in 2016, the naturalistic spot follows a gang of cool young women as they perfect their moves while debating the nature of “loving someone” vs. “being in love with someone.”
Miu Miu’s campaign “Women’s Tales” sets its sights on a goal more complex than selling dresses. If you watch the entire series of short films, you’re left with the sense the brand understands modern young women in an intimate way.
4. Michael Mann’s “Leave Nothing” for Nike
Director Michael Mann specializes in crime dramas and sweeping historical epics—the sort of films engineered to make the blood surge in your veins. It was a stroke of genius, then, for Nike to enlist Mann in 2007 and ask him to shoot a football commercial as if the players were the last Mohicans waging war.
Everything in Mann’s ad is carefully calculated to charge you up: the Scottish highlands-style string section, the churning and changing weather, and the hyper-intimate physical grunts we hear from his star players. The narrative gets split evenly between an offensive player and a defensive player, which adds a fresh perspective compared to the typical sports endorsement. And the action is so close that it sounds like we’re in the helmets.
5. Johnny Kelly’s “Back to the Start” for Chipotle
In the years since Chipotle released its delicate, hippie-friendly music video, the company took a big hit after a widespread e.coli scare. In 2012, however, animator Johnny Kelly made the fast food industry look like a child’s nightmare, positioning Chipotle as the savior of cute little pigs and cows.
Set to a Willie Nelson cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” the haunting yet adorable ad makes an impassioned plea for sustainability in food, and it calls for the humane treatment of animals, even if those animals are raised to be eaten. When the commercial dropped, it planted Chipotle at the forefront of everyone’s minds during conversations about ethical food consumption. What’s more, neither Willie Nelson nor Johnny Kelly looked foolish for getting involved.
6. Kirsten Lepore and Lena Dunham’s “100 Years” for Planned Parenthood
Internet denizens may be familiar with Lepore’s half-creepy, half-heartwarming stop-motion. Her short “Hey Stranger” went viral in 2017. A year before, Lepore lent her gifts to Planned Parenthood for a short documentary on the non-profit’s history, a 7-minute film she co-directed with Lena Dunham.
With voice work from Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Mindy Kaling, Tessa Thompson, Amy Schumer, Constance Wu, America Ferrera, and Gina Rodriguez, the ad works on several levels. Impressively, it doesn’t shy away from the unnerving parts of Planned Parenthood’s history—its founder, Margaret Sanger, was at least partially invested in eugenics—and the overall tone suggests solidarity among all women.
7. Wes Anderson’s “Castello Cavalcante” for Prada
Has Wes Anderson ever made a film that didn’t make you feel like you were eating cheesecake? They’re pleasant to enjoy but aesthetically dense. In 2013, Prada hired the quirky director to artfully pan across Italian faces and film good-looking objects on a table from above, all in the name of associating Prada with style.
The film, being an Anderson project, features Jason Schwartzman as a fast-talking, scatter-brained race-car driver meeting his own ancestors. Everybody drinks, Schwartzman eats spaghetti, and there’s only the faintest hint of Prada’s involvement.
8. Rodrigo Saavedra’s “The Red Stain” for the Francis Ford Coppola Winery
Another stylish ad set in an idyllic European town, “The Red Stain” follows a lovable elderly couple as they guess wildly about a mysterious stain on a shirt they’re cleaning. It’s a red wine stain, sure, but is wine ever just…wine? Every glass comes with subtext: a top-note of infidelity or the mouthfeel of a woman scorned.
This commercial, directed by Saavedra, is only one of two on the list to use humor, but like Anderson’s whimsical race-car story, it works. Coppola’s winery comes off not just stylish, but complicated and playful as well.
9. Wong Kar Wai’s “The Follow” for BMW
Wong Kar Wai is the king of Second Wave cinema, known internationally for his kaleidoscopic urban settings, and for filming action sequences that somehow feel like watching a ballet. That reputation made him a wise choice to direct one of BMW’s short films starring Clive Owen that were released in 2001 and 2002.
Watching his BMW ad, alongside several other branded short films, doesn’t feel like a complete departure from Chungking Express, the film he’s known for, but it does feel like elevated content from a car company.
10. Spike Jonze’s “Welcome Home” for Apple
Jonze appears twice on this list because he’s carved out a space for himself on the branded side, demonstrating a flair for commercial art that matches his sensitive storytelling. In his 2018 ad for the Homepod, he makes a glowing starlet out of FKA Twigs, who plays a downtrodden woman living alone in (probably) New York City. Twigs yearns for art and freedom of expression, though her only outlet is Siri.
The ad is daring, not because it bends reality and verges on fantasy, but because it sells the Homepod to regular, bored people. You can escape from your dreary life, Apple says, if you use our technology to interact with music. That’s the same message the company has been peddling since 1984, but as told by Jonze, it’s breathtaking.Image by Jakob Owens / Unsplash