Music’s role in advertising spots is as essential as breathing: We don’t always notice it as it’s happening, but we definitely miss it when it’s gone.
Music that’s out of sync with its accompanying imagery can feel as stressful and uncertain as hyperventilation. And in some cases, omitting the music, just like holding one’s breath, can be done to great effect — but only when used deliberately and sparingly.
Athletes and dancers thrive on coordinating breath with movement, and advertising thrives on coordinating music with images. Here, we analyze five award-winning ad spots that use the combination of sound and vision to its greatest artistic effect.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
The rapper Logic drives this PSA with his song “1-800-273-8255”, the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Featuring Alessia Cara and Khalid, the song digs into the realities of suicidal ideation: the desperation, the immediacy, the sense that everyone you love would genuinely live in a better world if you weren’t in it. It also embraces the reality of surviving suicidal ideation: that it is possible to become the source of strength and hope for others that you once so desperately needed.
The PSA is longer than your average ad spot, clocking in at just less than 7 minutes. Driven by the complete song, it tells the story of two young men facing extraordinary difficulties — and embracing the fight to live.
“1-800-273-8255” is perhaps the most emotionally harrowing ad of 2017, a feat made more impressive by the fact that it faced stiff competition even on AdWeek’s Top Ten list, which it shares with pieces like the Nike’s Breaking2 and the New York Times’ “The Truth Is Hard to Find” series. Yet on the day of its release, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline fielded more than 4,573 calls, its second-highest ever daily volume.
The NSPL has reported that website visits and Google searches for the site remain consistently 25 percent higher than before the PSA’s release, indicating that the spot not only represents an outstanding piece of advertising art, but that it has literally saved lives.
Nespresso: Comin’ Home
When you have the chance to include an iconic actor like George Clooney in an ad, the temptation to give him lines is strong. When you have the chance to incorporate scenes from classic films in an ad, the temptation to rely on those films’ equally classic soundtracks is even stronger.
Nespresso’s “Comin’ Home” ad stood out by doing neither.
“Comin’ Home” was featured by AdWeek as both an Ad of the Day and as one of AdWeek’s best ads of 2017. The work of ad agency McCann New York and director Grant Heslov, “Comin’ Home” features Clooney taking a cross-country road trip to grab a cup of Nespresso with Andy Garcia — by popping in and out of various travel scenes from classic films, sharing rides with everyone from the Muppets to Seabiscuit.
The occasional line from a film or two is added in, with facial expressions from Clooney that add a shot of humor to the narrative. Backing the entire trip is Mel Torme’s “Comin’ Home Baby.” Originally written as a jazz instrumental for the Dave Bailey Quintet in 1961, “Comin’ Home Baby” combines a horn-heavy drive with a smooth underlying swing groove that evokes exactly the sort of classic road trip the ad seamlessly pieces together — and the lyrics make Clooney’s hard-won Nespresso seem like exactly the sort of reward one deserves after a whirlwind trip.
Donate Life: The World’s Biggest A**hole
A Clio Award Gold Winner for Short Form Commercial and an AdWeek Arc Award winner, Donate Life’s “The World’s Biggest Asshole” is the brainchild of The Martin Agency. Its goal: to encourage young men to become organ donors.
CBS Sunday Morning described the ad as “if not NSFW, at least NSFLKWRFL (Not Safe For Little Kids Who Repeat Foul Language),” and its irreverent attitude is a huge part of its appeal. The ad follows the antics of a character named Coleman Sweeney, winner of the ignominious appellation in the title, who is discovered at the end of his life to have done one wholly generous thing: He became an organ donor.
The background music is a piano-heavy arrangement of Coldplay’s “Fix You,” performed by Civil Brother. It’s an unusual juxtaposition at first, as we’re introduced to Sweeney’s daily routine of annoying and harassing his fellow human beings. As the message of Sweeney’s life and death come into focus, however, the sense of hope carried by the music from the beginning resolves into a powerful statement about the nature of life and giving.
“Breaking the 2-hour marathon barrier is impossible,” Nike told us in an ad for its Breaking2 campaign. “Everyone knows it. … So we’re doing it.”
On May 6, 2017, three runners teamed up with Nike and National Geographic. Their goal: not only to break the world marathon record, but to come in at under two hours for the entire 26.2-mile run. None of the three succeeded, although one of them, Eliud Kipchoge, set a world record with a total time of 2 hours, 25 seconds.
Despite the runners’ falling short of the under-2-hours goal, the Breaking2 project garnered a great deal of attention on social media and even spawned a documentary. And the attention began with AdAge’s “Content Marketing of the Year” award winner, a collaboration between Nike, Wieden & Kennedy, Mindshare and Dirty Robber that also secured the No. 4 spot on AdWeek’s Top Ten list for 2017.
What we love about this spot is its refusal to get fancy or fussy. Like the runners, Nike has a job to do: Set up the challenge and then knock it down. The ad does just that, starting with a voice-over accompanying the image of a runner standing in the early dawn light, the road stretching before him.
Then, as a stopwatch flicks to life, the steady yet relentless strains of “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra,” a Stravinsky piece reimagined by The Fall and The Bell Orchestre, set the pace. The combination of score, image and message set us all on one goal: breaking the two-hour barrier.
The ad’s visuals tell a story that is clear, engaging, funny and heartwarming all at once. The work of ad agency Leo Burnett, we’d be tempted to list it among our favorites even if it were completely silent.
But it’s not. The ad begins with no background music, only the sounds of the plains and the ostrich pecking curiously at the VR goggles. Once the ostrich finds the goggles stuck to its face, however, its exploration of them — including a couple silly moments of failure — is backed by the strains of Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” rising to a crescendo as the ostrich takes flight. Samsung’s message is presented in two simple lines of text without voiceover: “We make what can’t be made so you can do what can’t be done.”
When it debuted in 1972, “Rocket Man” carried echoes of Ray Bradbury’s short story by the same name, as well as David Bowie’s 1969 song “Space Oddity.” The balladic nature of the song, as well as its juxtaposition of the seemingly impossible (space flight) with the mundane (“she packed my bags last night, pre-flight….”), along with its current place in our cultural consciousness as a comfortable classic, allow “Rocket Man” to lend the perfect combination of trust and inspiration to the ostrich’s journey, as well as to Samsung’s message.