5 ads so entertaining the message got lost

With Sky Boxes and Freeview HD recorders now allowing viewers to fast-forward through the commercials, the need for TV ads to amuse, charm, and delight is more important than ever. 

But can an ad ever be TOO entertaining? We’d argue that solely entertaining without persuading is ultimately a futile activity. As well as engaging its audience, an ad also needs to deliver a clear and understandable message, and ideally, prompt viewers to take some kind of action. 

In this post, we highlight five UK ads that are hugely entertaining but where the commercial message seems muddled or lost. Don't get us wrong: they're all brilliantly made, and some have even won awards... but we humbly question whether they actually serve the fundamental brand purpose.

01. John Lewis/Elton John

It’s a little bit funny, the feeling inside, when you watch this ad created by Adam & Eve/DDB. Because quite frankly it seems more like an ad for Elton John than an ad for John Lewis. 

For two minutes and 10 seconds, we're treated to a beautifully constructed journey through the life and career of the singer. This mini-biopic is epic, touching and at times overwhelming. And yet... its connection with the high-street retailer it's supposed to be promoting seems less than obvious. 

It's only in the final few seconds that we get the payoff: apparently, when he was a boy, Elton's parents bought him a piano, and so the final caption reads “Sometimes a gift is more than a gift”. 

It’s a nice line, but it feels like a stretch to connect any of this with John Lewis. Pianos are not an obvious item you’d associate with the British retail institution, and in fact, they literally don’t sell them. (Yes, they do sell digital pianos, but in this context, that’s really not the same thing.)

Overall, it all feels like John Lewis was so excited to be associated with a rock icon, they forgot that the point was to get people to actually buy stuff.

If the purpose of a TV ad is to encourage the viewer to take an action, this one certainly works... but only if the action is to download Elton's ‘Your Song’, or go to the cinema and watch Rocketman.

How to do it better

The 2014 Christmas ad for John Lewis, also by Adam & Eve/DDB, again tells the story of a specific purchase; in this case, a toy penguin. But in this case, it's both something people are likely to buy, and something John Lewis actually sells. 

Furthermore, the story and the tagline (“Give someone the Christmas they’ve been dreaming of”) conveys a broader notion: that of delighting a child with a present tailored to their own desires and dreams, which is much more universally relatable.

02. Confused.com/Brian the Robot 

Comparison websites are often awkward and time-consuming to use. So even though we know they could save us money on our car insurance or energy bills, we often just lazily click ‘renew’ when our year’s contract is up. 

This ad, created by Publicis London, aimed to make Confused.com's service seem more accessible, by portraying it in the form of a chummy, approachable robot called Brian. And it was certainly entertaining. 

With a fun soundtrack, which fans of 1980s TV will recognise as the Knight Rider theme tune, we see Brian comically chase a family driving across the UK for a series of days and nights. Finally, he catches up and informs them: “I could save you £230 on your car insurance”.

This could have been a great climax to an entertaining sequence. But to our minds, the ad fluffs it; the driver simply responds “Cheers mate” and  drives off. Honestly, it seems more like he's giving Brian the brush-off than actively engaging in the comparison process.

This damp squib of an ending means the whole thing falls flat. And the family’s passive response seems unlikely to encourage viewers to visit Confused.com and start entering their details.

How to do it better

This ad for ClearScore.com is drily amusing, with a comedy dog and a funny miscommunication between husband and wife. But it’s also superbly persuasive. The call to action couldn’t be clearer, as the characters basically hold up a mirror to viewers at home, showing them exactly what to do, and how quickly it can be done. A great example of how to be entertaining, at the same time as conveying a clear message and call to action.

03. Halifax/Wizard of Oz

Who doesn’t love the Wizard of Oz? And this ad, created by Adam & Eve/DDB, cleverly blends the classic movie's footage with a newly filmed scene in a way that can only be described as technical genius.

Like in the movie, Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin-Man and the Cowardly Lion knock on the door of the Great and Powerful Oz’s castle. But instead of the Wizard, they’re greeted by Greg, a Halifax mortgage advisor, who tells them, “If it’s the home of your dreams you’re after, maybe I can help?”

It’s a smart concept, and a lovely way to view a boring subject like banking through a rosy lens of nostalgia. But ultimately, it falls flat when Greg informs Dorothy: “I can’t give you a mortgage, you’re far too young” – and she then bursts into tears!

Although Greg eventually does get Dorothy home, this moment feels like a bum note, instantly unravelling the (already weak) connection with getting a mortgage that the ad was meant to promote. 

Overall, then, the whole thing feels like something that everyone had a lot of fun making, but doesn’t really get across a clear message.

How to do it better

This earlier Halifax ad, also created by Adam&EveDDB, is far less convoluted: Top Cat and his sidekick Benny simply walk into a branch, ask for a mortgage, and well, get a mortgage. The ad works particularly well because it ties into what fans already know about the characters (they're always being evicted from their trash can-homes), while it's simple enough that people who’ve never seen the show still get the point.

04. The National Lottery/Please Not Them

You'd think that persuading people to buy lottery tickets was a fairly simple proposition: who doesn’t want to be a multimillionaire overnight? But for some reason, the National Lottery decided to go for a more complicated, surreal and irony-laced approach with its ‘Please Not Them’ series of ads. 

Rather than pursuing the obvious line that people like being instantly rich, it played on the somewhat quixotic notion of playing to stop other people winning; specifically, celebrities with ludicrous ideas about what they'd do with the money. 

Don't misunderstand us: this campaign, led by AMV BBDO, was hugely entertaining, often hilarious, and packed with star power. In the ad shown above, Piers Morgan plays an exaggerated version of himself, in which he designs a narcissistic amusement park called Piers’ Pier. Other ads in the series featured James Blunt and Katie Price, and each parodies celebrities’ sense of their own importance brilliantly.

So hats off to AMV BBDO for creating these superb comedy sketches. We just question whether anyone has ever bought a ticket because of them. Quite simply, their tongue is so firmly in their cheek that the concept of playing the lottery is less brought to the forefront of viewers' minds than shoved right to the back.

How to do it better

For a British audience, a naked appeal to personal greed might be considered a bit tasteless. So this clever ad, again from AMV BBDO, instead focuses on the things we’d buy for our nearest and dearest if we won. It's a simple but effective campaign that recasts our avarice as generosity, and gives us a truly convincing reason to buy that next lottery ticket (which we wanted to do anyway, but just needed a bit more talking into).

05. Nationwide/Flo and Joan

This series of adverts for Nationwide features a comedy duo called Flo and Joan. And it seems to have divided the nation – or at least those active on the internet – between people who love them and people who truly hate them. 

From a pure business point of view, there’s nothing wrong with creating ads that annoy people. Some of the most successful ads of all time have also been the most irritating, from Cillit Bang to Go Compare, partly because they tend to stick in the memory for longer. 

But just being irritating isn’t enough in itself. As we’ve said many times in this article now, there needs to be a clear message, ideally one that makes a viewer imagine using your product or service, and a call to action. But to our mind, this campaign, created by VCCP, features none of these things. 

Each of the ads consists of a comedy song, followed by a couple of text captions about how great the building society is. Yet the two seem at best distantly (and at worst tortuously) related to each other. 

In short, the entire campaign seems more like an advert for Flo and Joan. We hope they reap the benefit, because we honestly can’t see Nationwide doing so. 

How to do it better

Here’s a much more effective use of a comedy song, in an ad to promote Yorkshire Tea. It basically takes the classic British notion that a cup of tea cures all ills to ridiculous extremes. And it's not just funny and entertaining, but conveys the message and the call to action quickly and efficiently. That contrasts strongly with the Flo and Joan ads, where you have to watch the entire thing before you find out what the heck any of this has to do with Nationwide.

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Tom May

Tom May is an award-winning journalist and editor specialising in design, photography and technology. Author of the Amazon #1 bestseller Great TED Talks: Creativity, published by Pavilion Books, Tom was previously editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine. Today, he is a regular contributor to Creative Bloq and its sister sites Digital Camera World, T3.com and Tech Radar. He also writes for Creative Boom and works on content marketing projects.