Animation in TV Commercials

Modified: 21st Apr 2017
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The effectiveness of animation in TV commercials

Bryant & May were the first British company to utilize animation for advertising purposes. In 1899 animator Arthur Melbourne-Cooper was hired to produce a stop-motion short in which matchstick men move along a ladder and paint an appeal on a wall. This appeal read `For one guinea Messrs Bryant & May will forward a case containing sufficient to supply a box of matches to each man in a battalion with the name of the sender inside.'( It is easy to be cynically dismissive of what is obviously a clever, if extremely crude, ad campaign disguised as a patriotic act of charity during the Boer war. However it is not as easy to be as dismissive of the extent to which animation has been adopted from these humble beginnings as a prevailing force within modern advertising strategy.

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The 22nd September 1955 gave birth to commercial television broadcasting in the United Kingdom. Right from the outset advertisers where quick to seize upon the opportunity and advertising possibilities that animation put in front of them. During these early years up to a third of television advertising was animated such as the “Murray Mints, the too-good-to-hurry mints,” or Snap, Crackle an Pop,” for Kellogg’s Rice Krispies which both debut in 1955. The Kellogg ads brought to life hand drawn characters that had been used on the packaging of cereal boxes since 1928 and the campaign still runs to this day. The Murray Mints commercial, which featured soldiers in bearskin hats march in time to a jingle, won best ad of the year in the inaugural year of British television advertising. (Robinson, 2000, p35) J Walter Thompson who had handled the Guinness account since 1929 set about bringing to life; through the process of animation, the extremely popular Gilroy posters that had become an institution and started a ‘Guinness culture.’

If advertisers were keen to use animators in their campaigns then animators where certainly keen to encourage receive the work. The two industries formed a symbiosis which was characterised by the overnight emergence of a whole new market in the advertising industry meant that there were a lot of new opportunities for young animators to set up new companies with the minimum of capital and experiment with new techniques. Companies such as biographic which was set up by Bob Godfrey who produced ads for various companies such as Shipams fish paste and Nestle. (Threadgould, 2005)

The use of animation in commercials certainly proved popular with advertisers, and with home viewers but it was the “Homepride flour men” who proved that it could also be an effective tool. The “Homepride flour men” ad debut in 1965. The ad featured two men in black business suits and bowler hats standing in between two packets of flour. A sieve is placed over the head of one of the men and flour poured into it. The processes is repeated with Homepride flour which sieves much quicker as it is graded and the second man is instantly covered in flour turning his black suit white. The reason is explained by the man in the hat; voiced by Dads Army star John Le Mesurier; and his words produced the slogan ‘GRADED GRAINS MAKE FINER FLOURS.’

The campaign succeeded in making Homepride a market leader within four months. These characters became so popular that a leader (Fred) was named by the advertising brains to give a name to the uniform faces. Merchandise such as aprons, peppermills, fridge magnets and various other kitchenalias were produced as ‘collectors’ items. Fred’s image spurned a whole range of sub products for the company and it is still used to sell a variety of Homepride products today. To keep up with changing times made retain a sense of tradition; various comedians such as Richard Briers and Paul Merton have voiced Fred, he is today voiced by Nick Frost from Spaced.

Homepride have managed to infuse their brand identity with that of Fred, their iconic mascot. They have used his effigy on other products such as sauces and kitchen utensils to place the home pride brand firmly into people’s kitchens. However the runaway success of a particular ad campaign does not guarantee an increase of sales of the product it is supposed to promote.

Creature Comforts began life as a short film. It was an incredibly engaging short due to the interaction between fantasy and reality with which it presented the viewer. In his book Understanding Animation Paul Wells describes the relationship between the diegetic narrative and the characters surroundings as fabrication and suggest that it is a narrative strategy. This is to say that ‘fabrication essentially plays out an alternative version of material existence, recalling narrative out of constructed objects and environments, natural forms and substances, and the taken for granted constituent elements of the everyday world.’(Wells, 1998 p90)  This means that there is a relationship between the abstract expression of character through the model and the ‘constituent elements of the everyday world,’ which lends itself more towards mimesis. Despite the fact that animation is an abstract form of expression, these ads have a ‘documentary feel’ that lends a voice of authority to their claims.

 Nick Parks Creature Comforts and the electricity adverts that followed it present a world in which highly stylised models of animals are animated with the voices of members of the British public. The opinions and the voices of the public and then perfectly matched to appropriate animals. The most memorable example being Frank the jogging tortoise. Frank chats to a locked off camera about how nice it is to come back from a ten mile run into a warm flat, and how it is important that the boiler is easily “turn off and onable.” The world being presented to the consumer is instantly recognizable; frank is discussing the simple pleasures of modern life. He is an everyman despite the fact that he is a talking animal.

The affinity between model animation and the physical world in which it is filmed means that it is to a certain extent confined by the physical laws of our world in order to remain recognizable and believable. Of course these laws can are being flouted, model characters can talk and discuss everyday matters like members of the general public, but the relationship between the animated models and the world they inhabit means that when physical law is flouted a sense of the uncanny or the fantastic is achieved.

This is why the shorts or so engaging but it is also why they failed as ads. Despite the fact that the campaign reached number 4 in a 2000 poll of ‘The 100 greatest TV ads,” the common misconception is that the ads were selling gas. As Nick Park himself explains it, “People still refer to them as ‘the gas adverts.’” (Robinson, 2000, p124) Although the ads were highly memorable they failed to link the commercial and the product.

Successful animalised advertising campaigns are based entirely on the same principles as successful live action campaigns. “Advertising’s central function is to create desires that did not previously exist.” (Dyer, 1982 p6) A miss-judged campaign such as the creature comforts campaign may not be deemed successful if it does not stimulate within the consumer a desire to consume a given product. Where as the Kellogg animated mascots for frosties, rice krispies and coco-pops have succeeded in becoming intrinsically infused with the products that they are selling.

One of the main advantages of using animation in advertising is the ability of animators to create environments and worlds that could not be accessed or reproduced by a live action camera crew. These artificial environments can be used to stimulate imagination and desire, to create a fantastical world of possibility, which can then be realised by the purchase of a given product. Coco-pops are advertised by a variety of jungle characters that inhabit a fantastical world of imagination and fun that is extremely appealing to young children.

Also when advertising medical products such as toothpaste, animated medical presentations can be employed. These usually take the form of a split screen with the advertised product on one side of the screen and a leading competitor on the other. The animation will then demonstrate just how the product works and is more effective than a rival brand.

Another appeal of animation to the ad man is the classlessness of the form. (Threadgould, 2005) characters such as the Homepride’s Fred and the Fairy liquid baby are free from the class constraints of traditional British society. They bridge the class gap and appeal to proletariat and privileged alike.

Animation can also be a relatively inexpensive process. Pioneers such as Peter Sachs of Larkin studios and Bob Godfrey of biographic, found quicker cheaper animation methods than the traditional fluid aesthetic style of Disney. They employed jagged and rough stylings that borrowed from German expressionism. The theory being, to use limited animation to maximum effect.  (Threadgould, 2005) By emphasising certain details advertisers can allude to certain qualities that can be associated with the product. For example the Michelin Man’s rounded tyre body alludes to the strength and durability of the tyres but also their malleability.

The problem facing animating advertisers is a problem, which faces animators in general. The immediately obvious thing about animation is that it is an overtly fake diegetic form; that is unlike live action, which is often concerned with replicating the real world to achieve mimesis; the artificial process of creating narrative form is emphasized by the fact that the viewer is witnessing inanimate drawings brought to life through motion. The difficulty here is that advertising is the process of creating desire within the consumer; it suggests that there is a more desirable reality available to its audience through the consumption of a product. Successful animated adverts must therefore reconcile the fact that they are presenting to the consumer a fiction by alluding to an underlying truth.

This is not necessarily problematic; Aesop's fables were moral tales that spoke of ethical truths through anthropomorphic parable. Stories like the lion and the mouse or the wolf in sheep’s clothing took well-known anthropomorphic traits of certain animals and moulded them into cautionary tales about how one should live their life. In the same way animation selects certain details to present to the viewer to create abstract meaning that a consumer can readily identify with.

The concept of the Jolly Green Giant for example is ludicrous; none of sound mind would actually believe that a giant green man lives in cornfields overseeing the quality of the corn. However symbolically he is representative of the qualities that the company wish to associate with there corn. He is a symbol of strength and power that come from nature. The corn he promotes is healthy strong and wholesome and this health can be acquired by those who consume it. He is jolly and friendly, a gentle giant who cultivates top quality product with a deft touch. We is also bright green the colour of nature, a symbol of health and vitality, the essence of life itself. Through these associations meaning is abstracted rather than dictated. It is the art of gentle persuasion as opposed to ‘the hard sell.’

Many people have preconceived ideas about animation as a whimsical medium suitable only for humour and children’s entertainment; however there are many examples of animation as serious political statement. Halas and Batchelor produced Animal Farm in 1954 as an adaptation of George Orwell’s novel. Scholars have often studied it as an allegory about the rise of Stalinism and the threat of communism, but it is no know that American backer Louis DeReochemount was a front man for the American CIA and the film was purposely used as anti Russian propaganda.  Like any other medium with an understanding of its aesthetic qualities can be used seriously and to devastating effect.

A recent charity advertisement on behalf on the NSPCC depicted an animated child being sadistically and habitually beaten by his father. The ad showed the child being burnt with cigarettes, thrown down stairs and chocked. Humorous sound effects and cartoon clichés along the same style of Tom and Jerry where used. This was a visual and aural aesthetic that the viewers were used to associating with harmless and enjoyable children’s cartoons. However the tension in play between the diegetic aesthetic of the animated child and the mimetic aesthetic of the father and the background environment served to unease, and unsettle to the point of disturbing the viewer. The viewer was left to imagine the results of such violence on a real child and the commercial’s effectiveness at highlighting the concerns of the NSPCC was undeniable.

So why has animation become an effective tool in animation? The answer to this question lies within the concept of brand and brand identity. If the aim of the advertiser is to communicate the identity of a given brand as quickly and as succinctly as possible, then animation is an ideal medium.

 In his book ‘Ad worlds: Brand, media, and audiences.’ Greg Myers defines branding as “the attachment of meanings to a labelled product.” (Myers, 1998, p33) That is to say that semiotic associations are associated with a given brand through the way it is produced, placed, promoted and priced. For example Guinness is a uniquely produced stout that is ubiquitously placed in almost every pub of the nation. It has a history of promoting itself through humour as a traditional drink to unwind and relax with and it is priced at a slight premium to give it a hint of exclusivity.

Wally Olins suggests that a modern world that has become saturated with advertising, branding has become an essential tool in order for the consumer to quickly decipher to advertisers message before they are distracted by a competitor. In the words of Olins; “Why are brands such a clear and unique manifestation of our time? Simply because in a world that is bewildering in terms of competitive clamour, in which rational choice has become almost extinct, brands represent clarity, reassurance, consistency, status, membership –b everything that enables human beings to define themselves. Brands represent identify.” (Olins, 2003, p27)

Getting consumers to empathise with a brand identity, and to desire to become a part of that identity can be extenuated through the use of a brand character. From Tony the Tiger to Joe Camel and the re-imagination of the milky bar kid to animated form, drawn and animated characters have been used to sell everything from children’s toys to cigarettes. These characters become intrinsically linked to the qualities of the product that they are selling. So what is it about the process of creating an animated character that is so effective in advertising? 

In his book ‘Understanding Animation;’ Paul Wells sums up the basic principles of characterization as a narrative strategy in animation as; “the character may be understood through its costume or construction, it’s ability to gesture or move and the associative aspects of its design.” (Wells, 1998, p105)

Regardless of if an animated character is an animal or human, animators rarely try to completely reproduce natural form. As such the problem is that they are presenting viewers with unnatural looking beings. If the viewer is to accept the characters shown before them, the characters themselves must be presented as believable.  This is why animators rely on exaggeration of individual features to suggest certain character types. Halas and Manvell describe this in their book ‘the technique of film Animation. ”Characterization is achieved by the distortion of shapes and forms – big eyes, big mouth, big nose, large head small body etc.” (Halas and Manvell, 1968, p65) What the animators are stressing are the gesturing parts of the body, particularly the features of the head. The eyes, nose, mouth and ears are all vital in creating the illusion of human emotion. Anthropomorphic qualities in animals such as the strength of Tony the Tiger can be used promote a product as healthy or enabling strength.

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There is a general rule of thumb with regards to which shapes go with what characters: kind gentle characters tend to have soft rounded faces with wide smiles and large rounded eyes. The Pillsbury Dough Boy is a great example of this principle. He is the embodiment of the jolly fat man. Generalizations such as this one serve as visual shorthand for the viewer; they optimise the impact of the character through economy and allow the viewer to make semiotic connections and process narrative information about the characters more quickly. In the words of Wells, animation “manages to compress a high degree of narrative information into a limited period of time through a process of condensation.”(Wells, 1998, p76)

This method of economy and condensation in animation characterisation was born out of functionality as much as anything. Partially it was due to the fact that advertisements are extremely short. As such narrative information has to be delivered with great speed. In the medium of the television commercial, advertisers have anywhere between ten and thirty seconds in order to convey their message. As such the visual shorthand that animation design employs is perfect for the fast and accurate communication of the advertisers message.   With television being the dominant domain of the animated short, characters have to be easily recognizable on a small screen. It’s much easier to do this by recognizing one or two strong individual characteristics than several small ones. Most importantly however the simpler that a character is to draw, the quicker they become to reproduce.They rely on caricature and stereotype to relay narrative information quickly and succinctly.

The Homepride flour men discussed earlier in this essay are a great example of how an understanding of characterisation in animation can give rise to a successful marketing campaign. They had a simple uniform design that was all at once, striking, memorable, unique and simple. The business suits and bowler hats stood for a business like British attitude, that at the same time was overly extravagant for selling flour and as such was self mocking. The characters were taken to the heart of the nation. With the effigy of Fred on all sorts of kitchen utensils his rightful place became the kitchens of British homesteads, and as such so did the Homepride brand.

The twin process of animated character development and product branding both strive towards condensing as much narrative information into the least amount of detail possible and the shortest amount of time available.  Animation is an intrinsically imaginative medium. The human mind goes through a thought process of abstracting meaning from an animated diegetic aesthetic. It inspires thought in the way that advertisers wish to inspire thoughts of desire. It can be a pleasing experience in the example of Homepride’s Fred commercials, or it can be disturbing in such a way that the NSPCC have employed, either way the reaction provoked is one of individual thought and identification which in turn promotes the consumer to consume.


Bordwell and Thompson. (2001) Film Art: An Introduction, New York: McGraw Hill.

Canemaker, J. (ed.) (1988) Storytelling in Animation: The Art of the Animated Image Vol. 2, Los Angeles: AFI.

Dyer, Gillian. Advertising as Communication. London, Routledge, 1982.

Griffin, H. (2001) The Animators guide to 2D Computer Animation, Oxford: Focal Press,

Halas, J and Manvell, R. (1968) The Technique of Film Animation, Norwich: Focal press Limited.

Kline, S. (1993) Out Of The Garden: Toys, TV and Children’s Culture in the age of Marketing, London: Verso.

Myers, Greg. Ad Worlds: Brands, Media, Audiences, Arnold, 1998.

Ollins, Wally. On Brand, Thames & Hudson, London, 2003.

Robinson, M. (2000) 100 Greatest TV Ads, London: Harper Collins.

Wells, P. (1998) Understanding Animation, New York: Routledge.

Williams, R. (2001) The Animators Survival Kit, New York: Faber and Faber.

(All accessed 27/11/05),,9071-1560670,00.html


Animation Nation: The art of persuasion (Dir Merryn Threadgould, 2005, UK)
Four Mations: Electric Passions (Dir Paul Madden, 1996, UK)
100 Greates TV Ads (Dir Mark Robinson, 2000,  UK)


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