x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

When does an advert stop being an advert?

Do 'short film' advertisements shot by big-name Hollywood directors really work?

Apple Computers,1980s,UK
Apple Computers,1980s,UK

When does an advert stop being an advert and start being a "short film"? When it's directed by the Atonement helmer Joe Wright, or some other Hollywood A-lister, it seems. Three years after the first mini-film for Chanel Coco Mademoiselle, starring Keira Knightley, came out (the one with the bowler hat), she's back, looking sultry in the name of flogging scent, with Wright behind the camera.

As a short film, the narrative leaves something to be desired. Keira gets up, puts on some perfume and a beige catsuit, in that order, and motorbikes off to a photographer's studio where she then disappears out of a window. It's not quite Citizen Kane, and Knightley looks a little awkward throughout: she doesn't have the physical ease of a Jolie or Johansson.

The directing, too, is unremarkable. When you're focusing on close-up shots of lips and necks, you can't really crowbar in any of the panoramic vistas or impressive long takes that Wright has made his name for. Why bother hiring a very talented, very expensive director at all? The answer, or course, is for the added publicity. Plenty of blogs gushed about the reunion of the Atonement star and director, which got Chanel's name even further out there than the initial ad spots did.

It's a trick the company has pulled before. In 2004, the Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrman was signed up by Chanel to direct a short promotional film starring Nicole Kidman. The budget was reported at around $100 million (Dh376.2m), and Karl Lagerfeld designed the costumes. It's schmaltzy, of course, and a little absurd, but the film at least has a story: Kidman plays a huge star who's tempted to disappear and leave her obligations behind her. Eventually she decides to return to the treadmill of red carpets and parties. It makes for a good advert but a bad short film.

So does signing up Hollywood directors for ads ever really work? David Lynch definitely brought some of his creepy prowess to the series of PlayStation ads he shot in 2007. In one, a man walks through a dreamscape with clouds billowing around him, an arm comes out of his mouth, his head floats away and there are snippets of French dialogue. In another, shot in bright Technicolor, a lorry hits a baby deer, and the lorry is totalled, while the deer skips off. The adverts are definitely Lynchian, but they're forgettable.

More worthy of a re-watch is Ridley Scott's 1984 advert for the original Apple Mac personal computer (you can find it on YouTube.) It shows ranks of shaven-headed prisoners being herded into a screening room where a talking head is proclaiming "we are one people, with one whim, one resolve, one cause". Chased by guards, a woman in running gear charges into the room, throws what looks like a hammer at the screen, and the whole thing explodes. It looks like classic Scott, with an equal ratio of grime and crispness.

Better still is Wes Anderson's 2006 Mastercard ad. While Martin Scorsese made an advert for the same campaign that tried to be jokey and fell flat, Anderson's ad has his unmistakable style all over it, from the fact there are long takes crowded with incidental detail to the deadpan way he delivers his lines. It starts with Anderson directing a scene from a movie, and goes on to look "behind the scenes," with the director demanding a snack ("you're eating it," his assistant replies), creating a pistol with a bayonet attached and meeting an underwhelmed fan.

Scorsese, Anderson, Scott, Wright, Lynch – like the actors who star in the ads, they know they can get away with making them without damaging their brands. And there are a few Hollywood names who started off in ads: the Fight Club director David Fincher started out working for Propaganda Films, which specialised in music videos and commercials. He's shot for Coca-Cola, Nike, Levi's, Heineken, Motorola and lots more.

The best directors use ad campaigns as a creative exercise in themselves, but some products lend themselves to edgier marketing. While there's little Wright could do with the glamour-saturated perfume-film format, directors who have shot ads for clothing companies have been allowed freer rein. Terry Gilliam's Nike adverts, Spike Jonze's Adidas spots and Michel Gondry's famous "drugstore" ad for Levi's are all bold, challenging pieces of film, even if they were paid for by huge companies. So keep your eyes peeled during the next cinema advert break: it might be the most creative part of the night.