Why Jeep’s $10M Super Bowl Ad Only Used a Third of the Screen
Jeep’s quiet “Portraits” ad was among the most memorable spots during the Super Bowl, and not just because it featured a montage of black-and-white photos and a jaunty piano score. What makes it so unusual is Jeep spent $10 million for the 60-second spot and used just one-third of the screen.
It was a surprising move, one made with an eye toward mobile and setting the spot apart from the cacophony of ads vying for your attention while creating a feeling of nostalgia in the digital age. It worked, mostly, even if the visuals are a bit of a mess.
First, a recap of the ad. More than 60 photos of people—from celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and BB King to World War II soldiers and ordinary Americans—and Jeeps through the ages flash by as a narrator intones solemnly, “I’ve seen things no man should bear. And those every man should dare.” The line is meant to evoke the horrors of war and the joy of adventure, two points underscored when the narrator says the trusty trucks have gone from “the beaches of Normandy to the far reaches of the Earth.” To be fair, few vehicles are so iconic as the Jeep—the Volkswagen Beetle comes to mind, as does the Ford Mustang—or have the same pop cultural relevance, a point made with the silly line “I’ve outlived robots and danced with dinosaurs,” references to Jeep’s appearances in Terminator and Jurassic Park. The ad celebrates Jeep’s blue-collar roots and how it’s done everything from haul troops from battle to haul groceries from Whole Foods. It ends with the slogan, “We don’t make Jeep. You do.”
The Clio-winning ad, created by Iris Worldwide, tries to evoke the spirit of the brand instead of showing you the brand. It works, for the most part, and you don’t have to be a Jeep owner to feel nostalgic (though it certainly helps). But what makes it so interesting is the vertical orientation of the photos. They are tightly cropped and bordered with black bars, and were quite narrow when seen on the big-screen televisions most people gathered around on Sunday. Using this orientation (photographers call it “portrait”) was a bold choice, because the ad uses just one-third of the screen—which seems stupid when you’re paying about $166,666 a second. But the unusual decision was driven by a desire to have the ad work on multiple platforms.
“We thought about how wouldn’t it be interesting to build a spot so it worked really beautifully in portrait mode on a tablet or a mobile,” says Sean Reynolds, global creative director of Iris Worldwide. “It was the only way we could really frame these amazing faces and tell this story.”
He’s got a point. Watch the ad on mobile, and it looks a lot better. (And more people are watching ads on mobile; TV will account for 37.3 percent of ad dollars spent this year, while mobile will account for 21.6 percent.) The photos all but fill the screen, and the effect is powerful.
Another reason the creatives at Iris went with portrait—they knew no one else would. The format, and the use of black and white images, was chosen to make the ad stand out. And those photos do give the spot a nostalgic feel while trying to make the brand something everyone could relate to. Charlie McKittrick, head of strategy at ad agency Mother New York, likened it to Jeep digging “America’s photo box out of the attic.”
“Today’s version of that photo box is now the visual Internet—Instagram, for example,” he said. “The spot’s photos create a metaphoric stroll down memory lane, with a contemporary feeling of flipping through an Instagram feed.”
That may be, but, like scrolling through an Instagram feed, the ad is a bit jarring. Some of the photos are legitimately great, taken by the likes of celebrity photographer Martin Schoeller. But others look like vacation snapshots, and many of the Jeep images were “fan photos” taken by people doing, well, whatever. Although the photos make the point that Jeep has been everywhere and loved by everyone, the ad doesn’t feel cohesive. The pictures of Terminator and T-rex, for example, were jarring, particularly the Terminator’s red eyes (the only splash of color in the entire ad). And speaking from a strictly technical perspective, the photos are all over the map in terms of contrast, and some of the crops are entirely too tight.
Here, too, it’s all part of the plan. And its where the plan starts to fall apart.
“It was a very deliberate thing to try and make it not perfect,” Reynolds says. “We wanted it to be quite imperfect—real and authentic. We didn’t want it full-frame. We didn’t want to make it an overly stylized, Photoshopped spot. We wanted to show the reality and variety of different people who drive Jeeps.”
McKittrick agreed, and called the ad “fresh and authentic. Definitely more so than if they’d gone and made an original film or re-constructed something.”
However, the imperfections are too contrived and the format too disconcerting to be a slam dunk. Jeep wanted to come across as authentic, but nothing about the ad is. It isn’t reality, it’s a carefully curated facsimile of it. The nostalgia doesn’t feel genuine, and the sentiment feels saccharine.
Of course, this can be said of all advertising. And the consensus seems to be the ad works. The Washington Post calls it “strangely moving” while Adweek called it “stirring” and “a winner.” And if nothing else, it underscores how photography can evoke emotions and nostalgia in a way few other mediums can. “Portraits” might make every Jeep driver shed a tear, but this photo nerd still wishes somebody would have Photoshopped out those red Terminator eyes.
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