A gravelly, regionally accented voiceover. Shots of children looking wistfully out of car windows. Some truly second-rate rhymes. Those are the main ingredients of the modern manifesto ad.
As product parity increased, many companies no longer had a USP, so turned instead to talking about what their brand stood for – a philosophy.
But, although many advertising people would gladly eat their own fingers rather than type-up a script or a treatment for one of these spots, other seem to secretly like them. So, what caused the manifesto-type film to appear, why have they achieved such popularity, and are they a force for good in the world (like the brands featured within them seem to be) or are they actively evil?
The first modern manifesto ad that really hit big was probably Apple’s incredible Here’s To The Crazy Ones, from 1997. But the idea of a set of words declaring ‘this is what we believe’ goes back much further. The Italian Futurists wrote an incendiary art manifesto in 1909, while Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848. Heck, even the US Declaration of Independence was basically a manifesto.
The first modern manifesto ad was probably Apple’s Here’s To The Crazy Ones, from 1997. But the idea of a set of words declaring ‘this is what we believe’ goes back much further.
However, the form wasn’t particularly popular in the early days of TV advertising, when the majority of commercials focused firmly on the product (influenced by Leo Burnett’s ‘unique selling point’ philosophy). But, as product parity increased, many companies no longer had a USP to focus on, so turned instead to talking about what their brand stood for – a philosophy.
For example, a Levi’s ad in the 1990s would usually be a stylish film dramatising a product feature such as the toughness of their belt loops, or their shrink-to-fit jeans. But, by 2009, with the launch of the Go Forth campaign, Levi’s had switched to talking about what the company believed in.
The shift accelerated after the release of a Ted Talk by British-American author Simon Sinek (also in 2009) called It Starts With Why. Sinek’s theory – that consumers don’t buy what you make but instead buy why you make it – became hugely influential in marketing circles, and is probably the single-biggest cause of the story-free brand ads that now fill our screens. Their most popular current incarnation is the ‘purpose’ ad, a sub-genre of the manifesto ad which focuses specifically on a company’s beliefs regarding a societal issue.
There’s also a more prosaic reason for the proliferation of manifesto ads. As part of the pitching process, advertising agencies now prepare ‘mood films’, or explicitly-named ‘manifesto films’ to clients. These hype reels do an excellent job of dramatising for the client what the agency believes they should stand for, and tend to be particularly strong at communicating emotion. Which is not surprising, since they’re constructed out of clips from the best movies of the past thirty years, set to a gut-punching (and unaffordable) soundtrack.
What tends to happen is that the client falls in love with the manifesto film and asks ‘why can’t we just make THAT?’.
The intention is that the client will buy the positioning expressed in the manifesto film, but will then allow the agency to produce an entirely separate script they have written. But what tends to happen is that the client falls in love with the manifesto film – not hard to do, since it’s composed as a love-letter to their company’s values – and asks ‘why can’t we just make THAT?’.
The result is a rash of ‘philosophy’ ads, often built around a single word or emotion. Some of them, it has to be admitted, are great. After Hours Athlete for Puma and Pedigree’s We’re For Dogs are among the best spots ever committed to film, and they’re straight-up manifestos. The issue is that many others are bad (looking at you, Kia and your Movement That Inspires).
You can tell that a form has lurched into becoming a formula when it attracts parodies.
The bigger issue is they’ve become a formula. You can tell that a form has lurched into becoming a formula when it attracts parodies, and the manifesto ad has been expertly lampooned in commercials such as Jeep’s 2018 Super Bowl ad entitled Anti Manifesto and, most stingingly of all, by Dissolve stock library in their famous Generic Brand Video spot [below].
But the real answer to the question of whether manifesto campaigns are good or bad probably depends on what building you are sitting in. Clients, as stated, love them. Creatives (mostly) hate them because the clichéd nature of the voiceovers is a good argument for making this type of ad a criminal offence. Directors (mostly) love them because they’re getting to make a film that is usually a full 60 seconds, big-budget, visually stylish, and doesn’t have to feature the product very much, if at all.
As for consumers? Little is known of what consumers think of this type of ad. Although, since these spots aren’t intended to be directly sales-generating, they probably are more entertaining than the avalanche of retail spots that they punctuate. Some may go over consumers’ heads, but many will at least be visually appealing, and/or emotive or thought-provoking.
Directors (mostly) love [manifesto ads] because they’re getting to make a film that is usually a full 60 seconds, big-budget, visually stylish, and doesn’t have to feature the product very much, if at all.
In short, although the format has become something of a stereotype, it still offers a certain amount of creative potential and is delivering something of value to most of the participants in the advertising process, which means it is not likely to be disappearing any time soon.
So, since we’re stuck with these ads, let’s just try to make them as good as we can, and steer away as much as possible from over-familiarity in execution. Starting with that mournful-but-becomes-uplifting piano soundtrack. That has to go.