Aardman Animations Executive Producer Heather Wright makes the case for animation in advertising.
When somebody wants to make a television commercial or a branded video, one of the first decisions is vital: live-action or animation? Looking at the quantity of content that gets made, it might be fair to say people make this choice pretty quickly – live action is the default, while animation serves as its slightly quirky lesser cousin. Why is that? Well, to vastly oversimplify things, the problem is that animating 30 seconds of video undoubtedly takes longer than pointing a camera at something for 30 seconds.
With budgets squeezed dry and agencies under more time pressures than ever (yes, the familiar moans), some people in animation are worried that their time-consuming and skill-intensive craft won’t be given the consideration it deserves.
Heather Wright doesn’t share this concern. As Executive Producer at Aardman Animations she oversees all of their commercial and branded content, and she sees no reason animation should be neglected by brands and agencies.
We asked her what she thinks the benefits of animation are to advertisers and, unsurprisingly, she had loads to say. Here's what came out of our conversation - a handy list extolling the virtues of animation: the Seven Wonders of the Animation World.
1. Political Correctness
You probably let out a groan when you read that sub header. But it’s worth thinking about. In a climate of global campaigns and supposedly enlightened audiences, casting for a live-action commercial can be like posting an opinionated comment on YouTube – somebody, somewhere, will take offence. You’ve got to strike the perfect balance between ethnic diversity, social ambiguity and trying and create something that’s still believable and effective.
“It’s political correctness gone mad!” shouts the racist old-timer producer from the back. Maybe not, but we can see his frustration. And one solution is animation, as Heather is quick to point out. “The thing about animation is that you’re not stuck with those stereotypes of demographics, social groups, race, creed or anything,” she says. Aardman are renowned for their mastery of anthropomorphisation – creating human-like animal characters – and it works wonders for avoiding inadvertant racism or social stereotyping. This way, people are just people (or tortoises, racoons and lizards).
You don’t have to anthropomorphise though. As Aardman have demonstrated in their Claymation campaign for COI Change 4 Life, which uses featureless figures as its protagonists. “Everything’s taken down to its most basic level,” explains Heather. “It’s a family sitting in their lounge. It doesn’t have to be a poor person’s lounge or a rich person’s lounge. So you’re not passing judgement.”
The stuff some brands make is easy to sell. If you’ve got a shiny new car then you can just shoot it looking all shiny and new and that makes the point pretty well. If you’ve got a shiny new variable-rate mortgage your ad runs the risk of being quite complicated. And boring.
Once again, animation comes to the rescue. “A complicated message can be very easily dealt with in a graphic way,” Heather suggests. There’s a reason there are more blogs about infographics than official statistics. Facts are better seen than explained.
Animation allows you to communicate other complicated things elegantly, too, like emotions. “If you’ve got a character that’s in love,” Heather says, “you can have a beating heart. You haven’t got to spend time having a conversation.”
3. Freedom from Censorship
Everybody likes a bit of sex and violence – that’s why Game of Thrones is so popular. Unfortunately censorship exists, because allowing children to watch endless orgies of destruction and smut is not conducive to raising well-balanced adults, apparently. But aside from entertainment value, it can also be a powerful tool in storytelling.
Thankfully, animation lets you get a little bit closer to the line than live action. “Because it’s not real humans being affected, you can talk about your subject matter in a more on-the-nose kind of way,” says Heather. “It’s much easier to do hyperbole with animation. There’s a history of ‘cartoon violence’, which seems to be more acceptable.”
The NSPCC demonstrated this perfectly with their Cartoon Boy campaign, which depicted violent child abuse but dodged censorship by using animation. Imagine how long it would take ClearCast to say no if that were a real boy, not to mention how tasteless it would be.
Many of us associate animation with comedy, probably because it’s been used on television to make funny stuff much more often than any other genre. This is a boon to those 'difficult' brands – a chance to make their cold, fact-based, and sometimes unpopular corporations seem all friendly and cuddly.
“Animation is warm and charming and funny,” enthuses Heather, “so it’s easier for those clients that have really hard products to sell, like insurance companies, banks or oil companies, just to give their brand some kind of identity.”
Aardman have experience in this. They’ve worked on the account of American oil corporation Chevron for 17 years, featuring talking car characters in their ads. “They’re not selling petrol stations,” says Heather, “because people are going to go to the nearest petrol station. What they are selling is an idea about Chevron being warm and it being OK to go to a Chevron station and that’s completely changed their brand.”
You can see big faceless corporations doing this all the time, from EDF’s unfortunately turd-like but surprisingly popular Zingy to Chipotle’s cutesy Grand-Prix-winning Back to the Start commercial, to Marc Craste’s excellent re-envisioning of Lloyds TSB. “That definitely changed the feeling of what it was like to bank at Lloyds,” says Heather.
What with the internet and all that, brands now have lots of different spaces where they have to assert their identity. TVCs, posters, print ads and their physical spaces are now joined by apps, websites, YouTube channels, social platforms and probably loads of other stuff we can’t remember.
If your branding revolves around a live-action campaign, that’s going to be a right pain to plaster over all these platforms. But if you get yourself an animated mascot, for example, you can use it to bring coherence to your brand.
“Once you’ve got an animated character that’s associated with your brand that’s instant recognition,” says Heather. “You can then start moving that character into other parts of the brand. You can have the character on your app, on your website, on your posters, on your TVC and on your cuddly toys.”
Not that there has to be a mascot as such – as the Lloyds example proves, a particular style of animation can provide an identifiable aesthetic for your brand, which can be a useful tool.
Sure, you could build your advertising campaign around one figurehead celebrity. Gary Lineker has done a good job for Walkers. But there’s always the chance that he could be kidnapped by Somali pirates or get caught red-bottomed with a dominatrix. Who’s going to sell the crisps when that happens?
Well, neither of these things will ever happen to Aleksandr Orlov of Compare the Market fame because he’s an animated meerkat. Heather stresses this benefit of animated characters. “It lasts longer, potentially, than live action,” she says. “Your characters don’t misbehave because they’re kept in boxes.” That must look like an attractive prospect to some brands with celebrity endorsers, if only Tiger Woods could be kept in a box.
The final point is sort of obvious: When you’re animating, the only limit is what you can dream up. “It frees you up hugely because you can go anywhere,” says Heather. “You can go to the moon or the centre of the Earth.”
She has an elegant example of how powerful this freedom can be. “The Opening titles for the Olympics were absolutely stunning. They linked together loads of different sports in a way you could never have done in live action, so the animation was something intrinsic to the idea.”
Animation can be very powerful, but Heather stresses that the Olympic example makes another vital point – of course, animation isn’t right for every brief, but when it fits it can be a formidable force. “I think that’s what’s important,” she says. “There has to be a reason for the animation. You can’t just stick a mascot in the corner of a kitchen.