How animation made ad land (and how ad land made animation)

The British Film Institute’s (BFI) new archive of animated ads tells the story of two industries bound by symbiosis: while animation broke down the confines of reality for creatives, the ad industry proved a profitable playpen for the first generation of animators.

The earliest ads to feature animation appeared in the cinemas of the 1920s, rolling out in the same pre-feature slot they appear in today. As precursors to advertising’s current love affair with personalisation, these spots were often delivered as basic templates that could be edited to promote local businesses and copy suitable for each cinema’s audience.

Animation techniques grew more sophisticated in the run up to World War Two and the popularity of Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros Cartoons meant a new breed of commercial artist appeared in the animator. Hollywood became a magnet for these creatives stateside, while UK animators headed to ad land – an industry that was flourishing itself and had the cash to show for it.

“[Advertising work] was the only money that was coming into the British animation industry because American animation was dominating the theatrical sector,” explained Jez Stewart, curator of animation at the BFI National Archive. “For all the people who wanted to try animation, the only way they could do it was through advertising. [It meant] you got the best of the talent.”

Stewart believes it was animation’s fantastical nature that originally captivated ad land.

“Very quickly, people producing adverts and animation realised that this way of bringing magical elements into brands and stories … [meant] you could get away with much more,” he said. “You could be much more ‘hard sell’ … but you could pull it off in a way that you couldn’t with live action.

“Also, there was a universality about the characters. They could represent everybody because they were so simply drawn.”

The industries stuck together through the arrival of commercial television, the 1960s’ reshaping of illustration, graphics and colours, and the boom of CGI in the 1990s.

Now the ad industry continues to partner with animators in its quest to create endearing brand characters – be they meerkats, anthropomorphic M&Ms or mute boxer dogs with a love of trampoline jumping.

“What’s now interesting is the way [animated advertising] is turning into branded entertainment – the longer material that you can now find online,” said Stewart.

“Animation still has this hook – a look that can catch your eye in the way things like pop-up adverts don’t.”

The majority of clips in the film above were taken from the BFI’s Animated Britain collection, digitised as part of Unlocking Film Heritage and available to explore for free via BFI Player. The collection is part of a year-long BFI focus on animation in venue at the BFI Southbank and releases in UK-wide cinemas, online and on DVD/Bluray.

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