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Five Best TV Commercials of 2009

To send us all into a happy holiday weekend, today's final year-end listicle will forgo bailouts and budget deficits for something a little lighter and happier: TV commercials.

In a former journalistic lifetime, I was a media and entertainment industry reporter and I still keep an eye on things, if only as a spectator. I particularly like TV ads because the best are nothing less than commercial art, 30-second masterpieces of visual storytelling and emotion.

Here, then, are the five best I saw in 2009, with videos attached:

(1) American Express "Take Charge" campaign. Launched in September, these ads remind us of the simple and stunning power of the human smile. In the ad, inanimate objects are filmed or arranged into smiling and frowning faces. The accompanying music is the lovely prelude to Bach's Cello Suite No.1. The ads are meant to promote Amex's charge card purchase protection but all they do is make me stop at my TV and watch every time I hear the music. Also, they make me smile, because it's almost impossible for a human to see a smile and not smile in return. And they make me feel just a little better about Amex. In the trade, this is called "brand affinity."

(2) Hulu's Super Bowl ad featuring Alec Baldwin: It's clear that Baldwin had to live through "Miami Blues", "The Marrying Man" and even Kim Basinger to achieve the Purpose for Which He Was Born: Playing Jack Donaghy on NBC's "30 Rock" and every other fuzzy, doughy alpha-male-in-decline character that can be dreamed up. Baldwin plays "himself" in this ad for Hulu, the online video site created by aliens to turn human brains to mush. "And the best part is, there's nothing you can do to stop it," Baldwin cheerily explains. "I mean, what are you going to do, turn off your TV and your computer?"

(3) Barclays fake world: The British bank is known for its quirky, often celebrity-filled ads (Samuel Jackson, Anthony Hopkins). Here, it shows a man walking out of a crowded bar filled with conversation into a silent street. It looks like a big city but, with increasing panic, he realizes he's in a Twilight-Zone setting: The buildings are merely wood or canvas facades, the people are mannequins, everything is a prop. Finally, he bumps into an actual steel-and-glass building -- a Barclays bank -- the city's noises return and a real human being walks out. The images are somewhat troubling but the message is clear: In these parlous times when things that appeared solid turned out not to be, one bank remains "substantial."

(4) Cash4Gold featuring Ed McMahon and MC Hammer: It was a sign of an an economy in a Great Recession -- Cash4Gold bought a Super Bowl ad, which would be like New York City raising money by turning Central Park into a trailer park. The ad is decidedly low-tech but turns its own metaphysical infinity-mirror trick by using two highly game celebrity spokesmen who had experienced their own, um, liquidity crises. "I can get cash for this gold medallion of me wearing a gold medallion!" Hammer says. "My gold hip replacement!" McMahon adds. Borderline tasteless? Sure. But if you're going to let a skunk into the party, at least make sure he's a funny skunk.

(5) Nike's Lebron James and Kobe Bryant puppets: Nike made this series of ads featuring the NBA's two biggest superstars in anticipation of a Cleveland vs. L.A. finals that never materialized. Also, the puppets are not voiced by James or Bryant. No matter. They are funny and charming and recall Nike's marvelous "Li'l Penny" ads featuring a sassy puppet of former NBA star Penny Hardaway voiced by Chris Rock.

-- Frank Ahrens
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By Frank Ahrens  |  December 31, 2009; 11:04 AM ET
Categories:  The Ticker  | Tags: Alec Baldwin, American Express, Hulu, cash4gold, ed mcmahon, m.c. hammer  
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You missed the 2 commercials that might not be so creative, but have had me watching them and laughing over the last couple months:

1.Would you like a pony?
You didn't say I could have a REAL pony!
Well you didn't ask.
-little girl lowers face, raises eyebrows, peers up disapprovingly (the exact same look her future husband will have to learn to ignore)

2. With a STICK!

Posted by: mr_bill_10 | December 31, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

What makes the Barclay commercial so "real" is when it shows the man picking up the "stack of newspapers" and it's only a cut-a-way, not an actual stack. It's a brilliant moment, that will likely be missed by a lot of people, in a very good commercial.


Posted by: Dungarees | December 31, 2009 1:51 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Mr Bill. One of the very best is the Banker, 2 girls & the pony. Also where the little girl tries to ride the bike out of the "predetermined space".

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Posted by: huangzhixian190 | December 31, 2009 10:17 PM | Report abuse

This is a comment on your article in the 1/3/10 article in the Washington Post "Isn't it Rich?". It's interesting how people, pundits, and politicians are all riled up about bonuses being paid to AIG, GM, and Wall street. However, you don't hear any one talking about the $42 Million in bonuses paid to the top 12 executives at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Perhaps it has something to do with all the political contributions to the Democrats made by Fannie and Freddie.

Posted by: Sulphide1 | January 3, 2010 8:29 PM | Report abuse

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