The World Cup tends to see plenty of artistry on the pitch. But this is also that quadrennial time when Madison Avenue reaches beyond its usual precincts and ensures we’re likely to see some dazzling creativity during commercial breaks too. Four years ago, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu set a new bar for sports advertising with the epic, at times manic “Write the Future” ad for Nike.
This year, with the World Cup taking place in the mise-en-scene-friendly Brazil, a number of companies and auteurs look to continue the tradition. Who says storytelling in the world's fifth-largest country is only for the animated animals of “Rio”?
Here, then, is a look at some of the more cinematic commercials you’re likely to see in coming weeks as the action unfolds below the equator.
Spike Lee has told plenty of great stories involving basketball. Now he turns his attention to soccer. And a good thing too — his ad for “Pepsi’s Beautiful Beats of the Game" series is so carefully paced and exquisitely handled that it becomes a mini-movie in its own right. Starting with a simple concept — a wide-eyed boy is given a soccer ball by an older relative — the five-minute piece evolves into something both fun and nuanced, as the boy makes his way through the streets of a Brazil favela, interacting with bullies, prostitutes and all manner of colorful figures. At the end, of course, it’s a soccer hero who helps him save the day. (Check it out above.)
The work of Fernando Meirelles is how many of us saw, and continue to see, Brazil on the big screen, with his riveting 2002 Oscar nominee “City of God” (the other Oscar associated with Brazil) redefining foreign-language film. Now with "The Wake-Up Call" he takes us on a different Brazil-themed tour — through the mind of Leo Messi as the legend awaits a big game. Soccer in the snow, announcers growing animated, headers perfectly placed, dreams and nightmares coming true for a variety of international icons — less narrative than impressionistic, the spot, for Adidas, matches quick cuts and a Kanye track with a more traditional “All in or nothing” inspirational message.
All athletes have elaborate pre-game rituals, and soccer players are no exception. The music-video specialist Nabil Elderkin explores some of the more colorful ones in this spot, titled “The Game Before the Game.” “Today is another important day in our lives so … just … run …” the advice goes at the beginning of the ad, before going on to feature a montage of early-morning favelas and flashbulbs of pre-game anticipation. And given that those pre-game rituals often involve music, the product being sold — Beats by Dre — makes as much sense as Neymar striking a beautiful ball through the heart of an impenetrable defense.
The most inventive, whimsical of the World Cup ads is the commercial veteran Jon Saunders’ piece for Nike, titled “The Last Game.” The company that brought us the philosophically flavored “Future” spots here streaks up the pitch on a more techno attack, asking what would happen if robots began playing footie, in turn sending the actual stars to early obsolescence. There’s a Pixar-ish beating heart to this story-heavy spot, which even shows “former” greats like Cristiano Ronaldo working as a mannequin and Zlatan Ibrahimovic reduced to selling fan materials on a street corner. The commercial’s overt message is that digital-age automation is ultimately no match for human risk-taking — though the more latent lesson is that sometimes digitally enhanced filmmaking can transcend even the world's best performers.