Hell is other adverts

Still from ' A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence’, directed by Roy Andersson.

Still from 'A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence’, directed by Roy Andersson.


I just love Roy Andersson’s adverts. In a presentation to an advertising audience,  I showed Andersson’s ads for Trygg-Hansa, a Swedish insurance company that has stuck to its quirky roots since these were made in the 1970s. 

I presented these ads and then gave my insight:

“The universe is meaningless and indifferent. The human condition is absurd. So, you might as well buy insurance.”

Response: two seconds of silence followed by ‘hmm-hmm-hmm’ laughter. Just what I was looking for.

There is something deep and powerful about these and many of Andersson’s ads, which are masterclasses in compressed story-telling. Andersson, who is also an awarded movie auteur, was once described as a ‘slapstick Ingmar Bergman’. Asked recently what his films were driven by, he said:

“I’m trying to show we have to care for the little we have left. I want to show the vulnerability, and the weakness we carry.”

His entire oeuvre, his feature films and a great many of his 400 or so ads to date are so dripping with bathos it would make Samuel Beckett blush. And much like Beckett, Andersson’s aesthetic is unique and unmistakable. In his ads, he achieved an unsettling, hyperreal, grotesque style, and it’s this combined with his absolute commitment to the absurd that marks them out.

It’s all in the colour cast special to old films and sets dominated by those earthy decomposing greens, humous browns and ashen lighting. It’s also in the strange feeling of theatricality – the subtly implied theatre of the absurd that permeates his situations.

One ad in particular, a campaign ad for the Swedish Social Democratic Party, perfectly exemplifies Andersson’s ability to compress complex philosophical and social ideas into an engaging piece of political communication:

On a visual and production level, he has achieved this by having complete control over his sets, most of which are meticulously constructed in his own Studio 24. This reminds me of sculptor/photographer Thomas Demand who also meticulously constructs his own sets (in miniature) and then photographs them. His 2007 exhibition in the Irish Museum of Modern Art was called ‘L’esprit d’Escalier’ and showed re-constructed scenes, known to the public, where something bad happened.


And this is sort of what Andersson does: metaphysical l’esprit de l’escalier – having something embarassing or untoward happen to you only to think of a clever comeback to an indifferent universe far too late. This, alone, puts Andersson’s ads in a realm above and beyond, but also of, advertising.

So it’s interesting, to me anyway, so many years after Andersson made these brilliant ads, to see a well-known and successful Irish ad agency, McCannBlue, reprise some of his spirit and aesthetic.

Your honour, I present Exhibit 1: a hyperreal sound stage; Exhibit 2: beige, beige, beige and ash; Exhibit 3: a whiff of the grotesque; Exhibit 4: an absurd situation of man actually trying to better himself only to fail better again.

If I was to critique the Deep RiverRock ads, I’d say they were a pretty good imitation of Andersson’s. As contemporary ads, they’re humorous, distinctive and memorable. I couldn’t find a case study on this campaign’s effectiveness, but anecdotally, I’d say it worked.

As I learned, the insight for these ads (which I then went on to show after Andersson’s Trygg-Hansa commercials) was all based around men’s insecurities and vanity around the opposite sex. It hinged on the discovery that men were loading up on caffeine during the day which then caused them to become severely dehydrated, which they would then remedy by downing litres of water.

So, these ads were a pretty oblique and brilliantly realised take on a new(-ish) phenomenon, expressed in a language associated with reflections on deep existential truths, though, truth be told, they’re a little more Woody Allen in ‘Love and Death’ than slapstick Ingmar Bergman.

There may be a lack of substance in the Deep RiverRock ads, but Andersson’s ads are exceptional.

We know the most creative ads are the most effective. As much as brand clients might like to say they love creativity, many are uncomfortable with the reality that creativity means taking risks.

Creativity needs to be in line with strategy and commercial objectives, but it can be an effective strategy in itself – Cadbury’s drumming gorilla led a paradigm shift in how to advertise chocolate.

But I think absurdity will always sell. It will always sell because creativity is our only real response to the human condition.

When it comes to making ads memorable, when it comes to making drama memorable, you’re always playing the odds between age-old tensions that will ultimately go unresolved.

Ambiguity is the engine of the imagination. That sense of tension or mystery is the energy in the ad that plays on people’s imagination, triggering deep archetypes and motivations that unsettle us, sadden us, make us laugh, even when an ad can seem to some like the wrong direction altogether.

The art is in controlling all that.

And, anyway, ads don’t always have to make sense. Just look …