Best and Worst Ads of 2016: Commercials That Look Like TV Shows Captivated and Constipated

James Corden TBS Drop the Mic
Courtesy of CBS

Heads of state, titans of the fourth estate and even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg are worked up over the growing prevalence of “fake news.” No one, however, seems much concerned about the widening distribution of “fake content.”

In 2016, so-called fake content has become a very real phenomenon. As the consumer’s power to ignore, skip past, or work around traditional advertising has grown, the people who make commercials and the people who desperately need the money that comes from running commercials have struck a new kind of collaboration. They are teaming up to create ads that look nearly identical to the programming and information that attracts potential customers in the first place.

This isn’t a business shift that started this year, but it’s one that has grown more dominant – and could have severe effects on how we consume video entertainment going forward. Consider the January launch of the comedy series “Angie Tribeca” on Time Warner’s TBS. Executives were eager to draw eyeballs to the program, even as the realized the young customers Madison Avenue covets hate the interruptions brought on by commercial breaks (more so these days, when they have to deal with fewer ads or no ads at all when they stream this content online).

The solution? TBS ran 25 hours of “Angie Tribeca” episodes in what it billed as a “commercial-free” programming event. Between the shows, however, were commercials – in the form of two-minute segments of a binge-viewing party hosted by comic actor Deon Cole that were filled with call-outs to sponsors such as Dunkin’ Donuts, Redd’s Apple Ale and Intuit TurboTax.

“We are considering new ways of having our advertising be part of the content,” said Jennifer Cohen, senior vice president of content partnerships for TBS and TNT, in an interview at the time. “It’s a continuation of the show.”

Advertisers hope this stuff gains more acceptance because it helps support the exact entertainment piece that drew the consumer’s original interest. Little wonder, then, that the recent fall finale of “The Walking Dead” on AMC came with ads from Nike and Amazon that referred to zombie attacks. Or that NBC late-night host Seth Meyers has been doing commercials for Amazon with his brother, Josh, on TV and Twitter. The video promotions give fans more of what interests them, in exchange for a not-so-subtle promotional message.

The technique isn’t limited to TV. Magazines and newspapers, which for decades ran “advertorials” that looked much like news content, have embraced similar ideas both in print and online.

The reason for the growth of such stuff isn’t hard to grasp. In 2017, U.S. advertisers are expected to increase what they spend on digital venues like social media, streaming video and search, according to projections from Interpublic Group’s Magna Global media-research unit, and cut back their outlays on national and local TV, print and radio. To stay competitive, traditional media must adopt the techniques used by their digital competitors, who aren’t as severe about blending the lines between content and commerce.

The year’s best advertising seemed more like good content: The commercials had a good story, interesting characters and proved to be as entertaining as the stuff they supported. Indeed, sometimes the commercials were the stuff they supported. The worst stuff was either clumsy or told us something about ourselves we didn’t want to hear. Below, our picks for the best and worst Madison Avenue efforts of 2016:


Sprint’s Big Steal

What: Sprint poached Paul Marcarelli, the “Test Man” actor who asked consumers “Can you hear me now” on behalf of Verizon for nine years. The not-so-subtle message? One of telecom’s most popular ad icons had defected, though Verizon clearly had no say over the fate of an actor who once played a fictional ad icon on its behalf.

Why: Big advertisers spend millions on developing characters for commercials. By wrangling Marcarelli away from his original backer, Sprint worked a loophole in the process. You’ll never see the Green Giant or the Pillsbury Doughboy touting the benefits of a rival’s vegetables or biscuits, but human actors need to earn a living. Verizon should have struck a deal to keep the actor from appearing in rival commercials in exchange for some kind of recompense. Indeed, any advertiser involved in this situation should take similar steps, or we’ll be seeing “Dell Dude” Steven or Progressive’s Flo speaking on behalf of IBM or Geico in the not-too-distant future.

Madison Avenue’s Peace Movement


What: A host of major brands – Mars’ Skittles, Ferrero USA’s Tic-Tac, Diageo’s Johnnie Walker and Amazon – released commercials and statements in 2016 that railed against controversial political maneuvers and sentiments.

Why: In a normal era, Skittles and Tic-Tacs would be regarded as nothing more than tiny candies to pop in one’s mouth. In 2016, they became weaponized, at least politically.

Donald Trump Jr. used the fruit-flavored sweets as a metaphor for what he said was a U.S. refugee problem: “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful?” he said, via Twitter. Skittles’ response was swift: “Skittles are candy; refugees are people.” Meanwhile, the breath-freshening Tic Tacs were dragged into debate when a now-infamous “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced showing President-elect Donald Trump discussing his use of Tic-Tacs before trying to kiss an actress. “Tic Tac respects all women,” its backer said in a statement. “We find the recent statements and behavior completely inappropriate and unacceptable.”

Others took to full-fledged campaigns to tout stances not necessarily in sync with sentiments from part of the populace. Johnnie Walker released a commercial just ahead of Election Day showing citizens from a variety of cultural backgrounds hard at work, reciting the lyrics to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” in both English and Spanish. Just a few weeks later, Amazon released an ad showing a priest and an imam using its e-commerce service to buy each other knee braces to shore up their joints after hours spent knelt in prayer.

In a nation as divided as America is at present, advertisers seem unified. They know they need all segments of the population to buy their products if they are to have business success.

A New Banner Year?

What: IBM said in June its Watson artificial-intelligence technology had allowed it to create online display ads that could communicate with consumers through speech or queries typed into a search box.

Why: Desktop banner ads are one of Madison Avenue’s most pernicious products – an annoyance to many who remember the days of “pop up” ads that interfered with the digital experience. Earlier this year, with use of mobile devices on the rise, media-buying agency ZenithOptimedia projected steady declines for ad spending on desktop pitches, predicting desktop ad spend would fall 2.9% next year and 7.4% in 2018. Now, what if the banner ads you once ignored were suddenly transformed into windows of thought exchange about the very products and services you need or desire? IBM has suggested the technology could make its way into other forms of advertising as well.

Maya Rudolph’s Sex Song

What: In an ad initially meant for online video only, comic actress Maya Rudolph belts out a “va-jingle” – a song celebrating the female anatomy – in a humorous commercial for Seventh Generation’s organic, chemical-free and fragrance-free tampons.

Why: It’s tough to turn talk of certain product categories – feminine-care products or erectile-dysfunction drugs – into stuff that’s palatable to a wider audience, but Rudolph’s effort seems to have done the trick. The company, now owned by Unilever, went so far as to place its 90-second-plus long ad in a special stand-alone commercial break during TBS’ “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” in a one-off TV appearance.

Gwen Stefani’s Four-Minute Marathon

What: During this year’s broadcast of the annual Grammy awards on CBS, Target sponsored a live four-minute video starring Gwen Stefani debuting her song “Make Me Like You.”

Why: Advertisers know they can no longer rely on the so-called “pay and spray” techniques – running the same ad across multiple shows and TV networks – they’ve been riding into the ground for decades. Instead, they must tailor individual commercial pitches to specific moments. Asking for four minutes of any consumer’s time is a sizable request in these days of ever-shortening attention spans, but Target’s gambit, which required a crew of 250 and seven costume changes by Stefani – suggests Madison Avenue is ready to take bigger swings.

Late-Night Advertiser Attack

What: Marketers are invading the wee hours of the TV schedule in ways that – at least for now – seem to enhance the content. Coca-Cola and McDonald’s helped promote James Corden’s “Late Late Show” on CBS in exchange for a joint appearance in a “Carpool Karaoke” segment featuring Selena Gomez. Amazon appears to have struck a longer-term deal with Seth Meyers, and was a sponsor of his “Late Night” show’s recent week-long excursion to Washington, D.C. ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” has made use of a Cisco video board that lets the show interview people not on set. AT&T got Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” some exposure on Facebook.

Why: Appearances on late-night TV are easier to navigate than a tie-in to the plot of a popular scriped sitcom or drama, and often get tons of viral pass-along in the hours after a particular show is broadcast. If advertisers can continue to help the shows generate skits, sketches and content that is true to the various hosts’ spirit, then this sort of integration – which hearkens back to the sort of thing viewers saw when TV first dawned in the middle of last century – is welcome. If the advertisers start to hamper Fallon, Colbert and the rest of the midnight crew, then their presence might be detrimental.

Cookie Monster’s Big Crunch

What: Cookie Monster strives to wait for his favorite treat to be formed in the oven with the help of an iPhone Siri that displays a timer and plays Jim Croce’s “Time In A Bottle.”

Why: It’s easy to deride Apple for commercializing a creature whose main purpose is to teach children math, letters and emotional development, but there’s something heartwarming about seeing CM work out the knots of his inner nature so he can have his best-loved snack. The iPhone’s role in the drama gets emphasis, but isn’t hammered into consumers’ collective noggin.


Super Bowel


What: A series of ads for Valeant’s Xifaxan and AstraZeneca that hawked, respectively, remedies for irritable bowel syndrome and opioid-induced constipation made viewers of CBS’ Super Bowl 50 broadcast rethink their consumption of seven-layer dip and buffalo wings.

Why: Ads such as these are unsavory, particularly during a big-audience event like the Super Bowl. Worse still are what some of the commercials, particularly the spot from AstraZeneca, told us about ourselves. Americans have become so dependent on opioid painkillers thanks to prescriptions of OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet, that a major pharmaceutical company felt a multi-million dollar ad buy would prove an efficient way to reach them. And, a note to Valeant: Even a pink, anthropomorphic colon doesn’t make bathroom talk palatable.

All Bottled Up

What: Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Budweiser renamed itself “America” for a summer-long promotion meant to capitalize on the run-up to the U.S. presidential election.

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Why: Budweiser may be a part of Americana, but executives at the brewing giant – based in Belgium, by the way – must be breathing in too much of their own hops and barley. Even in a divisive year like 2016, this country is more than a bottle of mass-produced beer. Someone at Anheuser-Busch is drunk on self-perceived glory.

Snoopy, Come Home

What: MetLife cut its marketing relationship with Charles Schulz’ ever-popular “Peanuts” characters after more than three decades

Why: The insurance company dropped Snoopy, Charlie Brown and the rest like a football held by Lucy Van Pelt due to new plans to spin off the company’s life insurance business. No one is likely to worry about Met Life’s ability to move forward without Linus or Woodstock, but what does it say about the marketing viability of the time-worn Schulz characters, who exist these days without the daily comic strip that made them stalwarts of American popular culture? It’s enough to make you scream “Auuugggh!”

Art Supply

What: Wells Fargo sparked a furor of sorts when it sponsored a “teen financial education day” with print promotions suggesting young people abandon their pursuit of the arts in favor of science. “A ballerina yesterday. An engineer today,” read one of the ads. “An actor yesterday. A botanist today,’ said another.

Why: Mom and Dad always hoped you’d get a degree in law or medicine, but why is a big financial institution sticking its nose in your business? Actors and artists ranging from actress Laura Benati to singer Josh Groban took to social media to protest, and Wells Fargo issued an apology. This tempest paled in comparison to the greater controversy surrounding the bank, which was fined millions this year when it was discovered employees opened thousands of fake customer accounts to meet sales goals.

Trump Tout

What: Within hours of an appearance by President-elect Donald Trump and his family on “60 Minutes,” a jewelry company associated with his daughter, Ivanka, began to promote a $10,800 diamond bracelet she wore during the segment. Reporters received a “Style Alert” email touting the bauble.

Why: The email only served to raise further questions about how the financial interests of the Trump family would be intertwined with her father’s looming presidency. Her company in a statement said a “well-intentioned marketing employee” was following “customary protocol,” but there’s something unseemly about family members trying to make a buck off the nation’s highest office, as anyone who remembers “Billy Beer,” a 1970s endeavor by President Jimmy Carter’s little brother, can tell you.