The history of advertising is often cast as an arms race between ever-craftier pitchmen on one side and ever-savvier audiences on the other, who invariably get wise to old techniques of manipulation, necessitating the development of new techniques that are savvier still. Spots like the Clio ad — long-form “branded narratives” in which the product on offer is glimpsed only passingly, if it’s shown at all — exemplify a subcategory of commercial that isn’t brand-new, exactly (we’ve seen versions for years during Super Bowls), but that seems particularly well suited to the social-media ecosystems where we spend so much of our time these days.
The Clio ad amassed around 10 million views between YouTube and Twitter and won lavish praise from outlets like Fast Company and Business Insider, gathering attention as a specimen of what has come to be referred to as “rainbow capitalism”: a sales pitch that’s harnessed to — and that effectively freeloads off — the powerful emotions inspired by issues of queer identity. But the more remarkable aspect of so many viral ads today is how brazenly they defer, as long and as fully as possible, the realization that you’re watching an ad at all. A proven way to rack up clicks and other online “engagement” is to instill in viewers an itching curiosity (what is a weird weight-loss trick the dieting industry doesn’t want me to know about?) that we feel compelled to resolve. Branded-narrative ads are a high-sheen version of this strategy, compelling us to watch all the way through even if for no other reason than to figure out what it is we’re actually looking at.
The eventual product-unveiling in these commercials functions like a fourth-wall-shattering twist ending. Sometimes it’s a twist so violent that the entire edifice collapses. Another narrative ad that went viral on Twitter not long ago played like a hypercompressed version of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” — except here, once the kid we followed from birth through all manner of adolescent mischief and teenage turbulence reached maturity, he entered a Subway, the sandwich chain’s logo flashed and the “story” abruptly ended. That shift in register was so extreme as to create an inadvertent comedic whiplash, which of course only helped the ad spread, shared by the affected and the incredulous alike. Another cognitively dissonant brand-revelation capped off a wildly popular three-minute musical from 2017 (viewed 18.6 million times so far on YouTube) in which a chorus of men, women and children sing to a religious zealot in a suicide vest, telling him with righteous compassion that he has taken the wrong path. At the end, the would-be bomber is rehabilitated — and we see the logo of Zain, a Kuwait-based telecom behemoth.
Terrorism has yet to show up in a T-Mobile ad, but the posts that travel farthest online, we know, are those that inspire the most outsize reactions. Mirth flourishes. So does indignation. The Clio commercial entered this terrain and, contra the advertising-as-arms-race metaphor, broke through using one of the oldest pieces of emotional weaponry there is: maudlin sentimentality. Search Twitter for “commercial” plus “the feels” — a two-word divining rod for deep wells of internet mawkishness — and you’ll find a phalanx of people attesting to how moving they found the Clio ad, the Subway ad and others like them. Were all of them genuinely stirred? Were some feigning enthusiasm? When it comes to viral success, the distinction hardly matters.
What feels uniquely contemporary, in the case of the Clio ad and others like it, is how the prerogatives of clickbait and the trappings of awards-bait jostle against each other within its borders. In deploying the visual language and tone of indie cinema or contemporary “prestige” TV, these branded narratives dress themselves up as something we gladly pay for, until they reveal themselves to be the thing we now routinely, through our streaming subscriptions, pay to avoid. This means that the connection between the narrative and the product (ostensibly) being hawked registers as so abstract that it verges on nonexistent. Renault’s ad, after all, racked up millions of its views in the United States, a nation where its cars are not even for sale; and even if they were, why would viewers feel compelled to buy a Clio after watching a Clio ad that works so assiduously to avoid selling them a Clio until the last possible moment? What we’re left with is a strange paradox: a commercial that feels both deeply insidious and laughably ineffectual at the same time, a bid for sales that may wind up garnering only clicks.