A Brief History of
Animated Commercials

The history of animation and commercials are closely intertwined, united by a desire to tell stories in a creative, visual way.

Advertising has been around as long as civilization has, but two there have been 3 key milestones in its evolution - the printing press, television and recently, the internet.

As advertising became more sophisticated in the 20th century, commercials often drew on art - to create an air of elegance and originality. Printed ads were often hand-drawn or painted. Companies like Coca-cola understood the evocative power of graphic style for their product.

Early animated ads

Animated commercials were screening in movie theatres during the 1930s but when TVs began to enter homes in the 1940s, and the general public were exposed to hours of programming on a daily basis, it opened the floodgates for a new form of advertising that required a new language.

The first TV ad appeared in 1941 and it wasn't long before animated TV adverts appeared too. Clothing company Botany Lambs was one of the very first to use animated commercials soon after in 1941.

Advertisers soon realized animation was an ideal medium for commercials. If advertising is about the creation of an aspirational depiction of a product, then animation was perfect. Animation could easily change the look or feel of a product. It could create a magical world around the product and instantly transport the viewer to that world. .

A 1950s ad for Ford created by Dr Seuss

As the concept of branding became more important, animation was used extensively.. It could create a simple graphic concept with an instantly recognizable global identity. Add a snappy, memorable jingle and it was the perfect selling device.

As TV was a medium enjoyed by the whole family, children's cartoons were quickly recognized as a powerful tool. Animation's ability to create humour and magical experiences also made it an ideal way to speak to younger audiences. The lines between animation as entertainment and as an advertising medium were starting to blur.

An ad for Frosties with Tony the Tiger - 1956

Over the decades, as the language of advertising evolved and became more refined, animation continued to be deeply involved. Animation had always been an incredibly inventive medium allowing creativity and imagination to run riot. As advertising began to focus more on selling visions and feelings rather than the actual product itself, animation continued to be used extensively to do this.

Better Living Through Technology

2D and stop-motion animation were the two most widely used forms of animation but the introduction of computers and new technologies meant new forms of animation could now be explored. 

Early CGI animation ads from the 80s

 In 1992, Aardman Studios award-winning Creature Comforts short film was adapted to sell gas in commercials. Again the line between art and commerce was blurring.

The high demand for quality animation in commercials often led to animation studios working on adverts as well as short and long format films and TV. Before becoming a household name, Pixar spent a lot of its time and resources in the late 80s and 90s working on commercials when the studio was under financial pressure. It provided cash-flow and helped to hone the studios creative and technical skills. This is still a common practice for animators today. 

Pixar Tropicana 1991

These trends are the same throughout the world. Wherever a country has animators and products to sell, there will be animated commercials. Here in the Czech Republic during Communism from the 40s to the 80s, animated commercials also existed as the animation industry was so strong. The advertising language was different though. Branding didn't really exist as all brands were centrally owned by the state. Instead there were commercials that told viewers to "drink milk" or like this ad, to "eat frozen fish"

Into the Future

Cheap, readily-available computers and the arrival of the internet launched another revolution in animation. Now anyone could be an animator and platforms like youtube and vimeo meant that this new generation of animators could show their work to a global audience instantly.

Animation, commercials, video games, AI, CGI, infomercials, motion graphics, spec commercials; it's all a big glorious blur now and we are living in an amazing era for creativity in animation.

The international impact of companies like Disney and Pixar have put animation firmly in the cultural and commercial mainstream today and it's unlikely to change. In 100 years, animation has evolved from a medium of pure entertainment to one that is also a key tool for establishing strong visual messaging for companies and brands.

Art or advert or both? The legend of Pedro
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