Ridley Scott’s Commercials (1985-1986)

Many feature directors get their start in the commercial realm, but flee from it as soon as they achieve a degree of theatrical success.  To these filmmakers, commercials are an artistic ghetto; soulless places devoid of genuine meaning, ruled over by corporate fascists wielding the terrifying power of “final cut”.  Others, however, genuinely thrive in this environment, returning time and time again to dabble in these short-form expressions of commerce. To them, the commercial world is a place to keep their skills sharp; to experiment with new visual styles or techniques; or even as an enjoyable way to put their kids through college.  For director Ridley Scott, the commercial field represents all these things, but it also represents an opportunity to dictate the cultural zeitgeist to a captive audience. After all, moviegoers have to choose to buy a ticket, but television watchers have to watch commercials… even if they change the channel, there’ll only be more commercials waiting for them there too.  By the mid-80’s, Scott’s commercial repertoire was well-established, but two particular pieces from this period stand out — not just as exemplary displays of craft, but also as pop culture-defining works of commercial art.

PEPSI: “CHOICE OF A NEW GENERATION” (1985)

In 1985, Scott shot “CHOICE OF A NEW GENERATION”, Pepsi’s then-latest bid at capturing the youth demographic.  The piece is a museum-grade example of 80’s pop culture, profoundly influenced by Michael Mann’s mega-successful television series, MIAMI VICE, to the extent that Don Johnson himself appears (alongside Glenn Frey).  That said, the piece also anticipates Scott’s own urban neo-noir, BLACK RAIN, by four years… so one can’t help but wonder if it’s not necessarily MIAMI VICE, but also Scott himself, who was driving the decade’s pop aesthetic.  Set to a brooding rock composition, “CHOICE OF A NEW GENERATION” finds Johnson and Frey in a slick sports car, cruising the nocturnal urban landscape.  The piece is dripping with style— a blend of pink, purple and cobalt hues stemming from neon signage, evocative silhouettes and moody shadows.  Scott’s strengths as a world builder are on full display, creating a seductive, high-fashion environment where anything can happen. Despite the dated cheesiness of it’s style, one can easily see how the spot’s visuals still influence contemporary advertising.  The spot works precisely because it’s not desperately trying to sell something; indeed, money can’t buy the elusive cool factor that the spot projects, but by connoting that vibe with Pepsi cola, this aspirational lifestyle suddenly becomes very tangible and accessible indeed.

WR GRACE: “DEFICIT TRIALS 2017” (1986)

A year later, Scott shot a memorable spot for American chemical conglomerate WR Grace, titled “DEFICIT TRIALS 2017”.  It’s clear from the outset that the marketing firm behind the spot tracked Scott down precisely because of his legendary Apple spot, “1984”, as “DEFICIT TRIALS 2017” creates a somewhat-similar dystopia wherein the old have been put on trial by the young for flagrant debts that they’ve saddled onto future generations.  In this post-Recession economic climate, that doesn’t necessarily seem like too bad of an idea, but network suits caught up in the booming thrall of the Reagan years found themselves so aghast at the notion that they refused to air it.  It would take an extraordinary intervention from a collective of independent television stations for the ad to finally see the light of day.

The influence of Scott’s 1982 classic, BLADE RUNNER, is unmistakable— futuristic touches like thin bands of neon light update the surrounding old-world architecture, creating an earthy black-and-brown color palette peppered with touches of electric blue.  Even the underlying soundtrack is notably similar to Vangelis’ iconic score. Scott’s formalistic camera smoothly tracks and dollies through this evocative environment, rendered in the theatrical lighting that serves as yet another of his signatures.  Again, the piece benefits from Scott’s production design background, possessing an environment that conveys a rich backstory with a minimum of exposition, immediately dropping the viewer right into the action without having to catch him or her up to speed.  As a result of its diminished profile in the wake of the network ban, “DEFICIT TRIALS 2017” isn’t mentioned in the same breath as other classic Scott commercials like “1984” or Chanel No. 5’s “SHARE THE FANTASY” (1979), but thanks to its relatively newfound accessibility on YouTube, perhaps one day it will be.