P.O.V. No.23 - Danish TV Commercials and Advertising Films

A Media-Industrial Complex
Dimensions of Danish Commercials

Edvin Vestergaard Kau

In this article, which takes the form of a preliminary study, I present analyses and considerations of Danish commercials along two lines. I discuss two early examples of Danish advertising films and identify some characteristic elements in selected commercials written and directed by a well-known man in the business, Erik Dibbern. In addition, by these means I hope to illuminate some of the persuasive mechanisms at work in the way commercials use the audiovisual elements of cinema as I detect them in the examples presented. In this way I also hope to indicate possible developments as well as groups or types of commercials with definable similarities.

A commercial is not only meant to inform viewers about the mere existence a product; it should also draw the potential buyer's attention to qualities and values that the producer and the director of the commercial want the buying audience to associate with the product: popular and/or successful people, exotic places, health, joy, family happiness, easy problem solving, sex, power, paradisiacal conditions and so on and so forth - all of which may bring the right persuasive aura to the presentation of the product.

If at first sight a commercial only presents pure information about the product, in all probability it still offers the consumer at least the dream of "extra-commodity" and extraordinary, maybe even dreamlike qualities. Furthermore, it probably also tells about the outstanding qualities of the product and the joy and happiness it is sure to bring the buyer, user, consumer…

A commercial made in the 1950s for the make-up product Créme Puff from Max Factor is staged like a scene in a Hollywood film.

Along these lines, one of the things I would like to explore in some detail is the use of stars of popular culture as promotional icons in some Danish film commercials. How are they used, and in what way can they be said to function as "aura-suppliers"? Obviously, their very presence lends positive values to the commodity; something else is going on besides the fact that the star may act as a ballyhoo and mention the name or function of the product. The aura of stardom is transported into the commercial by an icon that may have been created in a number of different media or contexts such as in music, films, sports, revue performances or the theatre.

Sometimes more or less typecast characters from other media productions are repeated almost as prefabricated "packages" in commercials; small stories or sketches may even become the commercial. Once a character or a situation pattern has been developed and proved to be successful, the companies may also keep using them in a series of commercials. They become a kind of commercial series, in some cases with inner development in both the story and characters, almost like a television series - sometimes with a cult-like following. And this is not a new phenomenon. Early in the 20th century, companies and directors saw that this was an effective way to attract the attention of the buying audience - and keep their interest in these minimalist, episodic stories and their characters - as well as in the products, of course.

A few examples of these commercials are Foskanerne (for Foska oatmeal, with the film star Ib Schønberg); the Pre- og Karoline series (for detergent and milk/cheese, with 1.) the famous actors Preben Uglebjerg, Preben Mahrt, Preben Neergaard, and 2.) the teenage popstar Gitte Hænning, the composer and pianist Bent Fabricius-Bjerre, and the teenage football star Harald Nielsen); Vitalius Sørensens Meritter (for Solgryn, with the actor Helge Kjærulff-Schmidt), and more recently Polle fra Snave (for the phone company Sonofon), Harry og Bahnsen (for the Danish rail company DSB), and the Squash series (soda made by Tuborg). In addition, there was Ronaldinho and his incredible tricks with the football (for Nike), the computer-generated animation of a four-wheel-drive car transforming into a science-fiction-like giant spider robot in order to cross a mountain range (for Hyundai), a Citroën car (the C 4) transforming into a robot-like figure and back again. The product and elements of the commercial must join together to produce good entertainment and hence serve as a valuable means of promoting the product. This observation suggests the rich possibilities involved in comparing early examples with contemporary commercials with regard to their use of stars, storytelling and style as well as other elements.

The dairy company Mejeriforeningen's Karoline commercial featuring the music star Gitte Hænning and the football star Harald Nielsen: "Det er mælk - det er dejligt!" ("It's milk - it's delicious!").

Also, we can try to locate the star icons, define the media-historical framework of their performances and thereby outline their contextual references within popular culture. This would at the same time define commercials as "a sponge of cultural history" that absorbs "popularity knowledge". On the other hand, this is a field where the producers of the commercials can expect the audience to be the real experts. They possess a common and rich fund of knowledge about everyday life: entertainment, pop stars, movie stars, clothing, kitchen accessories, tabloid papers, trade unions, malls, small shops, supermarkets and so on. All these details, large as well as small, are parts we use as props in constructing the meaning of our personal life stories, and they constitute a field of communication where the commercial film can contact us as members of ordinary consumer society. Inter-textual references to and plays on popular, successful acts are used in a kind of mutual game with the experienced audience, an audience that knows the heroes of their entertainment industry. So, within these commercials we may look for and explore a broad range of links in a veritable landscape of media culture:

All kinds of celebrities, movie references or voices known from radio or other media may cross into the realm of commercials.

Early examples of commercials: film fiction as a model
To advertise a product that will solve problems for the buyer, the commercial has to present not only the nirvana of the solution as the happy ending, but also the problem. In this way the commercial is like a love story, drama, gangster film, crime movie or melodrama - you name it. The model is "problem, solution, happy ending". Or, "boy/girl misses girl/boy, one meets the other (plus difficulties), solution & kiss in the end as the sun sets".

An early example of this way of borrowing or re-using/re-shaping the love story or melodramatic pattern is offered by one of the very first Danish commercial films, which was produced in 1908. Entitled Den heldige Frier (The Lucky Suitor ), it is a commercial for "English House", a fashion and clothing company that was also responsible for its production.

Fiction film as a model for Den heldige frier (The Lucky Suitor ) is evident even in its use of a title and credits.

The crew was among the Danish film pioneers. The director, and probably the cameraman, was a young Englishman, A. James Gee (who had shown his own film shorts in Tivoli as early as the late 1890s; he stayed in Denmark and in the film industry and later became a cinema theatre owner in Ålborg). The actor Hilmer Clausen (the suitor) played in feature films during the following decade, though mostly in minor parts. Later he became the managing director first of a theater, then of a cinema theater. The young woman was Valborg Dietrich. The father was A.W. Sandberg, a press photographer who was employed by Nordisk Films Kompagni as a cinematographer, writer and director in 1914. He became a superb cinematographer who directed and shot numerous films for the company for many years.

The story: A young man meets his beloved outside her house, but she rejects him and the flowers he wants to give her. Left alone on the sidewalk with his little bouquet of flowers, he is in despair; how shall he ever persuade her? But then he sees an ad for men's fashion in his newspaper. English House has special weekend prices for modern gentlemen's suits. He rushes off to the store, buys a suit, a new shirt, a collar and even a hat - an English one! Then he returns to his fiancée's house and meets her and her father. After a short discussion followed by his determined proposal of marriage, both father and daughter give in, and then he shows them as well as the audience the solution to everybody's problem: the receipt for what he has bought, complete with prices and yet another presentation of the name and address of the store. Finally, the slogan says "Moderne kalder paa Smile og/Priserne mindes man med et Suk" ("Fashion calls for a Smile and/Prices you recall with a sigh"):

The formula: 1. A real boy wants a girl he has already met. 2. He overcomes his difficulties with the help of the nice store that is advertising the appropriate suits. 3. Happiness and marriage. This is exactly the narrative three-step structure of the melodramatic productions which made the largest Danish film company, Nordisk Films Kompagni (founded in 1906), so successful during these early years. This commercial also resembles the fiction productions of the time in that some of their scenes were also shot on location in the streets. Lovers would meet and court each other outdoors, while other parts of the action took place indoors. Melodrama and sex were important ingredients when Nordisk and their Danish competitors produced for both the domestic and the international market.

Street location and indoor romance from the film "Ved fængslets port"/"Temptations of a Great City" (Benjamin Christensen, 1911; The Danish Film Institute).

Part of the appeal was the atmosphere of the great modern city, its busy streets and growing retail business, which at least presented the dream of the possibility to buy the chic life and happiness. The gold-digging new film industry took to the streets and showed how the two sexes meet. Ensuing melodramatic events might be played out indoors, difficulties would arise followed by tragic consequences, but in most cases the story would close with a happy ending. English House and its crew produced precisely this kind of story as a commercial on the very threshold of a great era of the film industry. The young man has his hope of happiness, he meets his difficulties, but luckily finds the remedy: to buy the product he sees advertised. Our couple can get married and …. ever after! The commercial combines its dreams with the dreams produced by films in the modern, expanding entertainment industry. And it presents its product as the solution to the problem that is introduced in the minimalist story, intertwining in the process both the product and the store with the events. In spite of the fact that we might find the film primitive today, it has a clear structure and aims very precisely to engage the audience and establish communication between commercial, product and buyer/consumer.

Singing in the kitchen
As mentioned above, another way of giving the commercial and the advertised products an air of glamour is to simply import stars from the entertainment industry into commercial films. Early examples can be found in commercials from the margarine production company Otto Mønsted. The product, which of course is the best one housewives can use to fry food on the stove, is called OMA Margarine. During the 1930s this factory produced a whole branding campaign with several films telling about its fine product, its good and pure ingredients, its dedication to hygiene in the factory and so on. To show that they cared about the well-being of the costumers, the company even financed matinee programmes with not only commercials including performances by popular artists, but also, for instance, American cartoons.

One of these matinees has both a documentary-like company presentation called Symfonien om den Gyldne Strøm og den Hvide Strøm (The symphony of the golden stream and the white stream, about the ingredients and the production of OMA Margarine) and a commercial film section which features two established and very popular actors as well as the revue and cabaret artists: Oswald Helmuth and Ludvig Brandstrup (who also wrote for and directed cabarets). This built-in commercial film with the title Kotelletter og Kærlighed (Pork chops and love) was directed by one of the best-known Danish directors, Lau Lauritzen Jr. As the host, Brandstrup presents a professor (also a famous actor, Sigurd Langberg) who is going to explain the advantages of OMA Margarine. Brandstrup eventually asks for a practical example, but since the professor doesn't want to stand on the stage and fry pork chops, Ludvig Brandstrup tells a little story about a dinner he recently had with his friend O. Madsen (Osvald Helmuth).

The episode is shown directly as a flashback. They have some difficulty getting a decently fried piece of meat, and since Madsen could also use a wife who is good at frying things, they immediately advertise for one. Crowds of women arrive with frying gear, including margarine. But the pork chop dish is still a catastrophe - until a woman by the name of Olsen arrives. She understands the art of frying, especially how indispensable OMA is, the margarine with the right small bubbles and not the bad, almost dangerous big ones. This Olsen character is played by one of the most famous actresses, revue and cabaret singers and film stars of all time, Liva Weel. And moreover, she repeats or does a variation on a role she had played in the feature film Odds 777 shortly before this. In Odds she is appropriately the plain kitchen girl Hansy Hansen (In the film she sings one of her most moving songs, "Glemmer du" (If you forget), as well as the more hard-hitting "Gå med i Lunden" (Come along into the grove)). In the kitchen scene she sings the jaunty "Drømmer man om den, vågner man aldrig op igen" (If you dream about it, you'll never wake up again). And this is precisely the kind of performance she gives in Koteletter og Kærlighed .

Two frames with Liva Weel in the OMA commercial, and one from the feature film Odds 777 (George Schnéevoigt, 1932). Both the kitchen setting and the singing performance from the popular fiction movie are repeated in the commercial.

The song, which is sung by all three characters at the end of the commercial, when Olsen and Madsen are spliced together by Ludvig, explains the perfect qualities of OMA while Liva entertains her fan audience. The popularity of her performer persona and perhaps especially, at least on film, her more tenacious/doughty roles were stressed at her 25th anniversary at the Dagmar theatre in 1942. A picture from the occasion shows her in a kitchen outfit very much like that from Odds 777. The star status, the energy and the self-irony were intact. OMA and Lau Lauritzen Jr. had seen and used a very strong card in their 1930-something commercial. [1]

Stars sing and act in modern crazy product promotion
Starting in 1948 Erik Dibbern wrote and directed commercials at Gutenberghus Reklamefim, and in 1956 he came to Nordisk Film Junior (a branch of Nordisk Film specializing in short films), where he made commercials and developed his distinctive cinematic style for approximately 25 years. At the beginning of 1961 he became the managing director of his own commercial film department, Nordisk Reklamefilm A/S. In the following analyses of his commercials, I shall try to characterize his technique and special touch.

Dibbern obviously understood how to capitalize on well-known stars from the entertainment business. According to himself, he gave the very popular actor and comedian Dirch Passer his commercial film debut in an ad for the electrical appliance PhiliShave (1952). Passer performed as his well-known over-energetic character, and he is seen getting up early in the morning and being forced to shave in a hurry to get out of the house on time. Moreover, he is shown in fast motion, but when the electric shaver is demonstrated, solving the problem, we follow the process at normal speed. And before this we witness another one of Dibbern's favorite techniques: instead of using foregrounded cutting, he uses shifts or "hidden" jumps in time such as when, for instance, the same persons in alternating pieces of clothing are shown from a fixed camera position, running in and out of a number of doors. The speed and variation are maintained, and the stylistic solution leads the viewer's attention in the direction of the product.

Furthermore, the characteristic Passer routine merges with the intended emphasis on the time-saving shaver. Dibbern has said:

Vitamins must have a chocolate coating to smooth their way. And then, sales talk must be merged with entertainment. Many people say, "Oh yes, all that about the popular actors - Dirch Passer, and then they remember Dirch Passer afterwards. But they don't remember the product."

One of Dibbern's gifts was the ability to use the actors and their special talents as one of the means to carry the message rather than as elements standing in the way of the communication strategy.

PRE ve' gi' dem fre'
This slogan for the washing powder PRE was used in a whole series of commercials for the production company Persil. One of them, which uses quite a lot of verbal explanation, is about a housewife who always has her luggage searched when she arrives at the airport on her way home from Mallorca. She is afraid that it is because of her looks. But one day a friend advises her to use PRE, and yet she still has her luggage searched the next time she is at the airport. She goes on to explain that she is nevertheless happy now because her laundry is perfect: "PRE ve' gi' Dem fre'!" (meaning "PRE will give you peace of mind!" in a regional Danish dialect).

But the most famous part of the PRE series is the film's 3 x Preben , introduced by the voice-over: "PRE presents" followed by the three actors saying their names: Preben Uglebjerg, Preben Mahrt, Preben Neergaard. Again, the showbiz people are cast in the vein of the personae that the consumers of popular culture would meet in cabarets, revue theaters, films, or on gramophone records.

"Theatre stage" and cabaret performances in the PRE commercials with Preben -Uglebjerg, Mahrt and Neergaard.

In every film the three performers give examples of their skills as stage entertainers. They and Dibbern manage to deliver whole potpourris/medleys of, for example, popular hits or children's songs, invariably mentioning PRE an unreasonable number of times. Besides the pure effectiveness of it, Dibbern's playful texts along with the very well-known melodies are ingeniously funny.

These PRE commercials are fireworks of little fragments of popular songs bound together in nonsensical performances, which in Dibbern's words merge product and entertainment, because in the pure entertainment routine the only thing that makes some kind of sense is the practical purpose for which we can use the washing powder PRE. The playful virtuosity of the songs and the performance is matched by the elegant use of cinematic language with dissolves, different kinds of editing, camera movements, settings, contrasting scenes and so on. And the punch line always reappears in the final close-up of Uglebjerg looking out toward the audience: "PRE ve' gi' Dem fre'!"

Dibberns brings his ideas in play and further develops them in different variations during the 1950s and '60s. He has a legendary collaboration with the actors and comedians Dirch Passer and Kjeld Petersen, who develop a comic duo-routine at the ABC Theatre from around 1955 till 1962. Inspired by the Marx Brothers, among others, they invent the Kellerdirk Bros. and a unique kind of crazy sketch performance. We all know that the commercials don't really want to tell us anything but this: buy it! So, between beginning and end, between the proposed problem and so-called solution, the commercial producers may as well entertain us with nothing in the form of some kind of show, and hope that it rubs off on the product. Dibbern combines this talent for modern, absurd humor with his own ideas about commercials as entertainment and vice versa: Passer alone as a merchant promoting Perletand toothpaste to all his costumers (he played all the characters), and the two of them as a duo in celebrated productions like commercials for breweries and the clothing company Crome & Goldschmidt. [2]

Dirch Passer in Erik Dibbern's commercial for Perletand toothpaste.

In a good deal of his productions, Dibbern's cinematic practice developed into a sophisticated, self-conscious and highly reflective production style, cinematic composition of structure, and means of communicating with his audience. In several cases this adds a meta-level to the commercials, a specialty which in turn is used to advance the play for the viewer's attention. An example is a commercial for the washing powder SNEVIT, where the immensely popular actor Ove Sprogøe delivers a promotional talk about Snevit and its wonderful qualities: Snevit (Snow white) "washes the clothes sparklingly black, black as coal (!)"

The director of the commercial they are shooting intervenes, saying that they already agreed to say, "sparklingly white as snow!" They have a discussion about the best slogan and how excellent Snevit is; Sprogøe says that the housewives know the name Snevit very well, and that his method is much better. People remember the name "Snevit - washes - black as coal. Ingenious, isn't it?" Of course the director doesn't buy the idea, but at the end Sprogøe tells the viewers to forget the other guy and that if they want really snow-white clothes, they "must buy a box of Coalbl… Snow white, of course!" And of course, this meta-discussion about advertising and the play on words is accompanied by a performance and staging as well as visual effects that among other things includes names and boxes being appropriately turned upside down or rotated in the air.

Entertainment and promotion
In several instances we witness series of seemingly identical examples as a practice of cinematic aesthetics in Dibbern's editing, which may be described as a recurrent stylistic figure. It is a pattern we meet within both single commercials and in the "serialized" variations of "the same" commercial for a certain product. On the drawing board these may look like static elements that are just enumerated without any real meaning. But, when the elements are brought together as a sequential whole in the dynamics of the cinematic "time machine", the interlinking dynamic of the viewer's encounter with the chain (the pattern at work so to speak), immediately starts to produce meaning. This becomes a game in which the visual sequence with its playfulness of absurd connections functions through associative correspondences - in the same way as the verbal montage of words with their absurd joke-like qualities. When, in addition to this, plays on words and the visual sequence meet in mutually interlinking patterns of a Marx Brothers-like caliber, the modern and ironic pursuit of crazy comedy becomes striking commercial shows.

Dibbern knew how to establish intriguing situations or interesting, perhaps absurd little stories, and at all times integrate the small world of the commercial, the action and the character into the commercially important point: the product being sold. At the very least, the audience is reminded of it, so that it stays in their minds in some way - whether it be the toothpaste in the shopkeeper's mouth, the beer jumping from century to century with the ever-changing characters, the specially made clothes appearing on the characters through the magic of a simple cut, or the pure "washing powder potpourri" of popular songs, whether in black or white. The ideas may be wild, but it doesn't matter as long as the entertainment value makes the commercial stand out among competing messages and the audience remembers the product.

As we have seen, the commercial is a complex media-industrial phenomenon, and at the same time it is the result or product of the overall media-industrial complex within which it works and from which it draws its energy and raw materials. Its building blocks may be fetched from any popular medium, and its elements of expression and persuasion are shaped in a play on meanings often developed in other media and their genres. The result is a media practice of its own - in this case, the commercial film. As such, commercials may be conventional, within already carved-out traditions, or they may be inventive and creative, developing their own kinds of entertaining format and playfully using spoken as well as cinematic language. Effective commercial films as media products demand good ideas/ payoffs and inventive film practice - and humor. Many commercials prove that a smile or a good laugh is the shortest distance between product and audience.

1 The media inter-textuality also applies to the use of famous voices in commercials - for example, those from the radio quiz program "20 questions for the professor," which was produced as a commercial film for OMA in the 1930s. Another voice that was used at an early stage was that of the sports reporter Gunnar "NU" Hansen, who was used as voice-over several times; he also acted in the commercials as himself.

2 In a forthcoming article I plan to go into greater detail on these and a number of other Dibbern commercials as well as on his special talent as a gifted and creative commercial film magician.


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