Saturday, January 4, 2014

John Henson Counts Down the Funniest Commercials of the Year

Courtesy of truTV

Every year TV viewers tune in to the Super Bowl not only to see the action on the gridiron but to catch the cutting edge commercials peppered throughout the big game. But fans of clever ads don’t have to wait until February 2 to see the best the small screen has to offer thanks to truTV’s Funniest Commercials of the Year!

In a recent one-on-one interview, two-time host John Henson explained why he was back to emcee the countdown once again, “First of all, the clip show format of showing amusing video clips and having fun with them is a genre that is near and dear to my heart. That was how my career began on Talk Soup. And something about the format and the tone of these specials feels like a little bit of a throwback to the beginning stages of my career. So it’s like a bit of a past life regression. I really enjoy it. It’s a nice change of pace creatively and the team is a lot of fun to work with.”

And the special has more to offer than just the top ads of 2013. “There are clips of funny commercials from years past, there are runners up and honorable mentions,” noted Henson, “and a variety of glimpses of really creative and humorous advertising from not just here in the United States but all over Europe and Asia and South America. So it’s a very interesting, eclectic mix.”

Not surprisingly, since the spots come from countries spanning the globe, each country delivers their own variety of humor. Per Henson, who also hosts the ABC show Wipeout, “If you think of our own advertising as being representative of pop culture and the American zeitgeist, seeing the difference between advertising here and advertising abroad is fascinating. And I think they really tend to push the envelope abroad in Asia in terms of the absurd, in South America and Europe in terms of the more risqué. And it’s just interesting to see where the individual lines are drawn from country to country.

Yet, there’s a universal appeal that breaks all language and geographic borders. As Henson pointed out, “It’s an interesting overlap because where as cultures vary subtly, or even not so subtly, from country to country, at the end of the day we’re all going through what we would call the human experience. So there is an enormous amount of overlap that’s interesting to see what is identifiable and then where that identifiability line is drawn and things become a little bit more foreign to us.”

And Henson acknowledged that it’s no easy fete to break down those barriers, deliver a coherent message for a product in one minute or less and reach a mass audience these days. “I will say that the medium of advertising, if you’re thinking of it in terms of 30 to 60 second short films, is incredibly challenging because this is not a new format. Commercials have been around for a long time and as it becomes harder and harder to draw people’s eyes to advertising, with the advent of DVRs, social media and online programming where people are able to circumvent advertising, the onus really falls upon the advertising agencies and the corporations to make eye catching work.”

He continued, “And we’ve seen in the last ten years a move towards striving to find an ad that goes viral, where it takes on a life of its own and the penetration of the ads far supersede many fold any particular companies ability to finance eyeballs brought to the ad. If you come up with something that gets passed around the Internet, exponentially more people will see it, many, many more times than a company’s ability to purchase ads.”

But it is still possible for those spots to reach people and resonate with an audience, just like commercials of years gone by have done. Reflecting on iconic ads of the past, Henson remarked, “Everyone can think back to iconic commercials that resonated with them. People tend to tolerate advertising more than embrace it. There’s so much of it, it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed by it and commercials begin to feel like a gnat flying around you that you want to swat away but can’t seem to dismiss. So when you think of commercials that really endure the test of time and make an impression on you that you carry with you over many decades, it’s a real statement on that particular company or person or vision.”

For him, there’s an evolution to his favorite spots. “I go back to when I was a little kid, there used to be a Coke commercial of a little boy sitting down in the grass, playing with a litter of golden retriever puppies — you’re talking about eight or 10 puppies that were just jumping all over this little boy and licking him and playing with him. And I can just remember thinking, ‘Man, that must be heaven on earth.’ I just wanted to be that kid so, so badly,” Henson recounted. 

Henson added, “And then fast forward years later and that becomes an adolescent kid having Mean Joe Green throw him a jersey. And then years later [Lifesavers] did an advertisement… They had a young father watching a sunset with a little girl and as the sun slips behind the horizon she whispers, ‘Do it again, Daddy.’ It’s just interesting what resonates with you over the course of your life.”

But as Henson conceded the craft of advertising is “an odd combination of artistry and psychology in a weird way.” So it’s no wonder that a viewers’ personal favorites would change as time passed. “Certain ads are geared to the attention and imagination of a child, some to adolescents and young adults, etc. And it’s amazing how good they are at targeting demographics and knowing what will capture that person’s attention. I’m just thinking back over the course of my life and different commercials that pop into my head and realizing, as I’m relating them, ‘Oh yeah, as they resonated to me, I got older and older and older and what appealed to me at the age of six, appealed to me differently at the age of 15 and the age of 35.”

Tune in to see which ads you’ll add to your list of lifelong favorites when John Henson hosts Funniest Commercials of the Year! on Sunday, January 5 at 9 p.m. EST/PST on truTV.  

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