In 2014 it sometimes seemed like advertisements were as skeptical of themselves as we are. Take the series that Neil Patrick Harris filmed for Heineken, featuring a meta-debate between Harris and the director over why he can’t actually drink the beer on-screen. Or the painfully awkward spots that Rob Lowe did for DirecTV, which made obvious fun of the notion that a single product can turn your whole life around. When brands are offering thinly veiled societal critiques, these are strange times indeed.
But ads didn’t need to be self-aware to be refreshing, and plenty of spots elicited giggles, tugged at heartstrings, and inspired minds without going all meta. From the Super Bowl and the World Cup to everyday television and YouTube, companies put their advertising budgets to work on commercials that were memorable not just for their products, but their production. With that in mind, we’ve rounded up Slate’s favorite ads of 2014. Even the ads that didn’t make our final list were strong: Geico introducing the Ickey Shuffle to the deli line at the grocery; Taco Bell throwing darts at McDonald’s with a series of clever ads directed by documentarian Errol Morris; and Pizza Hut inviting old Italian people to judge its food.
But enough with the runners-up. Here are our winners.
Adobe’s “Woo Woo?”
Wait, what do you mean, you aren’t on Woo Woo? Woo Woo is the latest Big Thing. It has sponsored Woos, targeted Woos, and a corporate relationship with the Wu-Tang Clan. It’s cool. Except when all of sudden, you know, it’s not. With a series of commercials that also includes 2013’s classic “Click, Baby, Click!” ad, Adobe Marketing Cloud does an unusually good job demonstrating what abstract-seeming marketing services are for: knowing how trends rise and fall, and the marketing pitfalls that that creates. Even better, Adobe can also poke fun at the absurdity of it all. —Lily Hay Newman
It’s hard to go wrong when you invoke cute kids and a sense of wonder about the universe. Google does both to great effect in the latest run of ads for its mobile search app, which also includes “Telescope” and “Martin Van Buren.” Google’s “Dream” ad, though, really has it all: Dramatic opening. Savvy pop-culture references. All-American themes. And a boy-and-puppy payoff that conveys the core functionality of Google’s Siri rival in the most concise and adorable way possible. —Will Oremus
“The Cheerios Effect”
This astonishingly cute, charmingly casual ad/PSA hits all the right notes. From its precious message to its political undertones, the three-minute spot manages to both warm hearts and (I hope) change minds. It’s ads like these that lessen the shame foisted upon the children of gay couples by conservatives. Well done, General Mills. —Mark Joseph Stern
Budweiser’s “Puppy Love”
To quote Seth Stevenson’s Slate Super Bowl ad report, “Budweiser falls back on a can’t-miss, battle-tested, tried-and-true strategy: a puppy. The Bud Clydesdales are a powerful brand mascot, and Bud always tends the Clydesdales’ image and backstory with care. Here, they are given a puppy sidekick, which they embrace and defend. Seems like a pretty safe (if also bland) means of advancing the Clydesdales' character arc.” Tried-and-true is right: At last count, the ad’s YouTube video has more than 54 million views.
Geico’s “Push It: It’s What You Do”
It’s crazy that one of the biggest and catchiest hip-hop songs of 1988 (and of all time, for that matter) is just now getting a proper revival in the ad world. What makes it even better is that it’s for the most unlikely and boring of industries: car insurance. But that doesn’t even matter. The most important question is: Are those are the original leather jackets from Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” video, or replicas? —Derreck Johnson
Droll in just about every way, this AT&T ad is also laugh-out-loud funny. Charlie’s character is a great addition to AT&T’s commercial roster. A hundred selfie likes! Priceless. Even though I’ve seen it before, I still laugh when this ad comes on, and I never change the channel—which means I can tell you all about AT&T’s increased network demands. —Andrew McCarthy
Beats by Dre’s “The Game Before the Game”
Every four years, FIFA stages its elaborate World Cup—and advertisers bring their most impressive commercials to the space between each heart-racing half. In 2014, Beats By Dre presented one of the most memorable. The full five-minute spot is more than just a commercial; it’s a short, epic film about Brazilian star Neymar and the country that anointed him its hero. Given Neymar’s eventual tournament-ending injury, the commercial is even more poignant. It portrays a nation, plagued by turmoil, ever hopeful. —Dee Lockett
The 2014 World Cup was all about unexpected Cinderella stories, as we saw with both Colombia and Costa Rica. This delightful Gatorade ad—World Cup hopefuls set against the classic “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” from Disney’s Cinderella—was the perfect encapsulation of those fairy-tale themes. And sitting at bars this summer, there was nothing better than watching grown men and women transformed into children, awestruck at what they were seeing on the field. —Dee Lockett
Apple’s “Your Verse”
Haunting barely begins to describe the iPad Air ad Apple released early this year, which overlays stunning imagery and poignant music with a Robin Williams monologue from Dead Poets Society. Inspiration, creativity, “poetry, beauty, romance, love,” as Williams reads over a swirl of strings. The iPad Air can harness them all. This is the promise Apple makes, chillingly, through Williams’ voice in “Your Verse.” Only six months after this ad was released, Williams took his own life. —Alison Griswold
John Lewis’ “#MontyThePenguin”
I’m probably more than a bit biased, but this advertisement is so delightful and beautifully presented that you’ll forget that it’s an ad for a department store long after it’s over. Just try making it to the end without feeling Monty the Penguin tug on your heartstrings. —Aisha Harris
Sainsbury’s’ “Christmas Is for Sharing”
Not without a bit of controversy surrounding it, Sainsbury’s Christmas ad was by far the most sleekly (and highly) produced commercial of the year. And it was money well-spent. Using the fabled Christmas Truce of World War I as its story, the ad’s warm and fuzzy message will have you tearing up about halfway through its nearly four minutes. —Andrew McCarthy
Another sports commercial, another mini-film. Nike’s tribute to Derek Jeter is at once understated and monumental, like its star. It’s a commercial for the ages and, speaking for more than one of us, gives even Red Sox fans chills. —Alison Griswold