Television commercials are visual palettes in minute form – and visual effects are raising them to a level previously unseen outside cinematic blockbusters. Digit charts the 20 best effects-heavy ads of all time.

Bulova: 1941

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Commercials kicked off in 1941, and the first to air appeared on NBC (then known as WNBT-TV) on July 1. Amazingly, not only did Bulova earn kudos for making the first commercial, the watch-manufacturer’s ad actually used special effects. 
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The ten-second spot, which appeared before a game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies, featured an animated clock superimposed over a map of the United States, while a voiceover announced: “America runs on Bulova time”. 
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The commercial wasn’t the only first for Bulova – it broadcast the first radio ad in the world, and was the first company to sponsor a TV show. The 1941 TV commercial cost Bulova a mere $10, including production and fees for the commercial spot.
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<h2>Botany Mills: 1941</h2>
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<b>Director:</b> Otto Messmer <b>Production:</b> Douglas Leigh
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Bulova opened the floodgates with its first commercial broadcast, and soon every eager capitalist was eyeing the potential of TV – even though there were only 5,000 TV sets across the US at the time. 
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Following on from Bulova’s VFX commercial, Botany Mills was responsible for the first animated commercial, which aired from September. Created to promote Botany Mills ties (and also forecast the weather), the animated Botany Lamb featured in seven spots and carried on until 1948. 
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In each spot, the lamb first promoted the company’s line of wool ties and then looked into a telescope to predict the next day’s weather. The forecast appeared in white letters over the black lens of the telescope: different endings were made that said fair, warmer, windy, cooler, and so on. Interestingly, the commercials were animated and directed by Otto Messmer, the creator of Felix the Cat.
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<h2>Ajax: 1947</h2>
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Smirnoff: 1998

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<b>Agency:</b> Lowe Howard-Spink <b>Director:</b> Michel Gondry <b>Post production:</b> The Mill
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One of the most visually striking ads of all time, Gondry

Gondry invented this technique, which is now known as ‘virtual camera’. Each scene change uses elements from the previous shot – such as a person’s head becoming a spaceship. However, the ad is most notable as the first use of ‘bullet time’, made popular with The Matrix trilogy of movies, where hundreds of stills cameras take images around a scene in quick succession and are played back as film.

Other Gondry signature pieces include his familiar background projection technique. The ad is referenced in the Spike Jonze movie Being John Malkovich in the chase sequence though Malkovich’s subconscious.

Sony: 1999

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<b>Agency:</b> TBWA <b>Director:</b> Chris Cunningham <b>Post production:</b> The Mill
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Bizarre is one word to describe this commercial, which is both incredibly low-tech (it was shot using a Sony DV camera) and really high-tech, due to the uncomfortable alien-like facial effects applied to the actress, Fiona Maclean. 
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Filmed straight-to-camera, Maclean plays Fi-Fi. We’re not sure what she’s supposed to be – but it’s weird. The Mill’s Flame operator Barnsley designed the look of Fi-Fi over two days, digitally pulling her eyes apart, shrinking her nose, and squashing her mouth. Her body was stretched as well – and then the whole process tracked to the 40-second spot, which took a week. 
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Billed as the best lo-fi commercial ever, it scooped a 2000 D&AD Award, among others. Barnsley says: “The real challenge we faced was making the actress look weird, but believable. Slightly unreal but not obviously or visibly altered by special effects. TBWA wanted viewers to question her existence.”
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<h2>Orange: 2000</h2>
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<h2>Electricity Board: 1991</h2>
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<b>Director:</b> Nick Park <b>Production:</b> Aardman Animation
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The first truly successful stopmotion TV ad, the Electricity Board’s Creature Comfort commercials proved a revelation – ditching brash effects in favour of claymation, and dragging the UK’s Aardman Animation into the commercial limelight. 
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The homely series with a Heat Electric tagline are based on Aardman director Nick Park’s 1989 animated short Creature Comforts, which scooped an Oscar in 1990. The commercials feature plasticine animation and unscripted voices from a wide range of British people, talking about aspects of their lives (and keeping warm). 
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The original short film featured interviews with residents on a housing development, which Park used as the voices of a collection of zoo animals. 
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The commercials feature domestic pets instead, and the ads were remade as a TV series in 2003. The voice-over at the end of the Heat Electric commercials is children’s TV favourite Johnny Morris.
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