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The Year in Creativity: 20 Trends That Drove Some of 2016's Best Marketing


We've chosen the 10 best ads of 2016, led by Droga5's brilliant spot for Under Armour with Michael Phelps. Now, let's look at some of the major creative trends of 2016—the themes, concepts and strategies that invigorated marketers and led to some of the year's most interesting work.

Below are the trends, in no particular order:

Fine Art
Advertising might not be art, but it embraced art like never before in 2016. Some of the most intriguing creative advertising of the year referenced, incorporated and in some cases promoted fine art. Among the notable campaigns: Leo Burnett Chicago's "Van Gogh Bnb," a life-size version of Van Gogh's bedroom, made for the Art Institute of Chicago and rented out on Airbnb; J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam's "The Next Rembrandt," which had a computer study the master's works and make a completely new painting in his style; and Goodby Silverstein & Partners' "Dreams of Dali," a VR experience that took viewers inside one of the surrealist's works.

The Paralympic Games are always a resonant moment to shine a light on disability, and the U.K.'s Channel 4 didn't disappoint, following up its famous 2012 spot about disabled athletes with a sequel, "We're the Superhumans," that was just as powerful. Disability was a focus of much brand marketing, too—from Lego's disabled minifigure to a wonderfully cast Maltesers campaign to Burger King's spot with the King using sign language. Also unforgettable—Grey Australia designing a bike that has the symptoms of MS.

Live Ads
Brands continued to embrace livestreaming in 2016, through products like Facebook Live and Periscope. They also produced some fascinating, more highly designed live commercials. The most impressive was Target and Deutsch's live four-minute music video with Gwen Stefani that aired during the Grammy Awards. Also noteworthy—British grocer Waitrose broadcasting live from its partner farms for an entire week, and making TV spots and print ads from the footage.

The trend toward being more open, honest and self-aware about the act of marketing only grew in 2016. Look no further than one of the year's biggest movies, Deadpool, whose ad campaign was wonderfully meta and hilariously mindful of its own tropes (just as the film was). Other comically transparent ad campaigns included Droga5's Clearasil work (below), which openly admitted its ignorance of the target. Most impressively transparent, though, was The Swedish Number, a tourism campaign that invited anyone in the world to dial a number and have a completely unmediated talk about the country with a random Swede. 

Yes, brands were transparent—except when they weren't. Several remarkable campaigns used elements of deception this year to deliver shockingly memorable surprises. Most notable were the Louise Delage campaign on Instagram for Addict Aide, with the fake French ingenue hiding a disturbing secret; and Sandy Hook Promise's "Evan" PSA, which pretended to be a lighthearted story about young love before taking a troubling left turn. 

It was obviously a huge political year, and lots of the advertising was creatively interesting—whether from ad agencies,brands,rogue creatives,super PACs or the politicians themselves. The two most memorable spots from candidates were the ones below—from Gerald Daugherty and Jason Kander. (Daugherty won his race, while Kander did not.)

Square and Vertical Video
Sorry, 16x9. This was the year when square and vertical video broke through for good, thanks to mobile apps like Instagram and Snapchat. Facebook's vertical video ad format went live this fall, but vertical was even the rage back on the Super Bowl—a vertical spot, Jeep's "Portraits," was the best ad on the game. Meanwhile, Instagram inspired a ton of square creative, and not just video. One of the coolest Instagram campaigns of the year, by Goodby Silverstein & Partners, involved Sonic making square shakes in real life—inspired by Instagram and available for purchase through the app.

Artificial Intelligence
The rise of the robots continues apace. IBM's Watson had a huge year, making its first movie trailer and AI-powered digital ads, as well as teaming up with Condé Nast to find influencers for brands. J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam's "The Next Rembrandt" for bank client ING was a remarkable display of AI in creativity (mostly in the field of data visualization). And Google's AlphaGo project won the Innovation Grand Prix at Cannes. Some ads explored the darker side of AI, too, including a French agency's memorable spot about the limitations of robot caregivers.

360 and Virtual Reality
These new immersive video formats still haven't hit their stride creatively (the Cannes Film jury in June honored just one VR piece, and that was mostly a token gesture). But brands are experimenting in interesting ways—from Google's lovely film "Pearl" to Facebook's Grand Central video to Samsung's bedtime VR stories and this clever 360 PSA. McDonald's even further democratized VR with Happy Meal boxes that turned into headsets.

The biggest VR triumph of the year was McCann's "Field Trip to Mars" for Lockheed Martin, which was a brilliant group VR experience (though not exactly easy to scale). Less welcome, perhaps, was South Park's fart-smelling VR device.

Hacking Photoshop
Adobe's Photoshop tool has notoriously been a force for good and evil over the years, and continued to be a flashpoint in 2016—in ways both serious and lighthearted. Madonna Badger of Badger & Winters vowed not to airbrush women in her agency's ads "to the point of perfection"—in delivering her #WomenNotObjects manifesto back in January. But the most sly critique of airbrushing came in the form of comedy—Snickers and BBDO New York's hilarious back cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, showing a model airbrushed by retouchers who were too hungry to do the job properly.

Click to the next page to see 10 more creative trends of 2016.

Advertising's embrace of more diverse imagery has been building for years, but reached a new peak in 2016. It began with Axe, of all brands, launching the remarkably inclusive "Find Your Magic" campaign just two weeks into the year. Other highlights included H&M's stunning "She's a Lady" spot by Forsman & Bodenfors and P&G's "Stress Test" work for Secret by Wieden + Kennedy. Also, post-election, at a time when the country never seemed so divided, Amazon had a big hit with its interfaith spot featuring a priest and an imam.

Ultra-Long Ads
Got a few hours (or days) to soak up some ads? Plenty of brands were willing to oblige, whether it was U.S. Cellular's seven-hour preroll, Laphroaig's three-hour-plus insult fest with Andy Daly, or Somersby Cider's 24-hour (!) livestream of a guy making GIF-like repetitive movements.

Advertisers have long shied away from the topic of divorce—understandably, but also oddly, given how many people experience it firsthand and would likely see messaging around it to be relatable. This year saw brands getting a little braver around the theme—with Ford making a whole short film around it, and Ikea producing the lovely ad below.

Clever Packaging
Great packaging ideas that embody a brand promise or utility are always delightful, and we saw many this year—particularly in the realm of soda and beer cans, oddly enough. Diet Coke used HP Indigo digital printing technology to create literally millions of completely unique labels. Bud Light's expanded line of NFL cans was greeted warmly by football fans everywhere. Orangina made an upside-down can that mixed up the pulp when you flipped it over to open it. The most ingenious innovation, though, wasn't a can but a six-pack ring made by New York agency We Believers for Saltwater Brewery—made of grains left over from the brewing process and totally edible to sea life.

Every year is a big year for animals in advertising, and 2016 was no exception. The Super Bowl, as usual, was a zoo—from Mountain Dew's Puppymonkeybaby to Heinz's "Wiener Stampede" to Honda's singing sheep. Airbnb's brilliant year of advertising included adorable print ads showing animal homes. In Japan, Ocedel Lighting had a hit with the awesomely weird "Firefly Man" (below) And one of our favorite ads of the year was fish-themed—DDB Stockholm's odd, mesmerizing spot (also below) for e-commerce payment brand Klarna. 

Return of the Prank
Prank advertising was on the decline a year or two ago, but it made a comeback in 2016. Two brands in particular took pleasure in real-world stunts—Heineken and JetBlue. The former orchestrated a pair of hilarious soccer pranks, while the latter had a fun with politics and babies crying on board its aircraft.

Female Strength
The rise of women in advertising has been happening for years, but 2016 saw some seriously potent executions that reinvigorated the trend once again. Among the standout work: Bodyform's badass anthem about menstruating women via AMV BBDO; P&G's entire "Stress Test" campaign for Secret by Wieden + Kennedy; Selfridges's mystical, magical and powerful lingerie ad; and Nike's world-beating "Da Da Ding" spot from India, also via W+K.

Championship Ads
There's nothing quite like the first World Series victory in 108 years to spur a congratulatory ad. When the Cubs did it in October, Nike,Budweiser and ESPN were quickest on the draw—rolling out poignant and entertaining salutations perfectly timed to the end of the Series. For Nike, it was an encore, in a way—having done the same in the immediate wake of the Cleveland Cavaliers' long-awaited NBA championship four months earlier.

The lowly Post-it note had its moment in the sun this year, too. In advertising land, it was the building block of the very entertaining and creative Post-it Wars between companies on Canal Street—who used the stickies to make competing designs on their office windows. Post-its returned after the presidential election, too, as the materials for the famous "Subway Therapy" art project in a New York City subway station. 

It was a year of leave-taking, and brands were first in line with the farewells. Kobe Bryant and David Ortiz kept marketers busy with end-of-career tributes, while Dos Equis said an elaborate goodbye to Jonathan Goldsmith, its original Most Interesting Man in the World. Brands also saluted late musicians David Bowie (Audi used "Starman" on the Super Bowl) and Prince—for whom Corvette and McCann improvised the irresistible ad below. 

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