There’s no shortage of in-world advertising in film and TV, but usually the fiction is more send-up than depiction. This Top 5 highlights fictional campaigns that might actually work.

Party Down – “Are We Having Fun Yet?”

While most members of Party Down’s LA catering crew are waiting to make it big, jaded bartender Henry (Adam Scott) already glimpsed his 15 minutes. A national beer commercial in the vein of Bud Light’s “Whassup” turned him into the kind of household face that everyone sorta knows. When no other jobs lined up, Henry threw in the towel on acting and resigned himself to pouring drinks, only to discover that the rest of the world still recognizes him far more often than he’d like. The beer spot becomes both career peak and personal trough, a Promethean hellscape that finds him continually forced to face the dream he abandoned and regurgitate ad nauseum his fatally memorable tagline: “Are we having fun yet?” Despite no actual presentation of the commercial itself, somehow you can picture it.  

Lost in Translation – “Suntory Time”

Maybe a man in an armchair isn’t exactly a creative revelation when it comes to selling spirits, but Lost in Translation’s signature photo shoot sequence, featuring Murray’s aging screen actor Bob Harris with tux and decanter, induces longing for a wood-paneled bar every time: “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.” Writer-director Sofia Coppola was inspired by an actual 1980 Suntory spot her father Francis Ford Coppola starred in with Akira Kurosawa. Clearly drawing on a long history of pitching whisky as the height of urbane masculinity, her execution also epitomizes it. It can’t be unrelated that Dos Equis debuted “The Most Interesting Man in the World” a few years later.

Community – Subway Corpo-Humanization

National sandwich chain Subway opens a “state-of-the-art sandwichery” in Greendale Community College’s cafeteria only to discover a school bylaw stipulating that any for-profit business on campus must be 51-percent owned by a registered Greendale student. Enter “Subway” in the amiable person of Rick, a “corpo-humanoid” hired to literally embody the brand and fulfill the registered student requirement. As Subway informs the Greendale crew, he’s there “to hang out, take weird classes, and party as hearty as my morality clause allows.”

“Digital Exploration of Interior Design” isn’t the first time Community skewered product placement (having previously devoted an entire episode to a space mission simulator sponsored by Kentucky Fried Chicken called the 11 Herbs and Space Experience), but corpo-humanization in the age of the influencer seems like a far-fetched idea we’re not all that far from. The obvious downside of personifying a corporation comes when Subway violates his morality clause to pursue a romance with Britta, who can’t resist “the big sandwich company with the dreamy eyes.” Eat fresh!

Boomerang – Strangé

While movies set in ad agencies tend to lean toward the acerbic, shaggy 90s rom-com Boomerang keeps things high-gloss. Eddie Murphy leads a stacked cast including Robin Givens, Halle Berry and Eartha Kitt, but even he has to concede the screen to Grace Jones as outrageous French pop star Strangé, whose over-the-top vulgarities out-Gaga any diva today.

To launch her first signature fragrance, Strangé partners with the agency’s exuberant creative director to produce a dramatic departure from the cobblestone streets and gauzy beaches of traditional fragrance advertising. Their spot features Strangé emerging from an electric jungle pond with a skull for a face; she proceeds to give birth to a perfume bottle with a bodily audacity you didn’t see on TV in 1992. When this vision is presented to a roomful of suits, the aghast reaction is a scene I wouldn’t wish upon any rival pitch team.

That was 26 years before Savage x Fenty sent third-trimester models down a lingerie runway. BET’s Boomerang sequel series somehow hasn’t seen fit to revisit Strangé, a missed opportunity to explore what actually comprises “shock value” today.

Mad Men – Heineken

Did you think this list wouldn’t have Mad Men on it? Over the course of its seven seasons, Mad Men unfurled a number of memorable campaigns, including the Carousel for Kodak, domestic nostalgia for Heinz Baked Beans and lipstick call-to-arms “Mark Your Man.” But my favorite piece of Don Draper craftsmanship is a local media buy.

When the agency’s new client, Heineken beer, struggles to reach pub-dwellers with its higher import price tag, Don identifies a more promising target audience: housewives looking for new ways to entertain. It just so happens that his wife Betty is preparing to host a business dinner, so he initiates a small regional campaign of end-cap displays in suburban grocery stores, setting Heineken apart from the other beers and right next to the cheese and crackers. Sure enough, at the subsequent dinner party, Betty presents her guests with “a trip around the world” – Spanish gazpacho, Japanese rumaki, German egg noodles and a certain Dutch beer.

The buy works, and it’s refreshing for once to see a campaign actually play through to purchase. But what really rings true is how much the gambit infuriates Betty. We like to think our choices are entirely our own, and it’s disconcerting to recognize the amount of thought that goes into presenting our consumer selves with the option to make each choice. Don’s campaign-for-one is an elegant example of the craft at its very simplest: know your audience, connect with them and inspire them to act.

Kristin MacDonald

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