The term 'sell-out' refers to someone who takes a paycheck larger than they might normally receive as compensation for altering an aspect of the occupation, usually to reach a larger audience, often to sell a brand or product, and occasionally jeopardizing their integrity.
Amidst the growing popularity of TV commercials as entertainment, advertisers have been seeking out new ways to reach their audiences.
One tactic has been to hire legitimate 'Hollywood' directors to direct their spots. Not only does this create a fair amount of 'buzz' about their commercials, it usually results in an entertaining piece. Whether or not that helps to sell a product or popularize a brand is not my expertise; however, if this helps the ratio of annoying or otherwise poorly made elements on television to those of better quality, as well as providing work for actual media professionals in the industry then I am for it.
The debate, however, of if these directors are 'selling out' may go on. The question at hand is about intent of message; films are made with some message in mind and regardless of the specifics, it is usually genuine. Commercials are strictly that: commercial. The intent is unquestioned, which is to sell.
Does that intent jeopardize the integrity of the art form? Many would say that it does.
I look at it this way: many people enjoy watching television. Some of the best stuff out of Hollywood lately has been in the form of the TV drama: 'Mad Men'; 'Lost'; 'Breaking Bad'; 'House'; 'The Shield'; just to name a few. Since we all get to enjoy these products free of charge directly to our living rooms, the television commercial is a necessary evil (even though DVR's allow most of us to skip through them anyway)
Thus, if they are necessary they might as well be good. Directors are simply working for a paycheck anyway, and I say if they can create enjoyable work then why not praise them, regardless of if the check is coming from Warner Bros. or Nike.
Below are some of my favorite works by notable directors created for the small screen intermissions:
David Fincher (Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind)
Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are)
Guy Ritchie (Snatch, RocknRolla)
I would be remiss not to include one of BMW's famous 'The Hire' videos from 2001-2002, in which BMW sincerely tried to bridge the gap between the art of 'film' and the showcasing of product oriented commercials. These were a serious of 'short films' which starred Clive Owen and included appearances by Forest Whitaker, Mickey Rourke, Madonna, Don Cheadle, Gary Oldman, and even the late James Brown, but mainly, the films were starring BMW vehicles. Interestingly, they were not created primarily for TV spot viewing; they are all 8-10 minutes in length and could only be viewed online in their entirety.
This then spawned the entity which is a superb statement in itself on Capitalism: the advertainment promo trailer. Though the primary function of these videos is to increase the popularity of the BMW brand ,thus being considered 'branded content', BMW also spent a great deal of money to ensure that they were entertaining, hence the term 'advertainment'. Since they were indeed entertaining, many viewers did seek them out online, but to ensure that they did, BMW ran several spots on TV promoting the 'short films'. These TV spots were then advertisements promoting advertisements promoting products. It is a remarkable paradoxical entity that truly is a socially significant example of the use cross-promotional media tactics popularized in the 'information age'. I cannot find any of these TV spots online but I know for sure they exist. What I did find is just as good if not better. If only facebook was around back then.
Without further adieu, BMW's 'The Hire: Hostage' directed by Jon Woo. The other directors in this series were John Frankenheimer, Ang Lee, Guy Ritchie, David Fincher, Tony Scott, Joe Carnahan, Wong Kar-Wai, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
John Woo (Face/Off, Mission: Impossible II)
From 25 years ago:
Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator)
Here is an commercial that is more of a PSA by an organization called 'This is Reality'. I'm sure the Coen brothers still got compensated somehow, so it fits in:
Joel and Ethan Coen (The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men)
OK sometimes this can go wrong, as in this PS2 commercial by David Lynch. I don't know what is happening here but it's odd:
David Lynch (Lost Highway, Mullholland Dr.)
This concept is not limited to the 'Western' filmmakers, as legendary director Jean-Luc Godard crafted this cigarette ad in 1992:
Jean-Luc Godard (A bout de souffle, Pierrot le fout)
and finally, one that is a parody of this phenomenon to a certain degree, as he is addressing the audience as himself, Wes Anderson the director:
Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums)
and just for fun, speaking of parodies of themselves:
(Don't know who officially directed this)
That ended up being far longer than I initially thought but I kept finding great examples. Most of these directors have in fact done multiple commercials. More examples and insight here.
Extra credit: Where do music videos fit in this discussion? At the core, music videos are promotional content for bands which are trying to sell albums, so aren't music videos basically commercials? Indeed they are considered closer to short films than actual commercials, but I think they should be included in the conversation. Also so I can display my favorite music video by my favorite director:
Nine Inch Nails - Only (directed by David Fincher)