How video advertising approaches differ between the UK and US.

Whilst the casual observer (and smart Alec) would point out the difference between US and UK video advertising in a heart beat – the accent is a dead give away – we wanted to delve a bit deeper into the differences.

To kick off, here is the American Super Bowl advert that ranked highest this year. I picked out this example because…

…being a Brit, I just don’t get why the advert that ranked most highly, was one about a horse.

Would this advert be as wildly successful in the UK as it was in the US, I wonder? Least us not forget we’re talking about both TV and Online Video Advertising here and that includes YouTube.

The landscape of advertising has changed massively in the last 50 years and even more so in the last 5. Advertising went from insular (very targeted and local) to truly global. Take Apple for example, their adverts run in countries throughout the world.

The other important change has been the way viewers interact with adverts. YouTube’s advertising platform allows viewers to skip an ad if they don’t like it. Sky and Cable allow you to fast forward adverts when you’ve pre-recorded the program. Advertisers have had to evolve their approach if they want results for their clients.

In January 2012 Comscore recorded our exposure in the UK to video adverts have doubled from the previous year. 28.6 million of us are now exposed to video adverts.

This has lead to US marketeers taking a greater interest in Great Britain. It’s no longer just big companies like Apple that want to grab your attention. This raises the question…

How will US and UK advertisers adapt their style to suit their audience?

Let’s take a look at traditional differences in advertising and you’ll probably note, there is one major difference that shines throughout the examples:

Humour and storytelling

Historically, the US viewer has been bombarded with adverts pretty much since the TV was invented.

In the UK, TV adverts were not permitted until 1956, and even then they were only shown for 6 minutes within every hour.

It has only been within the last few decades that the UK has grown beyond our mere 3 TV channels and even then only one actually ran adverts. Now, with the growing number of channels popping up,  adverts are coming at us from all angles: TV, Sky, Cable, YouTube… As we’ve become more exposed to advertising, UK advertisers have started employing humour and storytelling techniques to try and capture us Brits attention. But why?

UK advertisers have tended to make adverts that lead people on a journey, whereas US advertisers have tended to use more aggressive techniques of getting the message across in order to be noticed. The “Buy Now!” approach.

Apparently, us Brits respond better to storytelling than we do the hard sell.

We also tend to use much more sarcasm, irony and surrealism in adverts compared to US adverts. Think Tango, meerkats and Money Supermarket. Although saying that, let’s see if you can…

Spot the difference

It’s not rocket science. You can see what we mean. Even though the top ad is obviously slapstick, the execution is more subtle, drier, less “in your face” – even though it’s for a US brand, The Dollar Shave Club, it’s perfect dry humour for the British audience.

That doesn’t make it a better ad though, just different. And it doesn’t mean either ad wouldn’t work in the other country.

But the second ad Reebok’s Terry Tate Super Bowl ad for 2003. Again, it’s slapstick – in fact massively, and deliberately OTT slapstick, because that creates and ramps up the humour in the typically quiet and sedate office setting.

And the question of which ad is funnier is no doubt up for hot debate, because humour is a subjective thing.

Hard sell vs soft sell – IN YOUR FACE!

The American Market is a highly competitive one, in many parts due to the size of the population. Barry Englis (Richard Edgerton Prof of Marketing) states that there are two common methods of selling, Lecture and Drama, and this can help define the difference between US and UK styles.

In the UK, the drama drives the narrative. The product is often secondary to the storyline and its features are sometimes not even mentioned. The Americans tend to go for lecture. Their focus being on features and benefits and encouraging (pressuring) the consumer to buy, especially to achieve a desired positive outcome or avoid a negative outcome.

Us Brits, being the quirky nation we’re perceived to be (the Olympic opening ceremony being a prime example), aren’t afraid of the more abstract advert.

Having said that… this ad for Halo Top ice cream is surreal, but it’s presented in a very mundane way and puts us in a situation that most of us could easily recognise. We all like ice cream and we’ll all be old one day. And we’ll all be frightened of killer robots.


Advertising can not only reflect what a society is, but what it desires.

The mirror effect is when a product is placed alongside something seemingly positive from the world to make the two things synonymous.

Americans traditionally tended to do this more commonly with celebrities acting as a spokesperson enforcing the brand, whereas Brits are more inclined to subtly ‘suggest’ a lifestyle to their demographic, by creating a window that reflects their aspirations.

Of course, there is cross over here. We use celebrities in adverts here just as the US use humour and storytelling, but we’re talking about the preferred method and one most used. And of course, sometimes there isn’t even a human in the ad at all. Just an idea, a feeling, a hope, dream or desire.

And sometimes animals take centre stage, symbols of something…

The Future

Everything is shifting. The way we consume media has changed drastically in the last 5 years, mainly helped along by YouTube. Our responsiveness to advertising, social interaction and even to our reaction to a celebrity have all evolved.

The average company traditionally relied on word-of-mouth recommendations and client referrals (and this hasn’t changed). However, it’s never been easier to advertise to an audience outside the geographical boundaries we once set ourselves and the net can be cast much, much further. Including sparking word-of-mouth recommendations across the globe. Again, think Apple.

The online digital landscape has changed and so must the approach advertisers take. It will be interesting to see how US and UK marketeers approach advertising changes in this high engagement advertising game. After all, if the viewer doesn’t like the advert or it doesn’t align to our values, we’ll just click ‘skip’.

Oh and the horse still doesn’t make us want to drink a cold Bud…


Many of the animated explainer videos, animated GIFs and video productions we’ve made combine the same elements and strategies seen in the TV ads we’ve talked about here: humour, abstraction, drama and lecture. The format may be different – and sometimes that requires a different approach to the creative – but the underlying principles are the same.