Work / Advertising

“I used to hate ads growing up”: award winning-director Henry Alex Rubin on creating authentic commercials

Director Henry Alex Rubin has directed adverts for brands such as Adidas, Volvo, Samsung, AT&T and Coca Cola. His most notable campaigns include Whopper Freakout for Burger King and Pizza Turnaround for Dominos. Having won 30 Cannes Lions, he is in the top five most award-winning commercial directors in the world. His 2008 documentary film Murderball won an audience award at the Sundance Film festival and was nominated for an Oscar. Below he talks us through some of his favourite moments in adverts he has directed.

I used to hate ads growing up. I’d ignore them, mute them, skip them. When I read a script now I always wonder what I can do to make my former self pay attention.

Stepping into this industry from documentaries, I only knew how to do things for real. When something feels dead real, it’s easier to forget it’s an idea written on a piece of paper by an ad agency. That theory has fueled me for years. I fight and hunt and try to bag and capture moments that feel spontaneous. 

When I won my first Cannes Lion for Whopper Freakout I had no idea what it was. I couldn’t imagine giving out trophies for something a fast food company initially paid for. But as much as I enjoy awards now, I still never aim to win them. My goal is always to make something so authentic that people watching might feel something, despite it being an ad. 

Here are a few examples of Cannes winning spots that I tried to make feel real:

Gatorade was made to honor [New York Yankee’s legend] Derek Jeter’s departure. What’s funny about it is that although it looks slapped together, everything was precisely planned. Every person who interacts with Jeter was cast from interviews with Yankees fans, though no one knew they’d meet him on the shoot day. Look out for the kid who flips out at 0:57 because he gets a signed ball. 

Proud Whopper was made to honor Burger King’s commitment to embracing everyone as opposed to the intolerance of companies like Chick-Filet. This was entirely done with hidden cameras and the most touching thing for me is how genuinely moved some of the customers were when they read the message on the burger’s wrapper, like the one at 1:24. 

We shot several films for Volvo’s Live Test Series but this was the hairiest, made to demonstrate the trucks’ handling. The precision driver was quite unnerved as real bulls chased his painted red Volvo down narrow streets. There’s a go-pro shot at 1:44 that shows one of the runners being stepped on by a bull. He broke some ribs but watched it later and thought it was a cool shot. 

Sony Ericsson wanted to show how easy it was to use their new phone by testing it with technically challenged people. In Models we cast for a fake shampoo commercial and took the worst actresses to a test room where we filmed them through a two way mirror. Everything they said was real.  

We made T-mobile to create an event that we hoped would move passerbys to pull out their phones and film. You can usually tell when an actor pretends to cry or be surprised by something. To me, the reaction from the girl with braces at 2:45 is better than most actors could summon. 

We made Whopper Freakout to show how much people would miss the Whopper if it was removed from the menu. The client asked my producer to tell me to stop prodding one customer, who I felt was giving us great reactions like the one at 1:06. When I refused, I was fired from the job for a few hours. I was rehired a few hours later, but I still secretly feel that if the account team has a good time on a shoot, chances are I’m making a forgettable ad.