You may not recognize the term, but you've seen the look. Letterboxing is the process by which the rectangular format found in cinemas is converted to the more boxy format of the television screen. Letterboxed images are characterized by a wider field of view, achieved by reducing it in size; this results in the telltale black borders across the top and bottom of your TV screen.
Letterboxing often is found on video transfers of independent films in which the director or producer doesn't want to trifle with the integrity of the composition to accommodate something as pedestrian as TV viewing. It's also used for "important" movies that address serious issues -- films such as "Schindler's List," for example.
Given its instant association with highbrow notions of artistic merit and dramatic impact, it's no surprise the technique recently showed up in a spot for The Money Store. And that's not all
Commercials for Claritin, Network Solutions, Agilent Technologies, Alltel Corp. and the U.S. Navy are among the dozen or so that have incorporated letterboxing this year, according to The Source/Maythenyi, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based commercial production database and tracking service.
Other brands to go the letterbox route include Clairol, Merrill Lynch, Fidelity Investments, Oldsmobile, Sega of America, Pizza Hut and Imodium AD.
"It's letterbox crazy out there," quipped Sean Riley, senior art director at the Martin Agency, Richmond, Va., which handled the Alltel campaign. "I'm not using it for the next two years."
"We're seeing a lot of commercials with the technique," said Pamela Maythenyi, president of The Source/Maythenyi. She noted that IBM Corp.'s business solutions campaign from Ogilvy & Mather, New York, played a large part in spreading the current letterbox trend. And Y&R Advertising, New York, used the technique in a series of spots for Xerox in the early '90s, she pointed out; those ads were cited by other agency creatives as memorable uses of the technique.
So why have all these ads made a run for the black border -- or, in the case of IBM, the Big Blue border?
One of the main motivations, agency creatives say, is that it makes their work more "cinematic" -- that is, it imbues the spot with the look and feel of a feature film. This was the case with a spot from the Kaplan Thaler Group, New York, for Clairol's Daily Defense shampoo; the commercial parodies the high-energy trailers of action-adventure films. To mimic the genre, the agency turned to a feature film cinematographer to orchestrate a series of wild stunts such as explosions and car chases, which were shown in letterbox form.
Another reason often cited is that letterboxing simply works better from the standpoint of cropping the images in the frame and creating a sense of what Mr. Riley called "visual tension." The Alltel work, for example, in which two faces are seen in profile, was helped by using letterboxing to "compress the space" between them, Mr. Riley said.
Jud Smith, group creative director on the Porsche account at Carmichael Lynch, Minneapolis, said the agency's use of letterboxing in a spot titled "Phone Number" was done not just to get attention, but because it allowed the spot to exhibit "compositional possibilities that the regular TV [format] would not have provided."
In the spot, an attractive woman is seen in a stylish home high on a hill. She starts looking through what we can assume are her husband's suits when a book of matches falls out; she sees a phone number inside. Apprehensive, she calls the number, expecting to hear the voice of his mistress. Instead, she gets the local Porsche dealer.
Perhaps the biggest factor behind the proliferation of letterboxing, however, is the success IBM has had using it to create a signature look.
"I think we legitimized it; we gave it credibility," said Chris Wall, executive creative director at O&M. "When a big client uses it, all of a sudden people will point to it and say, 'See?' "
O&M began using letterboxing in its spots three years ago when Mr. Wall and his colleague, Susan Westre, were working with film director Joe Pytka. Mr. Pytka had shot several spots for the brand and told the team that he wanted to explore using a more cinematic technique, according to Adam Liebowitz, who worked on the first letterboxed ads as an editor for Mr. Pytka.
Mr. Liebowitz who is now president of his own New York-based editorial house, Go Robot!, letterboxed those first ads for the director but thought they looked dull. "So I put up an orange border, almost as a lark. And we went, 'Hmmm, that's cool.' " The next step was to substitute IBM blue for the orange, and a branded look was born.
"We started by just looking for a way to make things a little different," Mr. Wall admitted. No one expected the look would come to immediately identify IBM's TV advertising, he added. "Joe [Pytka] said that brands struggle to find something that they can own, that's unique," Mr. Wall said. "We stumbled onto this in the process."
While letterboxing is far from unique, IBM's use of colored borders and sliding titles -- inspired, Mr. Liebowitz said, by movie titles designed by the legendary Saul Bass -- quickly became an integral part of the campaign. Since then, Mr. Liebowitz noted, other advertisers have used colored borders.
The IBM letterbox motif also has been applied to O&M work for IBM's Lotus subsidiary. In addition, a new campaign promoting IBM innovations in e-business applications features a new twist on the approach -- the spots are shot in color, not black and white, and the letterbox borders are in colors that match the dominant color scheme of the spots.
Both ads in the innovation campaign were shot by Mr. Pytka and edited at Go Robot!
As the technique quickly approaches the cliche phase, some agency people are worried about its proliferation.
"There are a lot of bad ads out there using techniques that don't fit well on them," said one senior creative. "Letterboxing just doesn't belong on a spot with Jim Palmer," he said about The Money Store ad.
Some advertisers also might seem uneasy with the thought of leaving blank so much precious real estate on the TV screen.
"You take all these 37-inch TV sets and you turn them into 30-inch TV sets," joked copywriter Hal Friedman, a senior VP at Kaplan Thaler Group who worked on the Daily Defense spot.
Despite these obstacles, it's a safe bet that letterboxing will gain in popularity, mainly because there are aspects to its use that are irresistible to both directors and agency creatives. Dave Moore, group creative director at McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, worked with feature film director Tony Scott on the Agilent Technologies campaign. Mr. Moore said that one of his pet peeves in advertising is when creative people feel they know more about filmmaking than the directors, editors and composers they hire to work on their spots.
Mr. Moore said that the director suggested shooting the Agilent spot titled "Fountain" in the letterbox format. While the agency had questions about its appropriateness, he ultimately deferred to Mr. Scott.
When it came to producing a compelling piece of film, he said, "I trusted Tony's