• 12.14.11

VH1 Programs Ads with Pop-Up Video Pyrotechnics

Telling music videos apart from commercials just got a little bit harder.

VH1 Programs Ads with Pop-Up Video Pyrotechnics

Some commercials raise a lot of questions. Who is that actress? Is that a scorpion tattoo on her neck? What did the prop guy use to apply cappuccino foam to her chest? It’s much less common that such questions are actually addressed during a commercial–like, say, Fiat’s recent “Seduction” spot. Executives at VH1, however, are betting that viewers will be glad to see some answers popping up (in the case of the Fiat ad, respectively: a European supermodel, yes, and a turkey baster).


The venerable Video Hits One recently rebooted its long-dormant Pop-Up Video franchise, though one of the most remarkable pieces of this comeback so far has emerged off the air. In addition to the standard music videos getting the Pop-Up treatment, the channel has also begun adding an effervescent trivia element to certain commercials, and posting them online. Welcome to the next level of self-aware advertising.

Pop-Up Video was born in the mid-1990s and quickly became the highest rated show on VH1 (a title later overtaken by Behind the Music.) The show combined an eye for interesting music video trivia with a Mystery Science Theatre 3000-style tendency to gently ridicule its subject matter. (And sometimes not-so-gently.) The show went off the air in 2002, though, until its revival this past October.

Pop-Up Video has been a fan favorite for years,” says Marc McIntire, Senior Vice President of Integrated Marketing for VH1. “Because of that, we knew we’d have to do something new when we brought it back.”

It was in a meeting with network president Tom Calderone that McIntire hit upon the idea of promoting the show with Pop-Up Video-type commercials. These ads would benefit VH1 and also aid whichever company would allow its commercials to become the subject of additional subtext. The only question left was whether any companies would actually want to be potentially mocked in their own ads.

Of course they would.

“Putting in the pop-up layer gives advertisers some added editorial integrity,” says McIntire, “because viewers are getting a third-party perspective.” Regardless of whether the advertiser actually weighs in on the miscellanea (they do), all the viewers see is a company unafraid to potentially be taken down a peg. There are few methods beyond free giveaways that appeal more to consumers’ good nature.

Assembling these souped-up commercials is a collaborative effort. The advertisers supply the background information they hope gets used in the spot, which is then supplemented by VH1’s own in-house researchers. Then the VH1 internal creative team and the advertiser’s creative agency work together to produce a final script, with added input from one of Pop-Up Video’s original creators, Woody Thompson, and his Eyeboogie Productions.


Fiat is the most recent (and highest profile) brand to go Pop, following earlier efforts from Arby’s and Trident. The ad for Fiat’s “seduction” commercial was a perfect candidate because it follows a music video-like direction, and because it’s a foreign language spot. In it, a beautiful, exotic woman appears to be making a pretty serious pass at a “TV-nerdy” man in her native tongue, using everything at her disposal, including the aforementioned cappuccino foam. Only later is it revealed that, blinded by the beauty of Fiat’s 500 Ambarth subcompact, the young man hallucinated the whole romantic interlude (as one does).

Although the pop-up layer here neither reveals a complicated backstory nor even gently mocks the Fiat commercial, it does hold promise for the future on both counts. “We have a whole new season of Pop-Up Video coming up,” McIntire says, “so I’m sure we’ll be working with other advertisers.”

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.