For many people, 2016 was a year they were happy to see the back of. When the clock struck midnight and those fireworks showered down over the Thames it seemed half the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. But whatever your feelings on what was undoubtedly a tumultuous year in headlines, it was also a spectacular year for advertising.

“Video advertising has once again reflected the wants and needs of society and offered a powerful route to escapism for consumers,” says Ian Forrester, global VP of insight at Unruly. No one could have predicted the kind of year 2016 was going to be. Despite Unruly’s own prediction that last year’s ads were going to emulate the bold and brash superhero antics that filled our multiplexes, advertisers once again sought to challenge and inspire. “The world’s best creatives have drawn strength from uncertain times,” says Forrester. With some of the world’s biggest brands not only stepping up to the challenge of standing out in the digital age but giving us food for thought as well, advertisers demonstrated that when you adapt you more than survive – you flourish.

The noticeable absence of a certain boxer aside (officially the most watched advert of the last 12 months) here are some of the campaigns that had us jumping for joy in 2016.

Under Armour I Will What I Want

Winner of the Cyber Grand Prix at Cannes, sportswear brand Under Armour continued to challenge their super-masculine image with this bold addition to their female-centred “I Will What I Want” campaign. As Brasilian supermodel Gisele works up a sweat beating up a punch bag, real-life tweets are projected onto the walls around her. Derogatory comments like “stick to modelling sweetie” appear alongside words of encouragement like “she’s a mother and an inspiration”, laying bare our obsession with online commentary and the pressures of living up to expectations. In a limited live iteration of the campaign live tweets were actually composited into the video, bringing an interactive element to consumers. “We wanted to show a new side of Gisele—the unguarded, raw, real and brave side that shows what it’s like living in the public eye,” said Droga5 creative director John McKelvey. The final message is one of self-belief – “I will what I want.”

Maltesers Look on the Light Side

Following Channel 4’s Superhumans Wanted competition, which awarded £1m in Paralympics commercial airtime to the brand that presented the best disability-focused creative, Mars UK debuted three tongue-in-cheek TV spots during the Rio opening ceremony. Based on real-life stories, these short, cheeky scenes feature three disabled actors making light of everyday situations with their friends. The end result was met with high-praise and outrage alike. Michele Oliver, vice president of marketing at Mars Chocolate UK, believes it was important for the brand to take the risk: “As one of the UK’s biggest advertisers, we have a responsibility and a role to play in reflecting diversity in everyday media. This is a first step for us.” Whatever your thoughts on the adverts themselves, you can’t deny their ability to provoke discussion around a subject which is often a taboo. That’s more than you can say for most chocolate.

Google Year in Search 2016

This emotional showcase of the most searched subjects on Google over the last twelve months gives us a raw and heart-warming overview of a year that saw political upheaval and the death of more than a few international icons. So much more than just a YouTube highlights reel, the distinctive Google search box and mic icon perfectly frame the key focus of each carefully selected clip. You’ll be forgiven for missing the little graphical flares the first time round – as the mic turns purple in honour of Prince or falls alongside Obama’s mic drop, these little playful touches hint at the care and attention put into piecing this montage together. With an overall message of hope, Google once again establishes itself as the go-to source of information around the world. In Google we trust.

Captain Obvious Skippable Ads

Now from the sublime to the ridiculous. In 2016 brought their perky mascot ‘Captain Obvious’ to the UK, along with an ingenious interactive campaign. Playing on the idea of the YouTube ‘Skip Ad’ feature, this ad actually encouraged viewers to click away only to reveal an alternative version of the advert in which every character is happily skipping with skipping ropes. Alongside an already bonkers script the concept really hits the funny bone, and draws viewers in with it’s interactive experience. Although the concept only currently works on the website, no doubt very soon the term ‘clickbait’ will take on a very different meaning as more brands integrate a fun interactive element into their campaigns.

Apple Music Taylor vs Treadmill

And finally, who wouldn’t want to see the world’s biggest popstar fall on her face? For those that couldn’t get enough of Madonna stacking it at the Brits in 2015 Apple have treated us to another celebrity pratfall. Refreshingly simple in it’s execution the one-minute-long advert shows a perfectly preened Taylor Swift getting a little bit distracted on a running machine whilst listening to Apple music’s handy Activity Playlist. Drawing on the success of countless real-life YouTube face plants the campaign gained nearly 11 million views in just four days. Whether it appealed more to Taylor Swift’s lovers or haters, you can’t deny the viral power of a bit of physical comedy.

So if brands in 2016 harnessed a message of challenging expectations, what will 2017 bring? According to online resource Unruly, the future is 360, vertical, virtual and live. Following The New York Times challenging VR film The Displaced, winner of a Cannes Lion last year for their, advertisers are now gearing up to take full advantage of the latest immersive technology. Meanwhile, vertical videos on platforms such as Facebook are driving 6x the interaction rate of horizontal, whilst live videos sustain viewers for x3 longer than pre-recorded clips.

However brands end up utilising this exciting new technology, it seems clear that the content will continue to be significantly shaped by world events, attitudes and online trends. Who knows what these may be, but it certainly promises to be a year of change both on and off-screen.

Jo Feb 2nd, 2017

About Jo Haywood

Jo is the Managing Director at Skylark Media. Before starting Skylark in 2005, Jo ran the BBC Lifestyle website and prior to that directed science documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4. To switch off she can be found on the tennis court, at yoga, or planting trees in the forest garden.