Letterboxed commercials -- Why advertisers choose the ''widescreen'' look for their ads

By Michael Kaplan
Updated October 02, 1992 at 04:00 AM EDT

At first glance, recent commercials for American Express, MCI, Mazda, and CBS look like they might have been made by Woody Allen or Francis Ford Coppola. The spots employ letterboxing, the black borders used in videos of some films to maintain the wide-screen format in TV’s squat space. Commercials, on the other hand, are boxed mainly because advertisers think it looks cool.

”There’s a certain highbrow cachet that goes with letterboxing,” acknowledges Dick Sittig of Chiat/Day/Mojo, whose summer American Express commercial with scenes of Barcelona employed this approach. ”It was appropriate because it gives the picture the look of a postcard.” When TV letterboxes TV, however, as in CBS’ promos for Love & War, The Hat Squad, and 2000 Malibu Road, it seems gratuitous. But according to George Schweitzer, CBS marketing vice president, sometimes ”letterboxing makes a show look bigger.”

The technique, however, wastes valuable screen space and compromises picture quality. ”You go from having 350 lines of resolution to only 250 lines,” says Barry Vetere, whose Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer nevertheless boxed MCI spots to avoid running titles over the images. Vetere says a new technique, used in Nike’s ”Instant Karma” spot, will soon be the next Madison Avenue flavor of the month: ”Compressing the image from left to right, so that people become thin and long. It’s just the opposite of letterboxing, but it too gives commercials a certain amount of cinematic charm.”

What’s next: commercials in French?