Eyebrows that speak louder than words

An homage to eyebrows in ads

By jeremy lee

If, as is famously claimed, eyes are the windows to the soul then what are eyebrows? Well, as it turns out, they're more than mere lintels - they're also a very neat way for humans to communicate non-verbally a range of different emotions.

And in an age of Instagram and TikTok, they are something that advertisers have also realised can be used to create a narrative shorthand - most notably and recently by Leo Burnett for McDonald's, although their history in ads goes back way further.

Long before it was noticed that eyebrows could be used as shorthand communication for a cheeky impromptu trip to McDonald's, the owner of probably the most famous pair of eyebrows in film - Sir Roger Moore - was arching them for comedic effect for the Post Office.

The 2009 spot created by Mother featured the late Moore characteristically sending himself up - his eyebrows, which in this instance were a non-verbal sign sophistication, were a consistent theme of his films and of the many ads he featured in.

Before McDonald's came along, Cadbury's was probably the most famous TV ad featuring raised eyebrows. The Fallon-created spot - also from 2009 - featured two children raising their eyebrows in time to the beat of Don't Stop The Rock by Freestyle.

As the successor to "Gorilla", the "Eyebrows Dance" spot proved more popular in terms of the number of viewings it received on YouTube in the immediate aftermath of its release. It also spawned a number of parodies that bled into popular culture at a time when such things were yet to infect the dreams of Cannes Lions event organisers. This one features Lily Allen and Alan Carr and appeared on Channel 4's Friday Night Project.

The ad also received critical acclaim from the ad industry. Ian Heartfield, founder and chief creative officer at New Commercial Arts, says: "I loved the Cadbury’s ad from back in the day, and I love the new McDonald's ad. They both work so well from a pure entertainment point of view because eyebrows are so expressive, but also because they are inherently funny to look at. I did an animation module at art college and the eyebrows were central to every character development. Of course, these two ads share the same core ingredient, but they come from a different starting point. They’re just an expression of joy and silliness for Cadbury’s, but the McDonalds ad is a much smarter idea. Whoever spotted that the famous arches look like eyebrows is a genius."

While 2009 appears to be the apogee of the arched eyebrow, in 1975 Collett Dickenson Pearce also used to them great effect. The agency enlisted Prunella Scales as a fur coat wearing Pools winner who has developed a taste for the finer things in life - like, erm, Bird's Eye Plaice in Cream Sauce.

She returns home to her terraced house in a convertible car to be met with the raised eyebrows of her neighbours who, despite the flash car and coat and Bird's Eye Plaice in Cream Sauce, know how her more humble background contrasts with her new sophisticated ways.

You can watch the original ad here.

But back to a more contemporary era, and from Birds Eye frozen food to the Peloton - a transformational shift in both time and space. In 2019 the exercise bike manufacturer, which also defines a generation in much the same way as Birds Eye, released a Christmas spot in which a woman had been bought a Peloton by her partner, despite not asking for one.

The commercial was widely panned (and spawned a series of memes much like Cadbury a decade earlier). But it also caused Peloton's stock to plummet. And the reason? The eyebrows on the actor who played the man's partner.

Monica Ruiz told the Today show: "It was my fault. My eyebrows looked worried, I guess. People were like, 'She looked scared.'" Others compared her frightened looking eyebrows as looking like something from a horror movie or a hostage film. The ad was also accused of being misogynistic.

But despite the ad being so poorly received on account of the expression on Ruiz's eyebrows, those eyebrows did land her a part in another ad - a spot for Ryan Reynolds' American Aviation Gin, which parodied Ruiz's role in the Peloton spot and celebrated her freedom from her overbearing partner.

While eyebrows have been secondary - although crucial players - in several ads, it's Cadbury's and McDonald's that have put them front and centre. Leo Burnett creative director Gareth Butters explains why: "Eyebrows in general are such a great indicator of mischief, a nod to get someone in cahoots to go for a cheeky McDonald’s. Plus they have such presence on social media, eyebrow dancing and TikTok are a match made in heaven."

This example for Tetley Herbals from Spark44 shows this:

But unlike in the Cadbury's example, McDonald's benefited from having its brand logo on the face of everyone in the world making its appeal - and ability to transcend borders and cultures - universal.

Gareth used research conducted by Leo Burnett's planning department that examined 'the look' - a non-verbal signal, the 'you thinking what I'm thinking?' nod of the head or wink of an eye. "The brief allowed me to define what 'that look' could be for McDonald's," he says. "Then going through all the different ways in which you could signal to someone, I eventually stumbled upon the double-eyebrow raise and the similarity to the famous Golden Arches."

He then turned this into mnemonic device by matching the timing of the 'Bow wows' in the Yello track 'Oh Yeah' with the raising of the eyebrows.

Gareth continues: "I animated the logo along with writing a script of these office workers signalling to each other and we took it all to the client. They loved it and the rest, as they say, is history."

It has certainly earned the "#RaiseYourArches" spot its place in the annals of advertising history, alongside Cadbury's "Eyebrows Dance", and will no doubt make a good showing at awards ceremonies later this year. If not, then eyebrows should most definitely be raised.


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