Archive for June, 2009

Is Cool Enough?

June 30, 2009

These aren’t political ads, but I think there’s a lesson to be learned here.

Take a look at this Cannes award-winning ad (for fairness’ sake, I linked to the actual website where it ran rather than youtube). Now look at this ad, which was considered, but didn’t ultimately win (it’s about condoms, but don’t worry it’s work safe).

Which one better communicates the story of the product? The first one “Carousel” sure is neat and compelling (what’s going on?), and I wonder how they made it, but I don’t know if it makes me want to buy that TV. The story is interesting, but it’s random and doesn’t really connect to any core message. In my mind this video is cool, but ultimately ineffective. It offers a sugar-coating with no nutrition.

[Ok, I showed this video to my partner, Dan, and he made the point that he might not buy that tv, but it made him think that Phillips was cool, hip & cutting-edge, so there’s something more than sugar-coating. Still, putting nuts in your candy doesn’t make it nutritious.]

The second ad, the condom one, is clever, it tells a story and it intrigues me.  But more importantly, a condom ad told through a love story makes sense; I’ll actually remember it next time I’m shopping in Japan for condoms. It’s compelling (what is that counter?), but it connects to the product, too. In the world of advertising, that counts for more than simply “cool”.

(Digressing for a moment, both videos do a great job of showing a story with visuals only, no words.)

What’s my point? Not sure, maybe it’s this: creativity imaginatively delivered with no message is just as much of a problem as a message delivered with numbing repetition, but no imagination or creativity . Either may end up with a “win” (a campaign, an award) but don’t be fooled; neither should be considered effective advertising.

New Dodd Ads

June 25, 2009

Chris Dodd has three new ads up.

I’m not going to review them; they’re not particularly interesting, except in the fact that like the ad I reviewed earlier, Chris Dodd is nowhere to be found in the ads. One has Senator Kennedy talking about Chris Dodd’s role in fighting for health care; the others are real people testimonials about their issues with credit cards and how Dodd’s fighting for them by taking on credit card companies.

This approach is probably the right one, especially this early. Stay out of your own way, rebuild your reputation with credible validators, basically re-write your story in people’s minds. It might be risky, but I think at some point, Dodd’s going to have to appear in the ads in more than name. I think he has to talk about the issues that troubled him and talk honestly about them. Whether the message is he’s learned a lesson or it hurts because one mistake has tarnished a lifetime of work, I don’t really care. The real issue is when he talks about it, it had better sound truthful and authentic or it’s over. Now, this theoretical ad can happen in a year from now, but I think it has to happen.

I do wonder, how many more ads can he run? He can’t actually stay up between now and election day, right? If this approach (of starting an ad campaign a year and a half before the election) can help turn around Dodd’s fortunes by next year, then maybe we’ll be seeing more of it in the years to come.

Something different…

June 24, 2009

You never hear a client say they want “the same” or “the familiar”. It’s always, “I want something different,” “Can we get something more… creative,” “I don’t want the usual political spots.” If everyone one is pushing for “different,” “creative,” “not the usual spot,” then why do we get so many spots that look alike?

Because different is hard. It’s so damned different. We like the familiar, it’s hard-wired into our brains. Before people were people, different was bad, different got you killed. That’s why today, different gets our attention.

Back in 2000, I saw these videos by Spike Jonze. He was supposed to make a campaign video for Al Gore for the convention.  In the end, the powers that be ended up making the same old video we’ve seen 1000 times before, and the Spike Jonze one was never seen (or at least not promoted). Take a look, tell me in the comments what you think. Personally, I think it’s brilliant — I see Gore as a person — goofy, yes, but with a family that loves him and that he loves intensely. It’s real and honest, too; funny, people thought he was the liar… if we could only show him as authentic… oh.

Look, the video quality sucks, the shots aren’t perfect, but it doesn’t matter — the story, the honesty, the emotion is there so we (or I) go with it and don’t care about those other things. Is it different?  Hell yes.

The video is in two parts. Take a look, would you have shown it at your convention? I would have.

Look, you can go too far with different, sure — mostly it’s because you’re trying so hard to be different, you’re not trying hard enough to be good. But there is a happy middle ground where different gets our attention and shows us something new, we just have to get used it. I guess the moral of the story is you have to be ready for different if you want it.

RNC Health Care Ad: Five Comments

June 23, 2009

New ad from the RNC complaining that Obama isn’t being bipartisan on health care and claiming his plan is another “government takeover.”

It’s not a bad ad, and the message is pretty close — talking about a “government take over” (get it, like GM, or AIG, huh? Scary, right?); and you can’t go wrong with the phrase, “government bureaucrats”, to create fear and loathing in an audience. Still, it feels a little sad sack to me.

As promised in the title, five comments:

1. Why is the text on the screen repeating the voice over almost word for word? What’s the point of that?

2. When the ad says, “Republicans want health care reform,” it shows a picture of an African American woman and an Asian American man. ‘Nuff said.

3. The ad keeps saying, “Republicans want”, which is annoying (shouldn’t it be “Americans want”?), but more importantly, I’m not sure Americans trust Republicans on health care or really care about a bipartisan bill.

4. Along those lines, do people think Obama is “rushing” into health care (or “another government takeover”)?

5. “Tell President Obama to work with Republicans” sounds just plain whiny to me.

Also, the ad is 1 minute — which makes me think it’s just a show buy; place a small buy on cable or network to get into the news cycle and get some free air time.

Iran Opposition Commercial (“If you see something you like, steal it.”)

June 22, 2009

A friend sent me this (thanks, Nick). Having worked on foreign elections, I found it interesting for its sophistication — both in message and style. For a place that stands with the “axis of evil”, those are some progressive issues being tossed about. There’s something that feels very western about the ad. The music, for instance, sounds like something from an Obama video.

The video style, as far as I know, was first used in this Bob Dylan video. I think I first saw it when I was kid in this Inxs video — which I thought was wicked cool (and didn’t realize it was a homage). You can see a list of other imitations here.

Has it been done before? I guess, but its done well here, and I think it works. This spot is emotional. The shots are really vivid, and it’s hard to shoot wide like that. Great choice of backgrounds.

A teacher of mine at film school (not Boris this time) told us, “If you see something you like in a movie or commercial, steal it.” The point wasn’t to just copy something, but by taking an element from something else, you can make it your own.

I heard an interesting interview with Steven Soderbergh on one of my favorite podcasts, Filmspotting. Soderbergh was saying there are two kinds of creativity — there’s making things up from scratch, being original, and then there’s taking something you’ve seen or heard, and putting a new spin on it. Both are equally valid. (He put himself in that second group.)

This is a look I’m putting into my itunes library to remember to use someday. If it’s ok for Steven Soderbergh to do it, I can, too.

Review: Health Care for America Now “What if”

June 19, 2009

I didn’t plan a review today. I was thinking of some more esoteric posts about ad-making, but then I saw these ads. Health care has been in the news a lot lately, and I’ve been thinking, what’s been so hard about getting this passed? I think that when it’s polled, 60% of Americans are in favor of health care reform. So what’s the problem?

As I thought about it, I realized the problem is one of definitions. What does health care reform mean? Insuring the uninsured? Lowering what we pay? Streamlining the system? Giving patients better access and better care? Taking on insurance companies? I think the answer is yes. And that’s the problem. It’s an issue that means different things to different people, so talking about “health care reform” in general doesn’t translate into support in the specific. With so many big money interests at stake, it’s no wonder that it’s been so hard to move this issue forward.

Form (on a scale A-F): C

Standard political ad stuff. Looking at the ad a second time, is that the best they could for a doctor’s office? Should I even worry about that?

There was a saying around film school, “If they’re noticing the boom in the shot, it doesn’t matter that it’s there. It means you’ve lost the audience.” Translated, that means: If the spot was working, I wouldn’t have time to wonder about the doctor’s office, I’d be too engrossed with the story, the message, my own emotions to care or notice.

Is this the best they could do? Its just kinda generic. The music, the visuals — nothing really stands out. Nothing get my attention; there’s no sugar coating to get me to care, to get me to listen. The copy technique of “what if,” is widely used, but feels like a gimmick here; it doesn’t really connect with the rest of the ad.

Function (on a scale A-F): C

Going to my earlier point, this ad does an adequate job of breaking down the issues around health care reform — keep your coverage, change plans, public option, lower costs, keep insurance companies honest. Got it. Those elements are really important to transforming that general support for reform into concrete support for this reform.

But will I remember it? Ben Smith of Politico says in his post that the ad is “pressing the public option by casting it as a way to stick it to greedy insurance executives.” Maybe I’m tired, maybe I’m too cynical and jaded, but does this feel like sticking to greedy insurance executives? I’ve been angry. I’ve felt outrage (watch the classic documentaries “Roger & Me” or “Harlan County, USA” to get a taste of outrage), and frankly, this ad doesn’t make me feel angry or outraged. Do you? Let me know. Post a comment.

Now, some of that is due to a “heard it all before effect”. We’ve heard all about how evil insurance companies are, we’ve already incorporated it into our data banks, this isn’t anything new. It just doesn’t get us aroused in the same way it would hearing it for the first time.

But of a lot of the empty feeling comes from the ad itself. Will a viewer’s attention even make it to that end part, the important part, to soak in that message?

Final Grade (on a scale A-F): C

Standard stuff, makes some important points, but it really doesn’t do anything to help it stick. With enough numbing repetition the message gets through. Maybe. But this is going to be a crowded battlefield, the other side is likely to throw some smoke bombs of their own to confuse the issue (big government health care, less choice and so on), so the fight for the hearts and minds of voters is on. It’s attrition warfare, army on army, head to head, and that’s not the kind of fight you want.

Where’s the emotion? There’s enough around this issue to be outraged over. Is this outrage? If so, it’s so generic, so general, there’s no connection. Is it trying to make a rational argument (which would be really nice if people were actually rational)? This ad just kinda sits there, there’s no soul, no feeling behind it, its paint by numbers and ultimately empty. Whether that’s by design or poor execution I’m not sure, but the result is the same.

This Week’s Inspiration

June 18, 2009

I mentioned this ad in the GM post as one of my all time favorites. It was made several years ago, and I still marvel at it every time I watch it.

What do I like? Why does this ad excite me?

First, there’s the music, ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky,” so evocatively used here. The repetition of images — as Boris would say, “Guys, this is experience.” I know this guy, my friends are him — even if I didn’t know this guy before, I know him now.

The spot is exquisitely filmed and edited. The shots, which are the foundation, tell the story without the need for words or dialog; they are an almost perfect example of the mantra, show don’t tell. The editing doesn’t draw attention to itself, but it can’t be ignored; it’s perfectly timed to the music, the way the shots are layered. It’s neither frenetic nor slow.

This ad tells a story. A story of boredom, of longing.  And it tells that story with music and visuals, that’s it, thank you for playing.

Compare this ad with the Alzheimer ad. They both use visuals to tell a story, both are emotional (in different ways). But the pace and editing are almost in total contrast. The Alzheimer ad uses long, lingering shots, where this ad has quick repeating images layered across the screen. It shows there’s more than one way to skin a cat when it comes to visual story telling.

Also consider this idea. It’s a car ad.  You never see the car (genre convention, show the car), yet you know exactly what the car is about, right? Do you need to know how fast it goes or what kind of fuel mileage it gets? Do you have to see it to want it? The form of the ad buttresses its function without hitting the viewer over the head with meaning, or CG’s or information. Next time you feel like adding that line of text to tell your viewer some piece of information, think of this ad. Ask yourself, can I convey that same idea by showing it?

Now excuse me, I’m going to watch this ad about 10 more times.  It’s so damned elegant and wonderful.


June 15, 2009

A friend sent me this ad late Friday. In between work and the weekend, I’ve been thinking about it since.  Andrew Sullivan called attention to it on the Daily Dish. He called it, “Heartbreaking. But effective.” My friend agreed.

I’ve watched the piece 5 or 6 times, trying to decide what I think about it. Here’s a quick review.

Form (on a scale A-F): A-

I think Boris would call this ad, “Lyrical.” It was produced by Saatchi & Saatchiin France, so maybe it’s that European feel.  It’s very sparse — only 12 shots total.  Next time you think you need all those shots or fancy graphics to tell a story, watch this ad.  35 seconds of images (there’s about 10 seconds for the end cards) and 12 shots.  This spot tells a story very cleanly and without any spoken words.  It clearly shows instead of telling, a cardinal rule of script writing.

It’s also well-edited; not fancy, not calling attention to itself, but there’s usually a shot that sets up the scene, then a shot that explains what we’re seeing.  Its form adds to the emotional connection.  It gives you time to take in the scenes.

Then there’s the CG (words on the screen or computer graphics) that comes up at the end.  Smart writing and nice use of the end effect to make a point; the CGs blow off like so much dust in the wind, like memory itself fading away.

Function (on a scale A-F): B

Here’s my problem with the ad — is it really effective?  The ad is heartbreaking to be sure, and emotion gets you to care.  Is that all it’s asking?  Yes, I care, now what?  Is it too sparse?  I really wrestled with this grade because I like so many of the elements that went into this ad, and the clean, not didactic message is really appealing.  At the end of the day, I don’t know, so I punted and gave it a B.

That grade would become a C if the ad was intended to drive some further action.  It would become an A if it was only intended to drive awareness.

Editor’s Note: I had some more insight on this ad walking home after posting this review.  I was listening to Robert McKee’s “Story,” which, while annoyingly pompous in tone (both on the page and in audio format),  is also considered a master class in structure and story elements.  It’s primarily for screenwriters, but also really interesting for anyone who wants to understand story structure better.  McKee was talking about different kinds of structures.  Of one, which he call Nonplot, he says, “Although nothing changes within the universe of a Nonplot, we gain a sobering insight and hopefully something changes within us.”  With that in mind, watching the spot again, it seems the very definition of Nonplot.  It’s certainly a more European aesthetic and watching this ad feels more like watching a foreign film than an American one.  Leave it to Robert McKee to explain a French Alzheimer’s ad to me.

Final Grade (on a scale A-F): A-

Yeah, the grade should average out to a B+, but given my ambivalence on the function grade, I decided that the form should rule the day.  Do I feel dirty, promoting form over function?  A little, actually.  But while not innovative, it was exquisitely and elegantly put together.

Is it manipulative? Yes, but isn’t that what ads are? I guess you could call this spitting on the table — it’s shocking, and in some ways an easy target.  Seniors with Alzheimer’s, how could that not pull at the heartstrings.  Too easy? I don’t know.  Much like this Volkswagen ad, when shock value is used effectively, I think it’s fair game. What I don’t like is shock value for shock value’s sake.  I think this ad is thoughtful in its approach like that Volkswagen ad; it isn’t just a gimmick, but rather deliberate and focused.  So, if someone spits on the table knowing the effect it will have, deliberately calculating their spitting (just how far can I go with this metaphor?) then I think that’s different.

In any case, this ad stands as a good counterpoint to all the yelling, fast-cutting, and graphics-heavy ads that are on the air today.

Washington Post on GM & Chrysler Ads

June 12, 2009

The Washington Post Style section leads with an interesting article comparing the advertising of the two companies comeback ads.  I think the article is particularly enlightening,  especially given my glowing review of the GM ad.  Chrysler’s ad campaign, “We Build,” takes a business as usual approach.

One element that stood out  is that both ads according to the article were researched, which I think says something about the nature of research.  In “Hey Whipple Squeeze This,” (library day pick) Sullivan says something like good research should inspire (sorry don’t have the book in front of me).  Taking a look at the ads, which one seems more inspired to you?

I actually like the Chrysler ads, I like the “we build” concept, and while its a pretty tradition ad within the car ad genre its really clever and well executed, its not a Volkswagen ad, but its really good for what it is.  Here the rub, I can’t help but wonder if it misses the mark?  Does saying its business as usual make it so?  Does ignoring the problem help make it go away with time?

But another way, they’re telling a story about their cars (and company), but is it the right story?

I’m just as guilty of ignoring a problem as anyone (just ask my wife), but it usually doesn’t work (just ask my wife), and eventually you usually have to face it one way or anther.

Will this approach work for Chrysler?  Is Chrysler’s position different than GM?  Yes GM is in Chapter 11, but Chrysler isn’t exactly on the solid financial footing.  Re-invention versus business as usual, it’ll be interesting to see where these campaigns lead for both companies.

Library Day

June 12, 2009

Maybe Library Day will become a weekly feature.

Oh, what is Library Day?  Well, it’s the day when I recommend a book I think is interesting or helpful in creating great political advertising.

The first book I’m going to recommend is, “Hey Whipple Squeeze This.”

There are a lot of books that litter the bookshelf closest to where I work.  Those are the special books, the books that regardless of topics, I go back to again and again. Sometimes a books come and go off the shelf depending on what I’m interested in at the time, but there are a core that stay right there: “Hey Whipple” is one of those books. (For those of you paying attention, I’ve already quoted from it at least twice on this blog.)

Its subtitled “A Guide to Creating Great Ads,” and that’s exactly what it is.  Filled with observations, tips, stories and examples, it really is the one book on advertising that anyone interested in the craft should read.    What I really like is that Sullivan writes in an engaging tone, and he offers advice that gives you a good theoretical grounding (“Rule #1 in producing a great TV commercial. First you must write one”) while also being eminently practical (“Write sparely,” which is particularly good advice to political ad makers who tend to cram as much copy into “30” second spots as they can; you’ve never seen a grown man cry till you try to get a voice talent read 36 seconds of copy in 30).

The book breaks down advertising into print, TV and radio, then ends with some trouble shooting stories and advice (“Peck to death by ducks”).

And the title? It refers to the Charmin ads which dominated the 70’s.  For those of you too young to remember, Mr Whipple was the cranky grocery store clerk who admonished buyers, “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin,” while himself fighting his own squeezing demons.  Mr. Whipple had the distinction of being both the most remembered character on tv and the most reviled.  Sullivan points to the campaign as a cautionary tale of overwhelming the airwaves with ads that aren’t very good can produce results, but, well I’ll let him speak for himself, “What troubles me about Whipple is that he isn’t good. As an idea, Whipple isn’t good….To those who defend the campaign based on sales, I ask would you also spit on the table to get my attention? ”

Ultimately the book is a call to smart,  elegant, and creative advertising because spitting on the table demeans not only those doing the spitting (the consultants or ad execs) but those who they’re spitting for (the business or candidates).  Even if you win, you don’t win.

For that message alone, the book is a perfect choice for my first library day.

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