Born in Quarantine
I had an email from a famous novelist who reads this screed.
Why does an author educated in philosophy at the hallowed Wellesley College read these rants?
Who knows. Maybe it's my snarky existentialist bent. But for some reason she's a fan.
And it's not as if she's suddenly lost her judgment after being locked inside the house for several weeks.
(I've told this to several friends: a writer during a lockdown barely notices. We were signing up for social distance when they issued our writer license. If we're judgment impaired, it happened long before COVID measures.)
Anyway, this famous novelist mentioned a particular national TV commercial.
Seems it stopped her in her tracks.
She asked what I thought of it.
Ironically, The Fabulous Honey Parker and I had just been discussing this very same commercial.
It opens with a plaintive piano under black & white photos of a newborn.
It quickly segues to a collage of vintage with current images intercut. They're all of mothers and newborns, doctors and nurses, and photos of the moment, then and now.
An elderly woman narrates.
"I was born during a quarantine. I don't remember it, of course.
"But for my mother, it was a very difficult time. She told me, 'It was just you and me for many months.'
"But she wasn't alone. Everybody tried to do what they could to help. But she was also a very strong person.
"And then it was over. We came out into a new world, my mother and me.
"We can get through this. We all have the strength to do it. I'm a hundred years old. And you just take care of that little miracle."
We also get to see the woman speaking. She looks fantastic.
A title says, "Anita Simpson, born in 1920 during the influenza pandemic."
Another title says, "For all new moms in quarantine, you're not alone."
The closing title is, "FB.com/parentsupport";
The name "Facebook" sits very quietly at the bottom of the frame.
If you haven't seen it, you can watch it right here...
And the question is...
Why is Facebook touching this nerve?
Or maybe a better question is, HOW is FB touching this nerve and what can the rest of us take away from it?
Facebook is a much used and widely reviled product.
It's also a piece of the zeitgeist, which (if they're smart) gives Facebook a certain responsibility.
And in the wake of the third rails they enjoy touching, like privacy breaches, phone number exposures, Cambridge Analytica, shadow profiles, and well...
Let's just say Facebook has some image problems.
That's probably one reason they hired New York-based Droga5 last year as their ad agency.
And if you visit Droga5's website, you can see an ad agency moving quickly. There's a page called, "Helping brands navigate COVID-19 in real time." The copy reads, in part:
"As the coronavirus pandemic reached around the world, it has never been more important to stay connected, especially when we must stay physically apart. It has been inspiring to see how people are using Facebook's family of technologies to come together, and as a result, we fully pivoted our approach and reoriented our strategy, go-to-market and communications plans for the Facebook company's first brand marketing effort."
OK, well, it sounds like it was written by an ad agency. "Fully pivoted." "Reoriented our strategy." "Go-to-market plan."
But next, it says of the work they're doing, "In a matter of days, we pulled together a new film to demonstrate solidarity during these uncertain times--"
AUUUUGGGGH! "Uncertain times!" They said it!
OMG, D5 for FB! What're you doing?
OK, we all have lapses.
But, the more important word that they use here is "demonstrate."
This is good. And it's important.
They didn't say, "A new film to tell about solidarity." They said, "A new film to demonstrate solidarity."
How many times can we be told about uncertain times and being in this together and blah blah blah blah.
Telling is feh.
Demonstrating? That's a win.
Demonstrate means to "give a practical exhibition" of something, "to clearly show the existence or truth" of something.
It's from the mid-16th century Latin word for "pointed out."
They're pointing at the truth without ever once speaking a single word of soggy oatmeal about uncertain times and how we're all in this together.
As a famous VO guy wrote to me recently about the endless telling, "Stop telling me how you're following CDC guidelines, stop telling me my safety is your number one priority, stop telling me I can order a car from the comfort of my own home, stop telling me things suck!"
Instead, the FB message does exactly what advertising should do.
It enters into a conversation the viewer is already having.
And it does it by pointing to a time and a people many of us haven't considered.
Then it offers a resource to those people and others like them who might need support.
Long live Facebook.
They aren't going to make the haters love them overnight. Changing their image is a glacial process.
But they are perhaps moving forward.
And for anyone who advertises, Droga5's work for Facebook is a good model to examine.
What are doing well, and how can we do something like it?
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
Birdsong, Blather & Bread Flour
It's still dark out there.
I'm in my writer's garret.
Befitting a garret, the roof slope is steepish.
The skylight by my head is open. Forgot to close it last night. A faint breath of cool breeze drifts in.
It carries a chaos of warbling, chirping, peeping and quacking.
Dawn here launches gray, fresh and filled with avian audio.
Our fowl-feathered friends seem thrilled to be doing it all over again this morning.
Finches, jays, juncos, mallards-COVID-19 has changed their behavior not a wight.
("Wight." The obsolete word from middle English that was kicked to the curb by the snappier, sexier, more streamlined "wit." Nobody gave the birds the memo about obsoletion. They're still using it and just not giving a wight.)
As we transmogrify 21st century living, the planet is apathetic. It doesn't even know it's the 21st century. It just keeps doing what it does.
But few of us just keep doing what we do.
Mother Nature, coming out as an infectious agent, has slapped the contrivances of culture right out of our little human hands.
Since we're all doing whatever label you apply to your version of Staying At Home, travel is down by 90%.
Which means air pollution is also down.
Maybe that's part of the reason the birds are so jazzed this dawn.
We live at a ski resort. The biggest one in the US, in fact.
Besides the birds, nobody's here.
They're at home.
What are they doing?
If the situation at Walmart is a decent predictor, they're riding bikes and baking bread.
I was in there yesterday.
The grocery section is devoid of bread flour. Has been for weeks.
And in the sporting-goods section, no bikes. Well, a couple. Tiny, purple. The seat reaches my knees. Plastic flowers on handlebar baskets. (Suddenly, I want to don my Lycra and ride that baby down Main Street.)
Science Friday on National Public Radio let me know that people are cooking more than ever. Listeners are bragging about making all manner of fermented foods.
How's your sauerkraut coming?
Or is kimchi more your mojo? Yummy yogurt?
If you're looking for something new, you'll get a kick out of koji. That's the fabulous fungus that gives us soy sauce.
The thing is, we're not "in this together."
We're in this uniquely apart.
We're all doing our own things.
Just as we've always done. Only different.
My experience of the zeitgeist is different than your experience of the zeitgeist.
And in these uncertain, unprecedented, trying times of new normal, we are not in this together as essential social distance employees amid hot zone lockdowns sheltering in place making an effort at curve flattening.
Was that even a sentence? I can't tell.
Flail away at the fog.
Push through the mental mush.
Seek some clarity.
It's worthwhile. The birds may not care. But the person on the other end will appreciate a missive from somewhere beyond the buzzwords.
Not that this one was much help.
But it shows what can be done with zero direction other than writing something that Is. Not. That.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
The Zeitgeist Meets Your Pants
Who are you, and aren't you better than this?
There's a game I'm playing right now.
It's called Guess The Me-Too TV Advertiser.
Is it Google?
Is it Apple?
Is it Cotton?
Is it someone else who can't figure out how to look different in the calamitous face of the pandemic zeitgeist?
The word "zeitgeist" comes to us from those comic geniuses of 18th-century German philosophy.
It's most closely associated with that laughmeister himself, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
Fact: Hegel was quite a dancer.
Hegel is best known for such quips as, "We learn from history that we do not learn from history," and "Whatever is reasonable is true, and whatever is true is reasonable."
It was always fun having Herr Hegel at the philosophers' cocktail party.
He'd quaff one too many weissbiers and start coming up with timeless banter like, "If you want to love you must serve, if you want freedom you must die." And everyone would laugh and laugh!
But I digress.
A word referring to the spirit of the age, "zeitgeist" translates literally as "time ghost."
Which is fitting.
So much advertising right now is the faintest ghost of its former, smarter self...
Granted, it's hard to produce new advertising at the moment.
You can't get a group of people together in a room to do much of anything related to commerce.
But that shouldn't prevent better writing.
Last week, we gave props to Budweiser. They've resurrected and then reimagined the "Whassup!" commercial for these uncertain times without ever using a phrase like "these uncertain times."
There has never been a time of certainty.
So that phrase should go into the dumpster of hackneyed copywriting and be lit on fire.
In a time when everyone's stressed out, it only makes sense to be sensitive to the zeitgeist.
But it's also good to remember that nobody needs ongoing reminders of how bad things are.
It's gotten so ridiculous, ad agency owner/Creative Director/cartoonist David T. Jones has created a new font: Times Uncertain. (You can download it here at his agency website: https://www.takethirdstreet.com/times-uncertain)
Better than reminders of the badness is reassurance of our badass best.
Maybe it's not a good time for comedy.
But it is a good time for humor.
At the very least, it's a good time for reaffirming the character and the spirit that defines good people in a crisis.
Without being partisan or political, I'm going to steal from the late, great Hal Riney.
It's morning in America.
It's up to us to decide what kind of a day we're going to make it.
And better writing will help.
Like Mary Heaton Vorse said in one of the best single quotes about how to do this thing with words, "The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair."
And so worth it.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
What's Up With Your Lightning?
FINALLY, SOMETHING IS AS CERTAIN AS LIGHTNING
Lately, we're using the word "lightning" a lot, as in " Does this message have lightning?"
We've started using it in describing the creative work which delivers that potent little bolt of emotional juice.
Because, as you know, emotion is the engine that drives decision making.
And the emotional charge that comes from good advertising and branding is quick, potent and literally electrical.
Emotions are an electrochemical signals that tell the brain how to react.
And today's example of certainty comes from an unlikely sector
During this age of weirdness, it avoids all the hackneyed phrases of "these uncertain times."
It speaks to the zeitgeist without sounding like every other worn-out, trite and unimaginative wording that is coming at us from all corners.
BUDWEISER BRINGS IT IN AGAIN
Budweiser has long had a habit of bringing the lightning and jerking a few tears along the way.
And this is another glowing example of how big-agency/big-brand thinking can make you smile while informing the things we can do in our own small businesses.
The famous Budweiser Whassup? campaign ran from 1999 to 2002.
The advertising was much loved. It inspired a cross-cultural catch-phrase epidemic. Everyone was walking around saying, "Whassup!"
Today, a doctored version of the original commercial is here, introducing the idea of "jus' quarantining, drinkin' a Bud."
The joyful and infections silliness of the "Whassup!" action ends with the parting thought, "BUDS SUPPORT BUDS. CHECK ON YOURS."
It's just fun. And it jerks a little tear, all while underscoring an important message.
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE...
The original premise has also been adapted for today's spokesfolks and the weirdness of the moment.
There's a brand new commercial "Whassup!" commercial gives us former NBA stars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, WNBA star Candace Parker, DJ D-Nice, and Wade's wife Gabrielle Union all getting together on a video chat.
They all do a big, rousing round of "Whassup!"
Then, Wade gets serious and asks, "For real, though, what's up with everybody?" His wife asks, "You guys staying safe?"
It all ends with the message, "Staying connected matters more than ever right now. Checking in, that's whassup. Need to talk? The Salvation Army has trained staff available." They provide the "HOPE" phone number.
FUN, TOUCHING...AND IMPORTANT
The entire, 90-second spot uses minimal words. It's enjoyable. It never uses any hackneyed phrase-of-the-moment, like "In these uncertain times."
Nobody needs a reminder that these times are uncertain.
In fact, when were the certain times?
They never existed.
They are imagined.
And nobody needs a reminder of today's lack of certainty.
What they need is a little bit of emotional lightning.
And Budweiser delivers.
Here's the revised original "Whassup" spot, presently airing in the UK:
And here's the new US spot, "Checking In, That's Whassup:
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
Blaine Parker is prone to ranting about any and all things related to brand. In many ways, he is a professional curmudgeon. While there is no known vaccine for this, the condition is also not contagious. Unless you choose it to be so.