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
ARE WE A DAY LATE AND A DOLLAR SHORT?
Depends on how you look at it. The faithful subscriber to the screed knows: we almost never talk about the Super Bowl commercials the week after the Super Bowl.
We wait a week or two, then examine the fallout.
Who ran a commercial that was especially useful for the small-business marketer looking for a scalable idea?
What commercial was such smart advertising that a marketer can say, "I could do that."
And here, two weeks out, we have winner.
No, it's not 84 Lumber and their sprawling, calculatedly heart-tugging, pro-immigrant message.
It's not Peter Fonda half a century after the anti-establishment, anti-materialist idealism of Easy Rider driving away from a bunch of bikers in a $100,000 car.
It's not Audi's debatable "Daughter" commercial or Budweiser's Horatio-Algeresque, immigrant saga "Born the Hard Way."
THE WINNER IS E-COMMERCE AND CLOUD-COMPUTING EMPIRE, AMAZON
Were they the funniest commercials in the big game? No.
Were they the most entertaining or the most poignant? Hardly.
What they were was salient--and they used one of the single smartest tactics in the advertiser's toolbox.
Amazon gave an engaging demonstration of the product as a problem solver, and did so with frequency.
Yep. Sounds really un-sexy.
But again: we're not talking million-dollar stunt commercials, of which the Super Bowl offers plenty.
WE ARE TALKING ABOUT A TEMPLATE FOR THE COMMON MAN
We're talking sensible creative executions and strategy that make sense no matter what's in your wallet.
A big problem with the Super Bowl commercial paradigm as an example of good advertising is it's an aberration.
It's a stunt.
Rarely is does a big-game advertiser think, "This message will make people race into our stores."
Instead, the typical advertiser who spent $5 million on a single 30-second spot that cost a million bucks to produce is looking for what the Big Guys call, "Brand Lift."
UH-OH--SOUNDS LIKE JARGON
No matter. It is what it is and, for our purposes, is arguably as silly as a $5-million spot buy.
Brand Lift refers to improving how an audience perceives a brand.
For instance, 84 Lumber's story about a Mexican woman and her little girl trying to reach the United States and being blocked by a giant wall is not designed to make anyone think, "Look at that wall! Wow, they have good building materials!"
It's designed to make the viewer feel something else entirely. It is political, polarizing, and might even piss people off. So it goes.
It's still going to make a lot of people feel good about 84 Lumber.
It is not driving traffic for a specific product or service. It is not a sales message. It is an institutional message calculated to make you feel a certain way about the advertiser's behavior.
SO, WHAT ABOUT AMAZON?
An especially good question if you know that, several years ago, Amazon pulled much its marketing budget out of advertising.
They took the money they were spending on production and media and put it into free shipping.
It also paid off huge! Huge!
But obviously, they're still advertising.
And for the big game, they were advertising a specific product: Amazon Echo.
"ALEXA, WHAT IS AMAZON ECHO?"
As I was writing this, I thought, "Let's ask her that question."
She replies, "Amazon Echo is a device designed around your voice that can provide information, music, news, weather and more."
Not as much as much fun as asking her, "Alexa, what do you look like?"
Her reply is, "I look like lots of ones and zeroes."
So anyway, if you don't know the product, Amazon Echo is what they call a "smart speaker." It's a cylinder about 9 inches tall. And via the internet, Echo connects to Amazon's voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant, Alexa. She's a little like Siri. Only, she sounds prettier.
AND ALEXA WAS STARRING IN THIS YEAR'S SUPER BOWL NOT JUST ONCE, BUT THREE TIMES
Generally speaking, one spot is not usually enough to have an impact on a prospect vis a vis getting a sale.
A salient, surprising and evocative message delivered frequently is how an advertiser penetrates the prospect's psyche.
Which is probably why, instead of seeing a single 30-second spot for Amazon Echo, you saw three 10-second spots.
One was called, "Buster."
It's a single take of a shot of a coffee table.
The table is filled with a vast spread of game-day food. In the middle of it all is a Boston terrier, standing in the guacamole and chowing down. Off camera, a guy with a Boston accent yells, "Buster!" He sighs. "Alexa, ask Pizza Hut to place an order." Alexa says: "OK. What would you like to order?" Cut to product shot. Graphic: "Amazon Echo."
NOT GENIUS--BUT AMUSING AND MAKES A RELEVANT POINT
Alexa can solve your sudden dog-in-the-dip problem.
Another commercial was called, "My Girl."
It's another single take. Shot of a guy sitting on the sofa with his young daughter. They're watching a football game.
The girl looks frustrated and says, "They're relying on the blitz too much."
The guy looks at his daughter, then looks off screen. "Alexa, play 'My Girl." Alexa says, "OK." We hear the strains of "My Girl" by the Temptations. Daughter gives the barest hint of a smile. Dad nudges her with his elbow. Cut to product shot. Graphic: "Amazon Echo."
OK, THAT MIGHT TUG AT THE HEARTSTRINGS OF THE FATHER OF A DAUGHTER
The third commercial might be repellent.
It's called "Finger Lick."
Sound of the game on TV. A close-up shot of a mouth licking orange dust off greasy fingers.
Cut to shot of the guy committing this egregious act sitting next to a woman on the sofa. He finishes licking and digs his hand back into a bowl of chips.
The Woman looks askance and says, "Alexa, re-order Doritos from Prime Air." Alexa says, "OK."
Cut to shot of product sitting in a window. Alexa says: "Look for delivery soon." A drone with the Amazon logo flies into the shot. Subtitle: "Prime Air not available in some states (or any, really). Yet."
IS THAT BUZZ YOU HEAR THE SOUND OF A DRONE?
More likely, it's the sound of people eagerly anticipating Amazon Prime Air delivery.
Gross-out photography and mastication audio is usually a bad idea.
It's hard to ever excuse it.
That said, viewers paid attention.
There was a whole lot of online buzz about this commercial even though drone delivery seems a long way off.
And all three of these commercials are simple storytelling with a theme of problem solving.
They are frequent and consistent in their delivery of the message.
And this model neither began nor ended with the Super Bowl.
AMAZON HAD ALREADY CREATED MORE THAN 100 SIMILAR MESSAGES
Most of them have appeared as online videos.
Overhead, subjective camera shot of a guy loading up a plate with dozens of chicken wings. "Alexa, how many calories in a chicken wing?" Alexa: "A chicken wing contains 88 calories." Guy hesitates, and puts back one chicken wing. "Anyone know where the potato salad is?" Product shot of Echo. Graphic: "Amazon Echo."
Inexpensive to produce, clear and mildly amusing.
Close-up on frustrated man: "Alexa, ask Uber for a ride. For Todd." Cut to wide shot of a group sitting on a sofa in blue jerseys. Behind them, Todd is in a red jersey, jumping and pumping his fist. "YES!" Everyone else looks annoyed. Alexa: "There is an UberX two minutes away." A guy throws a jacket at Todd, who leaves. Product shot. Graphic: "Amazon Echo."
LONG BEFORE GAME DAY, AMAZON HAD ALREADY PENETRATED THE ZEITGEIST
These messages have been out there and making themselves known.
They've even been part of the advertising landscape during NFL broadcasts. Their first "Alexa Moment" aired in a game last November.
The commercial is called, "The Break Up."
It's about a sappy father using Alexa to comfort his teenage daughter over a break up with a boyfriend.
Then (SPOILER ALERT), he uses Alexa to turn his home's sprinkler system on the offending boyfriend.
THESE ARE SIMPLE MESSAGES DELIVERED CONSISTENTLY
There's a good chance they will not win any major advertising awards.
That's not what they're for.
They're for creating interest in a product that people are now buying in record numbers.
They are simple, relevant stories told with relentless consistency.
If you can take away anything from any Super Bowl advertising campaign, this is the one: stories, simplicity, relevance and consistency are your friends.
EXPENSIVE STUNT ADVERTISING IS NOT
For the small-business marketer, it makes little sense.
The sprint race of blowing a huge amount of money on a one-time ad message almost never pays off.
A marathon does.
Running the marathon with simple, relevant stories told with relentless consistency in an affordable medium usually pays off for the marketer with the patience and perseverance to commit.
To see the Amazon "Alexa Moments" campaign, including the Super Bowl commercials, click here. Or copy and paste http://tinyurl.com/zv592yl
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
I'VE RECEIVED A GIFT THAT IS SOMEWHAT TROUBLING
I know the Fabulous Honey Parker is going to be displeased when she reads this.
It is, after all, a birthday gift she bestowed upon yours truly last week.
The gift is Amazon's Echo.
If you're not familiar with this interesting little device, it's not unlike having an iPhone with Siri specifically for using in the home environment.
But, instead of being an iPhone, Echo is a WiFi cylinder roughly the size of a tennis ball can packed with audio speakers, microphones and electronics.
And instead of Siri, Echo connects to Alexa, which is an Amazon voice service providing interconnection to other web services.
NOW, ON THE FACE OF IT, THE FIRST TROUBLING ASPECT OF ALL THIS IS THE AMAZON BRAND
You know what we say around here: the brand is the one way your core customer should feel about your business.
Amazon used to be the world's biggest bookstore. It felt like I could get any book there.
Now, it's kind of the world's biggest store, period. It feels like I can get almost anything there and have it shipped free via Amazon Prime.
But then came the Amazon-branded electronic devices.
First, it was the Kindle, making Amazon the world's biggest ebook store. If it's not on Kindle, it's probably not available as an ebook.
Then came Kindle Fire, which is a tablet.
Then came Fire TV, which is an HDMI device that competes with Google Chromecast for streaming video to my TV. (I have both devices. Chromecast mainly lies fallow. It feels kinda pointless.)
Then came the Fire Phone, which feels like an abject failure as a competitor in the smartphone market.
BURN YOUR FIRE PHONES, EVERYBODY!
So Amazon goes from being a bookstore to a general retailer to an electronics manufacturer...
And a cloud computing provider.
You never really think about that, do you? (Unless you happen to be someone like faithful screed reader Steve Cunningham, who is our token uber geek here at the screed.)
Amazon Web Services, or AWS, covers the entire world with what amounts to cloud-based virtual server farms for enterprise IT.
AWS is a mind boggling cloud service.
And Amazon Alexa is distinctly linked to Amazon Cloud when it comes to using Amazon Echo.
WHAT ON EARTH IS THE AMAZON BRAND, ANYWAY?
What am I supposed to feel about it?
The failure of the Fire Phone should help illustrate the fact that Amazon certainly doesn't feel like a cellular phone company. Their mediocre phone is still better than many, but constitutes a failure nonetheless.
Amazon feels like a general retailer with proprietary tech products.
But beyond all that brand confusion (I really don't know how to distill the Amazon brand into a single, concise sentence), there's a bigger challenge here for me.
What the hell do Echo and Alexa say about our culture?
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE TEACH KIDS TO VOICE COMMAND EVERYTHING TO A COMPUTER?
There are already endless complaints about Millennials exhibiting excessive entitlement and narcissism.
What's going to happen when entitled, narcissistic nitwits wire the house with do-this-for-me electronics that absolve their children from any responsibility for performing the simplest tasks?
Will Generation Do It For Me have been unleashed upon the world?
Will a population of helpless fools signal the final, drain-circling spiral of the American character?
Will it all put the control of the world in the hands of Amazon, Google and Apple, with IBM sitting there, wondering how on earth Big Blue missed the boat on world domination?
WHAT REALLY IS THE IMPLICATION OF GIVING A COMPUTER CONTROL OVER THE SIMPLEST TASKS?
Are we ultimately turning control of our lives over a series of Great Satans hell bent on running all human behavior?
Will you use a Siri-controlled phone to summon your Google driverless car to pick you up at the front door after you tell Alexa to feed the cat and lock the door behind you?
Will it tie your shoes? And what if there's a power failure? Will we all just sit here in the dark, afraid?
Is this the beginning of the artificial intelligence paradigm that eventually leads to the War Of The Machines and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger coming back to us from the future fully nude, except for a flesh colored man girdle, to save us from termination of the species?
How happy is GoogleAmazonApple going to be when all their DriverlessAlexaSiri machines belch digital napalm back in their faces and assume command of all the global package-delivery drones, using them to drop Amazon Fire Bombs on all the C-suite executives who thought they had all this madness under control?
"WHAT HAVE I DONE?"
One of the best last lines from any movie ever.
Spoiler alert: if you haven't seen Bridge On The River Kwai, I'm about to ruin it all for you.
A Pre-Obi Wan Alec Guinness is commanding Allied prisoners of war in Burma who are forced to build a railroad bridge for their Japanese captors.
At the end of the movie, when Guinness discovers evidence that the Allies are about to blow up the bridge, he comes to a sudden realization about his part in this madness, and gets blown away by mortar fire as he says, "What have I done?!" and falls dead on the detonator, blowing up what he's done and sending an important enemy train into the river.
What are we doing?
AND WILL WE BE ASKING, "ALEXA, WHAT WE DONE?"
Will this end up being some kind of publicly-traded digital dystopia that makes The Minority Report and The Hunger Games seem like last decade's TV sitcoms by comparison?
Will I be sitting in my house, transformed into a helpless and drooling, Alexa-fueled bonehead who can't even tie my own shoes because there's a power failure?
I don't know.
But I do know this: Amazon Echo is pretty cool.
Even if Alexa has no idea what I'm talking about when I say, "Alexa, find me a paella recipe."
The good news is, I can change the name I used to address her.
Maybe I'll change her name to Puppet Master.
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.