This Is Ridiculous

My wife and I were watching television several weeks ago when we saw the above ad for Schick’s Hydro Silk TrimStyle razor for women, which is made for those women who wear bikini swimwear.

We couldn’t believe our eyes. “Are you kidding?” we said almost simultaneously.

Television has come a long way in its permissiveness. I can remember watching shows back in the late ’50s and early ’60s where Ozzie and Harriet and all the other married TV couples slept in twin beds, because studios weren’t allowed to show them sharing the same bed.

That was part of an era in Hollywood governed by The Motion Picture Production Code, a period of time between 1930 and 1968. Often called the “Hays Code”, it deemed what was morally acceptable for public audiences to see in movie theaters. Will H. Hays was the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, and under his leadership, the MPAA began its strict enforcement of that code starting in 1934.

Hollywood, in its early days of making silent pictures, had its share of scandal with the murder of a famous director (William Desmond Taylor) and the alleged rape of a starlet by the famous actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Religious and political organizations were appalled at the apparent “wild west” atmosphere of the fledging motion picture industry, and with the Black Sox scandal in Major League Baseball (having of course nothing to do with Hollywood), and the rise of bootlegging and gangsters in the 1920s, the Hays group felt it necessary to impose its moral rules and keep Hollywood “clean”.

After World War 2, television came into its golden period. (Television was actually invented in 1925 by Philo Farnsworth; Philco, Westinghouse and RCA developed their machines in the ’30s, but the formative television business didn’t get off the ground until after the war ended.) Hollywood wanted to get into television for two reasons: one, as a hedge from the upstart TV business—couples were staying home and raising families and not spending the time going out to movies; and two, since they already had the production facilities, why not make TV shows and cash in by having advertisers run commercials just like the radio industry?

Of course, with the Hays Code already in place, the same rules applied. Anything morally suspect was not allowed. A long list of items was spelled out, such as illegal trafficking and use of drugs, inference of sexual perversion (subject to interpretation by a committee), vulgar language, miscegenation (sex between black and white races), any depiction of venereal disease, and a man and a woman in the same bed. The list was way longer than that and included showing white slavery, rape, branding of people or animals, surgical operations, and gratuitous brutality of children or animals.

It took many years for Hollywood—whose star system faded in the 1960s—to loosen its grip on the code. Morals were changing, and the public (and younger directors) wanted realism on the screen. European movies had long reflected an open and less restrictive genre, so the American studios began to relent. By the 1970s, TV shows came of age.

There was, however, one last vestige of the Hollywood code: the Family Viewing Hour, the first hour of prime time TV each night, that enforced similar rules. Established by the FCC in 1975, it felt it had to enforce “family-friendly” programming from 8 to 9 PM EST. But it didn’t last long. The Writers Guild sued, citing violations of the First Amendment, and won.

But what about censorship in TV commercials? I mean, the commercial above is not crude pictorially, but it is suggestive and more than repugnant to some viewers. Look what we have today in TV ads: erectile dysfunction, condoms, birth control devices, bladder control, IUD issues, catheters, etc. The medical industry loves all this. I hate seeing it, but there they are.

I know the Schick ad is about beauty and/or hygiene, but the way it’s depicted is a little out-of-bounds.

Apparently there are no rules. Advertisers are censoring themselves, keeping what they individually feel are within—or just barely within—moral guidelines.

I wonder what the commercials along this line will be like in another twenty years.

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Talking Boxes

I sometimes wonder at the ad world where we have animated objects speaking to us either directly or indirectly, as though a talking dummy or marionette has our complete attention. The idea has me thinking of Chuck and Bob from the 1970’s TV comedy, Soap. In that show, Jay Johnson plays Chuck, a ventriloquist, whose dummy, Bob, has the other characters befuddled with his sharp wit. The main actors find themselves (especially Billy Crystal) talking directly to the dummy.

And I think we are no more intelligent than those actors in that show listening to Bob. At least, some of the time.

There are a few more examples of talking boxes than the ones shown above, but these are the most prominent. I’m sure you’ve seen the Cologuard commercials. Here we have what appears to be the actual product kit—or at least a facsimile of one—speaking directly to us about the rather private process of submitting a sample for the screening of colon cancer. The box is personified by an unknown actor whose voice has a muted, understated quality suited well to the product.

The ad series was developed by Precisioneffect, whose nickname for the kit is “little CG”. A company called Exact Sciences produces the screening product, and according to their marketing director, the aim is to bring attention to a personal choice for addressing an important issue in a less confrontational way.

I’ve seen perhaps three different Cologuard spots. Each has a soft demeanor, and is instructional. So we listen.

On the other hand, the Progressive Insurance talking box is another story. Here we have what so far appears to be a series of around a dozen spots featuring this smarmy, conceited box which in a series of circumstances speaks about his ennui, his heartfelt travels around the world, his travails getting through airport security, and even his trouble finding speaking engagements while addressing elementary grade students at “career day”.

I have to say that this box is well-designed, and the facial expressions are dead-on, especially that wide angular mouth that spouts off anything the brain behind it wants you to hear.

The ads for Progressive are done by Arnold, the big ad agency known for many other TV commercials, including Jack Daniels and Ocean Spray. Here the box is personified by Chris Parnell, the comedian from SNL and 30 Rock, whose voice is highly suited for over-reaching personalities. He’s one of the best in television.

Nothing against Parnell, but only a few of the ads are funny and after several viewings they get boring and tiresome. Which is a shame because the production is well done mixing animation with real-life actors. Plus, we have no idea what the box is supposed to represent. One source I came across tells us the box is supposed to be the Progressive Insurance policy. (We’d seen scores of them on shelves behind Flo’s desk in previous commercials, and even then wondered if those were representing case studies as in a law library, but knowing how wacky Flo can be, throw that thought away.)

Which brings up another thought: Progressive seems to want to outdo itself buy promoting with Flo and her “working” cohorts and also with this goofy talking box. Do you feel the two series are competing with each other? Or do you feel that it can work, such as in the Geico series (caveman versus the gecko)?

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More Gimmicks

There’s a trend in recent TV advertising in which what you see onscreen does not necessarily have any significance to what the delivered message is. And Geico Insurance is using it. I believe there are a few other advertisers using a similar gimmick, although right now I can’t recall them specifically.

The ads run like this: two people in the space (scene 1 above is a commercial gym while in scene 2 below we have a painting classroom) are talking about the benefits of Geico Insurance, but in succeeding camera cuts there are changes occurring to the point of ridiculousness.

The ad at the top ran during much of 2016 and 2017, while the ad at the bottom is running currently. Most viewers have seen these two ads and probably have the same reaction I have—that what you see has no bearing on the message being delivered.

It’s just a gimmick.

My college roommate Howard often cited gimmicks in advertising. He would point one out as soon as he saw it.

Mascots are one such gimmick and have long been a staple in advertising since early in the 20th century. Morton Salt has had a girl walking with an umbrella while pouring salt (“when it rains it pours”) on their cardboard canister since 1914. Speedy Alka-Seltzer, the little character made from an antacid tablet that everyone saw on ’50s and ’60s TV is another. Mascots made the TV ads memorable because each mascot was different. Tony the Tiger for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes cereal is still being used today.

But of course times change. And sometimes advertisers will now take chances that they would not have done decades ago. Take for example the mascot used by Diet Dr. Pepper—the miniature character who comes on in any given scene, uninvited, to proclaim that whatever you’re doing can be aided by the sweet taste of Diet Dr. Pepper, saying in a falsetto sing-song, “It’s the sweet one.”

Why is he so small and why the falsetto? We don‘t know. But you remember it. And that‘s all that some advertisers really care about. It works for a soft drink because the product has little else going for it but taste, and because there are so many different ones to choose from, a little differentiation here goes a long way toward your memory of it.

In Geico‘s case, insurance is a pretty dry subject. Why not a gimmick?

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This Is Genius

I had to laugh the first time I saw this TV commercial. I wasn’t really laughing—I was snickering. And shaking my head—marveling at its genius. The name of Nectar’s ad is “Sleep Like a Baby”.

The Nectar Sleep mattress (“Sleep” in the name got me: what other mattress is there?) is a memory foam mattress that, according to the ad promotes you “sleeping like a baby”. Hence the ad whereby we see babies moving on the mattresses, but with adult heads.

This tends to make some viewers feel a little put-off. They look at it and are a little repulsed by it. But I like it. A lot.

From a simple design standpoint, the idea is right on message. The visual idea was probably a whim from the ad agency. They probably kicked it around for maybe a day, thinking and rethinking it, probably wondering if Nectar would be turned off by it.

People are funny about such things. The public gets conditioned by things they see in movies, and although I can’t immediately recall a movie with this kind of baby-adult juxtapositioning, the mere thought of such a vision might bring about nightmare scenarios in some people’s minds.

But none of the antics that the figures do in the TV commercial are devilish or horrific. They’re just as innocuous as a baby squirming and fidgeting on a changing table, because the bodies really are babies and the actors’ facial expressions reflect mere comfort, albeit in a very infantile way.

The fact that Nectar bought the idea was just as genius as the ad agency’s idea itself. It takes two to tango, as they say, but in the ad world it’s entirely essential. I’ve worked in ad agencies where we had great ideas the clients didn’t like, or more to the point, didn’t feel were appropriate to their marketing plan. To have a successful relationship, the arrangement has to be like a marriage, and like in a good marriage, both have to bring something to the party.

If the ad executive with Nectar sees endless possibilities of a promotion presented by the ad agency, good things happen.

A Nectar queen-size mattress, which allows a 365-day trial period, sells for around $795, although I have seen a site that has it for around a hundred less. Its construction is such that the top layer has memory foam stitched into it, plus an additional layer that wicks away the heat retained in most other mattresses of this type. It gets very good reviews.

And for such a simple and engaging idea, this ad probably took weeks to produce, in both pre- and post-production. I can easily imagine the hundreds of videos of babies moving around on the beds, and then finding the right actors whose facial expressions lent just the right emotive movements to marry with the babies’.

And the result is so damned enjoyable to watch. That’s what it is about good design: no matter how often you look at it, it’s always pleasing to see it. And each time you see this ad, a smile will come to your face.

 

 

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Do We Really Need This Kind of Disruption?

In the advertising world these days, there’s a lot of talk about disruption. What the advertisers and designers at some firms are talking about is making things like print ads, TV commercials, and package designs way out of the norm to rattle the consciousness of the American consumer to garner attention faster. Defined as interruption, in advertising disruption translates more to interjection.

The new movement is done at a moderate level in the print arena, much more specifically with tech and Internet magazines, both with placed ads and the overall design of the magazines themselves.

With regard to package designs, it’s done in a watered down way by comparison. Customers in stores are at an average age older than most online buyers, and the designs here cannot be too jumbled or “futuristic” so as to avoid confusing consumers.

But television is an all-encompassing medium, a ready-made stage where anything can happen before you have time to react. You can be watching your favorite telecast and the ads that come across in any given commercial break can not only annoy you, but can actually disturb you.

Such is the case with Subway ads we see while watching the 2018 Winter Olympics on NBC. The ads are pure disruption to be sure: the harsh panorama of visuals dancing on the screen with in-your-face large type (of course all in caps).

This isn’t advertising. And it isn’t good design. It’s yelling. And to make it much worse, accompanying the mind-numbing visuals is the music—or what amounts to music—by a band known as the Country Teasers, a Scottish punk group whose sound can be pure noise.

Not all of their music is terrible. It’s almost always off register, dissonant and discordant, sometimes off-color. Their production values are off the charts, so to speak, and not in a good way. What you hear during these Subway commercials is loud cacophony, filled with rancor that most anyone watching the Olympics wouldn’t pay to hear otherwise. Which makes me wonder about the placement of these ads.

Do Subway customers by and large watch sporting and Olympic events? I’m not sure. Or is it that the airtime was a creampuff that Subway just couldn’t pass up?

The ads were created by Dentsu Aegis Network, a multinational London-based ad agency owned by a Japanese conglomerate. That’s about right these days to be owned by a company in another country. In this case, being based in London might have a lot to do with the choice of (so-called) background music used here.

There are no beauty shots of Subway’s sandwiches, by the way. Nor of their brick-and-mortar franchises. Just the noise you see and hear in these ads, costing Subway a lot of cash.

The series of visuals in the commercials show people doing daring things. But the message Subway is trying to get to you is make your life choices so things will pan out for you. Here, it’s about their sandwich choices (doesn’t ”make it what you want“ sound like a burger company’s tagline ”have it your way”?). In other terms, don’t really do what you see on the screen.

But with the jarring presentation shown, you’d have a tough time convincing viewers of that message.

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Animating the Inanimate

Animating inanimate objects for TV commercials can be a dicey thing to do. In the first place, advertisers need to know their target audience: the people who are watching television where the commercials are placed. This can be a spot shown within the time slot of a specific program or telecast, or a spot shown on a network within a given time period on a given day of the week.

The time slot and target audience can determine what kind of commercial an advertiser wants to do, and animation may or may not work for them. But animation has become a way to augment ads in general and gain a wider audience’s attention span. In this age of personifying anything from medicine bottles in television ads to roboting trash in feature films, the future of animation seems to be still on the upswing, thanks to 3D.

Above are two examples of animation with distinct differences. Cartoons they are not. The Ensure commercial is humorous to a small degree, but its intention is to be instructive. The Waste Management commercial is part of a small series, and its intention is to be merely flippant.

The different approaches these two ads take are typical of their kind. The Ensure ad is instructive because the product advertised is a health food supplement, taken mostly by adults who need a nutritional addition to their supposedly already nutritious diet. Its ad placement is usually during the hours of 8:00 AM through 5:00 PM, running on network television. I’m guessing the target audience is aged 34 to 75.

The Ensure ads actually personify the fruits and vegetables along with the Ensure bottle, but like I say—even though the ad is cartoon-like—it isn’t a cartoon. The message Abbott Labs is making is easy to follow because of the way Ensure is portrayed. I’ll give the Ensure ads a B+.

The Waste Management ads were positioned as part of the Waste Management Phoenix Open Golf Tournament telecast on The Golf Channel and NBC. So it was embedded as a proprietary advertiser. But its target audience is harder to define here: Waste Management was sponsoring the golf event, and being flippant with the format was a way of saying they are cool as a company. But I found the ads could’ve been so much better: they could’ve shown just how diverse and environmentally sound the company is. The dialog between the two dumpsters didn’t at all reflect that.

The Waste Management ads were also harder to follow along with because the animation was harder to see: the lids of the dumpsters barely move to express speaking, and the insets on the lid handles sliding from side to side are supposed to be the eyes of the characters—overall almost too subtle to be picked up while the dumpsters yap at each other. All considered, I’ll give the Waste Management ads a D.

And Waste Management’s target audience here? Anyone who was watching the golf tournament. A sporting event’s TV audience has an attention span equal to that of a ten-year-old. So being flippant was probably deemed OK by the client.

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The Soundtrack of Our Lives?

Whatever happened to original music in TV commercials?

TV commercials have always relied on ambience—background music or sounds—to set the stage for a thematic message the advertisers wanted to convey to their target audience. From the ’50s thru the ’70s, TV commercials had original music, the track and sometimes vocal accompaniment, to provide that ambience.

Advertisers were well aware that the “jingles” written for these ads became a catchy way for the viewers to remember the ads. People would even hum or sing along with the ads, after a fashion, maybe making fun of the ads. But the advertisers didn’t care one way or another, as long as people remembered their ads.

And the jingle writers were happy to crank out the tunes. Many of the composers of these tunes were songwriters looking for a way to make extra cash between writing more lengthy songs for recording artists. But it was an arm of the entertainment business—part of the way things were done.

Then something changed around the late ’80s. The jingles started disappearing. Maybe the advertising agencies felt that viewers were becoming more sophisticated, but what actually happened, certainly by the late ’90s, was that writers at those agencies saw they had at their disposal a lot of music already available to them. They could use old rock ’n’ roll tunes.

It was part of a wave of using retro imagery and sounds from days past. Baby boomers had become of age, and taking the reins at ad agencies, wanted to express those images they had grown up with as art. You might say it was an extension of Andy Warhol’s version of “pop” art. Packaging began using old off-register print images. And old rock ’n’ roll music, either instrumental versions or snippets of the original vocals, were beginning to be heard in the background of TV ads.

At first, vocalists were hired to redo the songs, even update the sound. But then the originals were starting to be heard. Even today, you can hear ZZ Top’s “La Grange” on a Geico motorcycle insurance ad.

I was watching TV a few weeks ago and heard a tune I hadn’t heard in over 40 years. It wasn’t a rock tune or even a pop song, per se. It was a simple tune called “Mah Nà Mah Nà”, which had been a minor radio hit back in 1968 for a short while and later picked up as a tune used on Sesame Street. Originally used in a Italian film, it was written by Piero Umiliani, a name long forgotten by now. The tune has no words, just nonsensical syllables uttered by a vocalist.

And here it was used on a Ford Explorer commercial where we find a father and daughter making a wood craft in their garage. So here was an instance where the advertiser decided on using a tune heard in his/her youth, recalling a happy time with Dad.

And maybe that’s why we hear these tunes that recall those happy times. The 45-to-60-year-old demographic can surely identify with that mindset. A radio station in Chicago—playing songs from the ’60s and ’70s—has a byline: the Soundtrack of Our Lives.

But then I recently heard a homogenized Steely Dan tune in an elevator.

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What’s With the “Look”?

Engaging the viewer is of course a staple in making television commercials. After all, the last thing an advertiser wants to do is alienate possible buyers of his/her product or service. But lately I wonder about that.

Back in the day (I actually hate saying that), commercials had spokespersons. And those announcers had great voices previously groomed from radio experience. And for TV, they were dressed up in suits/dresses just for hawking the product or service directly to your living room.

We don’t have that kind of announcer anymore, although I did see a recent Geico ad where a white-haired spokesperson was closing out the ad, a sort of spoof of the old-fashioned stuff from the ’50s and ’60s.

The reason we no longer have that kind of presentation is because America grew up and became more sophisticated. Instead of those didactic presentations, we have voiceovers explaining what you and I cannot live without. But at least the advertising community now lets us feel like we have authority over our own destiny—to a degree.

Most contemporary shopping is done over the Internet anyway. And the retailers are feeling that deficit. In most areas, anyway. But there are some places in the product/service realm where TV advertising is still viable, and in other areas is even expanding.

Which brings me to the spate of long commercials you now see—those 60- and 90-second spots that border on becoming infomercials: the pharmaceutical ads and the ones for exercise machines, the latter running mostly in the evening hours while you’re practicing your couch potato skills.

Of course, the pharma ads, whose companies have deep pockets for TV air time, really cut into your viewing enjoyment of Law and Order reruns. The first third and last sixth of the run time of these ads tell you how wonderful the drug is, while in between we learn the giant list of all the side effects.

All of the pharma ads have visuals of people going through their daily lives and interacting with friends and family, but a lot of the ads have the actors actually looking directly into the camera. At you.

The above two photos are prime examples here. The left photo is from a Humira ad, promoting their plaque psoriasis medication. The right photo is from a Peloton ad, promoting their exercise machine.

This is the newest version of engaging the viewer: you, too, can do this. You, too, can be one of us (regardless, in the case of the Humira ad, of getting your doctor’s prescription first). Is this inviting, meaning you may need to do this, or is it shaming, meaning you really should do this?

I’ll call this the “look”. And it’s more prevalent in the last year or so. It’s become a psychological tool to make you question your laziness in any given part of your life, be it attending to your retirement savings to your medical or life insurance situation or to your lack of fitness.

The “look” on the actor’s face in the Peloton commercial is practically intimidating.

 

 

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Blatant Plagiarism

Competition in the marketplace is always there, in every area you look. Retail (as in clothing lines), industrial design (as in home appliances), automotive design (as in car features), and consumer services (as in home security)—the list is endless.

Thing is, is it all original? Of course not. Competing advertisers compare their products and/or services in subtle and not-so-subtle ways through images and/or verbiage. Advertisers feel they need to stay current and are not above copying ideas. Sometimes the presentation of an idea can become blurred in the minds of the viewers as to which advertiser did it first.

And the competition doesn’t have to be in the same category. It can be competition just for your attention, regardless of the message. If it worked for them, it can work for us—can be the attitude.

We pick up on similarities among TV ads because the ads themselves are not only in-your-face, but also because they repeat so often that you get second and third impressions, seeing things you might’ve missed the first time around.

For me, I enjoy the entire medium. Sure, some commercials are grating in their delivery—especially local ads. But every now and then you see a gem, or maybe a series of them that catch your eye.

Back in April of this year, ads for Spectrum started showing up with a cast of classic “monsters” appearing in everyday situations among the normal citizenry. Spectrum, as you may know, is now the umbrella cable company under which are such entities as Time-Warner, Charter Communications, and Bright House Networks. The first in the series (top left visual) has four deadly characters riding a subway car: a mad scientist, a mummy, a werewolf, and the Grim Reaper.

They way the ad runs, nobody pays any attention to the characters. They’d already been integrated into society.

What makes the ad (and the rest in the series) work so well is that the characters gripe about issues that aggravate all the rest of us, including problems with TV reception: Spectrum, being a cable company, is taking a swipe at satellite providers. And here, the Grim Reaper has received a text message on his cell phone from his kids that the satellite dish has corrupted the signal at home. If you haven’t seen how the commercial ends, I won’t ruin it for you.

The ads were conceived by an independent, little-known ad agency named Something Different, located in Brooklyn. And kudos to that bunch because the ads are by far the most refreshing departure I’ve seen in years. Apart from the aforementioned characters, the cast includes the werewolf’s wife, a demon and a vampire couple.

Another in the series has some of the characters playing charades (bottom left visual), while in yet another the werewolf parents are meeting with their son’s teacher.

One of the ads that ran this past summer has the demon and the werewolf under a child’s bed (top right visual). To be honest, this particular ad doesn’t quite fit the mold of the others in the series. Here, the monsters portend horror, but the child is just irritated.

So, anyway, last week a commercial for Progressive Insurance showed up with the same format (bottom right visual), with a demon under a child’s bed. The reference is so blatantly obvious, the context and timing so close, that Progressive had to have copied Spectrum’s ad.

I suppose imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but plagiarism is the surest way of getting sued.

 

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