Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Ad Roundup

When crafting an advertising message, there are three things you can do (entertain, inform, and amuse) but one thing you must never do (distract). That's why the current 30-second spots for Panda Express really bother me. They're entirely dependent on the assumption that we the viewers are unanimously agreed that pandas are cute under any circumstances. Personally I don't see it, but maybe I'm too fully aware of the fact that they're actually vicious little bears that will tear you apart. Give me a koala bear any day, and has anyone ever noticed how much those look like the late San Francisco columnist Herb Caen?

Anyway, the commercial starts with two pandas sitting together on the ocean floor. One is wearing one of those diving bell-type suits with a metal helmet -- no air hose in evidence, by the way -- and the other has a mask and snorkel. Yes, they're talking pandas, but that's not what rubs me the wrong way. You simply can't breathe if the top of the snorkle is below the surface of the water. How hard would it have been to put him in a scuba outfit? 

Okay, so as a viewer I've been asked to suspend my disbelief right from the get-go. Then we find out that the pandas are in the ocean to catch shrimp. I sometimes feel like a compendium of loose bits of useless data, but I was pretty sure that, like my friend the koala bear, pandas subsist mainly on eucalyptus leaves. So I looked it up, and yes, literally 99% of their diet is nothing more than those leaves. The rest -- 1 %, mind you -- is comprised of eggs, honey, insects and fish. So while it may be plausible that pandas would endanger themselves in the pursuit of shrimp, it's pretty unlikely, even in the fluid universe of television advertising. So I've been asked to suspend my disbelief a second time. You've lost me, Panda Express. Although to be honest I've never been in one of your restaurants.

Panda Express aside, fast food commercials can be very entertaining, even if, like me, you almost never venture into a McDonald's, Taco Bell, or KFC. But getting the viewer's attention is what it's all about, and I have to give Jack in the Box credit for not being afraid of taking a little bit of a risk, even if it serves to perpetuate the myth that heterosexual males are aroused by lesbian activity. Two of Jack's employees are describing their favorite sandwich, and he breaks the fourth wall and turns to the viewer to remark that this is the worst commercial he's ever been in. "Well," one of the women says, glancing at her coworker, "we could kiss." Good job, Jack in the Box. 

Then we come to the current spate of Volkswagen commercials, which are more than just annoying; I fear they'll actually ignite suburban violence. The idea is based on the childhood game of punching the person next to you every time you spot a particular object. In my long ago youth we played a game called "cemetery," which meant someone would get hammered for as long as your dad's car passed a graveyard. In New England, where monuments to death festoon every corner, that could be several minutes. But the sound effects of the blows being delivered as various people spot different colored VWs sound like the sickening, penetrating thuds of Jake LaMotta being pummeled in Raging Bull, or the scene in Cabaret when Michael York is nearly beaten to death by a gang of Nazis. It's just not funny, and there's already quite enough violence in the world for my taste. They even managed to drag Stevie Wonder into this mess to make blind jokes at his expense. I might have looked at Volkswagens the next time I was shopping for cars but now I'm not going to. So there.

Finally, here's a really bad concept from a bank, usually one of the most cautious of advertisers (I can't tell you how many hours I've spent in my career arguing that Christmas trees that appear in Bank of America and Wells Fargo ads -- at Christmas -- weren't likely to offend Jewish customers, or skewing billboard images so that the models weren't too lily white, too Hispanic, or too black. I even had a client complain that the dad playing with his kids in a swimming pool, part of a home equity loan campaign, was "too hairy.") Chase is currently running radio spots that feature a Rod Serling sound-alike voice over, welcoming potential business banking customers to something called "The Chase Zone." I get that they're trying to say Chase's point of differentiation is to offer customers services other banks can't or don't. It's just that it's incredibly ill-conceived to portray their banking offerings as a weird, alternative universe where reality is suspended and anything can happen. I already get that type of service from Comcast, thanks. It sounds like my savings balance will suddenly disappear or turn into drachmas, or I'll open my checkbook and discover that the tree frogs printed on my checks have become murderous clowns. Fire your agency, Chase.

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