Thursday, October 20, 2011

Steve's Ball and Chain

Yesterday I posted the 2011 winner of Consumerist's Worst Ad in America, the odious Luv's diaper ad with its celebration of infant excrement. Another ad under consideration was this 30-second spot for AT&T, which mires the viewer so deeply in marital strife it's easy to forget the offer and find yourself worrying about poor "Steve's" domestic woes.

I suppose the wife's assumption -- while she angrily spritzes the plants in her little greenhouse -- that the family plan Steve committed them to will add to their financial burden, is meant to underscore the point that the plan is actually free. But her quickness to jump on the poor guy ("Where's that money coming from, Steve??!!") for his fiscal incompetence gives you a glimpse into an unenviable marriage to a bitter harridan. If only she had married John Clark.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Worst Ad in America

When the Consumerist website asked readers to choose the worst television ad in America, there was no shortage of contenders. I was pretty certain the Summer's Eve campaign would be the winner, since its spots featured talking vaginas speaking in the stereotypical accents of black, Asian, and Hispanic women. Kudos, in other words, for being both vulgar and racist.

The winner, though, is equally revolting: a Luv's disposable diaper ad in which babies compete in a sort of Olympic shitfest for the fullest diaper.

I've known enough new parents to understand that they tend to cope with the exhausting prospect of childcare by finding some humor in the constant stream of baby poop, spit-up, and urine. But the commercial actually shows the babies inflating their diapers with feces and speaks to the specter of diaper "blowout." Call me old-fashioned but there's nothing cute or amusing about explosive elimination.  

There was a time when brand spokesmen like Charmin's Mr. Whipple and commercials for women's sanitary products needed only to allude to the uses of their offerings. That allowed them to focus on other issues, like convenience and comfort and cost in the context of an ongoing concept, without veering into the scatological. Now that ads revel in feminine napkins displaying red dots of menstrual blood, while bears crapping in the woods are concerned about toilet paper shreds adhering to their fur, the mystery and magic of advertising are in the toilet, too.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Not a People Person

A high-concept television spot is a tough sell. The idea has to be so bullet-proof that the viewer gets the point immediately, but even if it is, the client needs to be convinced its customers don't need to be pandered to. So in the case of this "People Person" commercial for Prius, Toyota must have simply put its faith in Saatchi & Saatchi's reputation for brand leadership. Blindly, it would seem.

It's a strange approach to a very significant announcement: that Prius now offers four slightly different models -- one for each type of person. The spots start off with a "human" comprised of a dozen or so contortionists clinging together to form a grossly suggested humanoid face and its body parts. Despite the upbeat jingle ("Got To Be Free" by the Kinks), the effect is so monstrous that small children all over America must be cowering in corners whenever the spot runs -- and I'm not saying that just because of my irrational fear of monkeys dressed in clothes. I'd be offput if I saw this trick performed at the Cirque du Soleil, but in the context of a car ad you might encounter ten times a night it's eerily frightening.

Then, once the interlocked gymnasts uncouple and are revealed to be different types of consumers, the idea that there's a car model for each of their needs comes through. But why were they all jumbled together as one "person" in the first place? It's the line of cars that are a family, not the people.

I suspect that this was a case where a creative director wanted to utilize what he thought was a cool effect, and shoehorned it into a marketing message. It doesn't work, it's inordinately creepy, and if I'd been planning to buy a Prius, I'm certainly not going to now.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Petty Bureaucrats

In one episode of the animated Comedy Central series South Park, Eric Cartman's delusions of grandeur morph into the misconception that he's a highway patrol officer. As he peddles his Big Wheel down the Colorado highway in mirrored sunglasses, he demands that everyone he encounters "Respect Mah Authori-tah!"

The idea of how easily a tiny bit of power snowballs into petty authority run amok was driven home to me recently during a Saturday hike with my friend Carol. It was a beautiful Indian Summer afternoon, and we had arranged to do a seven-mile loop on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. As the trail we were on led higher up the mountain, we crossed into land owned or managed by the Water District Authority, one of those shadowy agencies that governs -- what ...forests? Alpine lakes? I'm really not sure. But as we walked along a fire road with spectacular views of Richardson Bay and the towers of San Francisco in the distance, Carol suddenly realized that she had left the dog's leash in the car -- and dogs are required to be on leashes on all Water District fire roads.

"That's alright," I reassured her, "we're not likely to run into any rangers up here."

Which meant that immediately a large white truck containing two Water District "rangers" came around the bend and stopped where we stood. A fat man with white hair and a brown uniform of some kind got out and immediately asked Carol for her information. Inexplicably, she gave her real address but not her correct last name or date of birth (I later told her that if you're going to lie about your birthdate, use it as an opportunity to shave a few years off your age, not add them).

The ranger said he'd check her name against a list, and if she'd been warned before, she'd receive a $200 fine. He also told us that we needed to return the way we'd come, but since we'd still be walking on the fire road for a distance he would give us a rope to use for the dog.

"Well, since I'll have a leash, can't we just keep going in this direction until we connect with the trail?" Carol asked, quite reasonably.

The man shook his head. "Oh no. Because then there would be no consequences for your actions," he said solemnly.

"So this is a morality lesson, then," I said, amazed that an elderly man in a cheap brown uniform in the middle of a forest had taken it upon himself to issue a life lesson to two middle-aged adults. He looked at us like he was considering some additional punishment but got back in his truck with his fellow "ranger" and drove off the way we'd come.

That's when it struck me that we didn't have to obey him, and could continue the loop we'd planned. Pulling the dog along by the makeshift leash, we scurried up the road until we got to our trail and made our way down the mountain.