April 13, 2010

Are You Trying to Make Me Laugh?


By Spyro Kourtis, President of Hacker Group

For an industry that works so hard at being "original," trends in advertising sure are easy to spot.

Right now, the trend is 10-year-old boy humor, a la Comedy Central. Think Justin Timberlake getting hit in the crotch for Pepsi during the Super Bowl. (I just looked at this again -- because I wanted to be sure it was a Pepsi commercial. If you remember the beginning of the commercial, they did confess to being "childish and immature.") I call it the Jackass Trend.

At least Travelocity only tortures a garden gnome.


In the '90s, the point was to see how shocking you could be. Abercrombie & Fitch titillated with nearly naked teens. Benetton's look-at-how-out-there-we-are United Colors campaign made jaws drop over and over again. We're all so jaded now, none of the near-nudity and nuns-kissing-priests makes that big an impact anymore.

David Ogilvy said, "When I want a high recall score, all I have to do is show a gorilla in a jockstrap." Now there's a memorable visual!

In the '80s, everyone wanted their commercials to be Oscar-winners, so film directors were hired to make clients drop more coin. Ridley Scott directed Apple's iconic 1984 commercial not that long after Blade Runner was released and, while he may not have been the first, he really solidified this as a trend. And in some quarters the trend is still going. The New York Times reported on it again just last October.


But, for the most part, it seems like every other spot on TV makes anyone over age 23 cringe. A lot of people in advertising seem to have very little respect for their target market. They show us a lot of footage that would get rejected by America's Funniest Home Videos. Everyone is trying to outdo the last guy in grossness or humor. But it's not funny anymore.

Personally, I prefer the creative-director-as-auteur trend. At least you'll get something visually compelling and -- probably -- with an interesting story.
I'm not against humor in advertising. Really, I'm not. But to work, it can't be like everyone else's humor. Throwing a cell phone at someone may be funny, but which cell phone was it -- and why would that make me buy it? Seeing someone spit a beer into someone else's face may get a gasp and an embarrassed laugh, but which beer was it and do I really need it?


Then there's the entertainment-for-entertainment's-sake trend. This one is always popular. Have you seen the Phil Collins/gorilla video? It's not much of a commercial, but it's an entertaining idea. Eighty-eight seconds of watching a gorilla listen -- and then drum -- to "In the Air Tonight," and two seconds of Cadbury Dairy Milk on the screen. The ad community drooled all over itself when they caught it on YouTube. Sure, it's cute, but it doesn't make anyone think about chocolate.

An example of a (mildly) funny ad that caught my attention was an outdoor board I saw on the way home from work. It was for McDonald's coffee and all it said was, "Large is the new grande." It was especially smart for it to appear here in Seattle, home of Starbucks. Taking a shot at the world of trendy, expensive coffee snobbery is a great counterpunch. And they didn't need to go over the top to make an impact.


Truly smart ads don't have to be smart-ass.

One that struck me recently is a commercial for Fidelity Investments. I don't know how old it is, but it's running now. Two guys are at lunch and they're talking to the camera. One says that the other guy has been his broker for a long while and has always been after him to save more, but now he's saying "spend." How does that work? The broker explains that the investor has been doing such a great job of saving that now he has enough to spend, as long as he's smart about it. The investor says, "Okay. You buy lunch." The Fidelity guy says, "I always buy lunch!"

It's not a big laugh. It's a nice chuckle. It comes across as real. You understand what they're selling immediately. And, probably because they're talking to the camera, it's different enough to be memorable. Or maybe it works because I'm the target market.

Nobody needs to be slapped in the face to give you their attention. And not everyone will respond to a Comedy Central type of approach.

It's not possible to be completely original about everything. There is nothing new under the sun. So if a trend resonates with your target audience, by all means use it. But if it only resonates with the 25-year-olds in your creative department, don't approve it just because it's the new thing.


em>Spyro Kourtis, president of Hacker Group, oversees his agency's strategic planning and relationships with a number of Fortune 500 clients including AAA, Expedia, Hilton Hotels, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, MSN, Oracle, VISA, Washington Mutual, WebEx and World Vision. He is publisher of High Performance Direct. He can be reached at skourtis@hackergroup.com.

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