The best of the rest

Last week I promised you all a post examining some of the better commercials currently running on TV. I present three, although I'm going to cheat and only show you one that's actively airing on TV. I also present to you a commercial you may see only on the Internet or in an electronics store, and one you'll probably only ever see if you live in France.

1. Sending in the Clowns

This bit for Phillips is meant to be shown on their TVs in stores, not over the internet, so imagine for a second that you're reading this blog on a 52" plasma (and that the recession never happened, and that a giant TV isn't a totally ridiculous purchase). In that fantasy world you probably don't have many concerns. One thing you should always be concerned with ––no matter how wealthy you are–– is a gang of clowns invading a hospital, and trying to kill everyone in it. Think about it. That would suck. Well Phillips has translated this nightmare vision into a three-minute ballet of destruction and carnage. This spot shows you the very bleeding edge of digital animation. After seeing this spot you will not understand how a person could watch The Dark Knight on a 19' CRT and live with themselves. And that fantasy world I talked about earlier? It may just appear a little more reasonable.

2. Dow and the Earth

This actual TV spot for Dow is a pure concept piece. There's no product mentioned, just the company. Dow is an industrial giant that's often slammed for its environmental practices. This spot is designed to give you the warm fuzzies when you think about this multinational plastics behemoth. The fact that the spot actually manages to do that is pretty remarkable. The spot stays elegant and simple. It works the same angles that Disney's "Earth" does; reminding us we live on a big and beautiful planet. It sounds like a pretty simple idea, but whenever we are reminded of the width and breadth of the human experience on earth it stirs something inside of us. It's an instinctive human reaction, one that is perhaps too rarely tapped in advertising.

3. The Good Word

Scrabble has sold 100 million boxes in its 61 years on this earth, but recently the brand's image has become a little dusty. The game is come to be associated with nerdy academic types and strange old people who know too many words. In atempt to right this dangerous course, Hasbro has commisioned 3 animated spots from Wizz. They're beautiful. They're smart. They are exactly the kind of commercial that no one seems to think Americans are ready for (WHY!!!?). The ads only appear in France. Check out the other 2 spots Wizz produced.

La Crème de la Crap

I recently made mention of a commercial that, in the time since I wrote about it, has grown so aggressively annoying with its frequent appearances that I'm a little regretful I ever said anything nice about it. But what is said is said, and even when you've got administrative editing power you can't take back your words, or at least you shouldn't.

So, instead of exacting my revenge on a poor helpless sponge and his royal burger friend, I'll instead spend some time discussing two other TV ads that have caused me endless consternation every time they interrupt my favorite shows.

This first spot displays with comic awkwardness just what happens when a company gets so enraptured by self-image that it completely loses sight of its public persona. Watch what I mean:

I know Audi thinks that its "suburban commando SUV" is a whole 'nother animal from a Lexus "weekend warrior SUV." But as far as I can tell from this commercial, the only difference is the paint job. In an cultural atmosphere growing more concerned with the environment and more disdainful of needless consumption, this ad just feels grossly out of touch. Couple this with an awkward misuse of the term "identity theft" and the whole thing smacks of either poor translation or a completely wrongheaded advertising department.

The other ad I'm going to lambaste today is one that's been bugging me for months. This ad is actually the only thing I have been asked on multiple occasions to blog about. It's garnered that much disgust. It's from Heineken. Check it out:

The problem here is a simple one: it's just not funny. It's a joke that wasn't funny 30 years ago. It wouldn't have been funny on a vaudeville stage. It's like someone told the ad team "comparing men and women is funny" and that was the extent of advertising research. The concept was never developed beyond the bar-napkin stage. Seriously, Heineken, how do you go from commercials that specifically engender a notion of academic and social superiority to this brainless pap. This commercial appeals only to the lowest of the lowest common denominator. It's embarrassing.

One of the founding principles of this blog was to offer not just criticism but also solutions to legitimate problems. The Possible Disaster series is focused entirely on the solutions. I've thought all week about how these commercials could be improved and I've regretfully concluded that the only possible solution is to scrap them whole cloth and start over. These are the unsalvageable failures, the unforgivable transgressions. These are the worst that today's television advertising has to offer. Bravo.

Tune in next week for the exact opposite--the very best TV ads going right now--and why they work so well. For now, I need a shower for my eyes.

Personal Advertising: A Dilemma in 3.5 x 2 Inches

Business cards--like sitcoms, vehicle upholstery, and fireworks displays--are a medium that is only noteworthy when a superlative example is offered. Under all other circumstances the great banal mediocrity of the form is not worthy of even as inauspicious a gesture as an under-viewed blog article.

While I’m almost never one to argue the case for phoning in your design to a print company, the humble business card is one of those rare cases where it’s totally appropriate. To wit: far greater damage will be done by folks trying to “get creative” with their business cards than by printers following simple templates.

The function of the business card is that of a thing left behind. It is the interface that a new acquaintance uses to contact you after a personal meeting. This may seem obvious, but it’s worth saying. People often lose sight of those facts and get bogged down trying to “make an impression” with their card.

Watch the business card scene from American Psycho and consider why it’s funny. Certainly any send up of Wall Street decadence is good fun (especially these days), but the real punchline comes from how stunningly similar all the cards on the table are. Really, if you're going to nitpick the difference between "bone" and "pale nimbus" and you aren't a creative professional (or even if you are), you've probably gone too far and need to scale back your design process.

Here's what you should put on your business card:
• Your name.
• A description of what you do so the people you give your card to know why they have it. This is often served by your job title, but it doesn't have to be.
• Your phone number. Just one if you can, two at most (a mobile and an office line). More numbers than that and people won't know which one to call.
• Your email address. Unless you are John McCain.
• If you have a website you want people to visit, go ahead and include the URL. But keep it brief, Spanky, and don't even think about landing a second address on there.

Hmm... what else? We don't need your postal address. Ditto any other "alternate" info; give us one path to you, not more. No one needs to know your fax number on a business card. If someone needs to send you a fax you've moved beyond the "referencing business cards" phase of the relationship. Go ahead, spring for color, but remember: less is more. Keep the logo small, unobtrusive, and –unless you are Apple Computer in the 80's– one color.

One more thing you really ought to avoid is any effect or gimmick that makes your card a nonstandard shape or texture. Lots of things are made to hold business cards. You may think that by making your card doubly long or half as wide you're bucking the norm and making a standout presentation, but in all honesty you're making your info harder to access, and a lot easier to throw out. You know those guys on street corners who hand out postcards for upcoming club shows? You ever notice that there's always a lot of postcards littered on the street around them? There's a good reason for that.

Really the best advice I can give you regarding business cards is to do the opposite of whatever Joel Bauer tells you.*

*Joel Bauer claims that the over the top personality he displays in this video is "acting," but i don't buy it. Anyone who is SELLING you self-improvement and business advice doesn't have your best interest at heart. Take a look at his website. Is that the kind of image you want to convey?

A question of audience, or "How children end up with Mr. Crabs... down there"

If you have been to a karaoke bar in the past 10 years you will understand that Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back" is one of the most important cultural anthems of our day. The message is clear (he don't want none unless you got buns, hon.) The argument is well made and honest (after all, he CANNOT LIE.) The song's adult themes and booty-shaking video sent a generation all atwitter with its never-subtle innuendos. Through careful licensing and media placement the song has stayed a perennial favorite.

The most recent adaptation of the song is for Burger King:

Do I need to even mention that parents’ groups are unhappy about this ad? Obviously anytime you use a combination of raunchy sexism and beloved children's cartoons you are going to put bees in someone's bonnet.

But the real thing I want to talk about here is the question of audience. I'm all for Commercial-Free Childhood. They do fine work. But they've missed the point on this one.

This commercial wasn't ever meant for kids. Yes, it's ultimately advertising a Spongebob Squarepants kids’ meal. Yes, it features clips from the Spongebob show. And yes, the commercial was co-produced by Nickelodeon. BUT—and this is most assuredly a big but(t)—this commercial is entirely directed at late 20- and early 30-somethings who have kids.

The punch line comes from an awareness of the source material, not the song itself. The new version of the song is self-referential mockery, going so far as to state unequivocally "Spongebob, I wanna get with ya/ 'Cause you make me richer." It's not about laughing at what’s being sung, it's about laughing at why it's being sung that way. The immature mature allusion of the modern comedy landscape has come to the burger kingdom: serfs and fry cooks beware!

The commercial is in high rotation during late night comedy shows like Letterman, The Daily Show, South Park, and Adult Swim, the kind of TV places where children fear to tread (or at least are dissuaded from watching, assuming their parents are well reasoned adults with a modicum of good judgment.)

And let us not let Spongebob himself off the hook. That little guy is almost as big a stoner hero as Jeff Spicoli. His appeal to the 18-35 male demographic is strong. The landscape of Bikini Bottom is just the kind of mellow psychedelia that doesn't harsh on anyone but reminds you there's fun to be had. The show is essentially a grand advertisement for hanging around with your dumb friends and eating burgers. Spongebob Squarepants is at its worst a weird greasy kid show, and at its best the Sistine Chapel of good times.

After a thoroughly unscientific experiment, wherein I spent the morning/early afternoon hours watching 5 children's cable networks, I get I didn't see the ad once. I did sit through way more "Yo, Gabba Gabba" than is probably safe for an adult of my age.

Sure. This commercial is puerile and, perhaps even a little lewd, but it isn’t trying to corrupt the younglings. Burger King has produced an ad spot that is perfectly in tune with the modern standards of comedy entertainment. Good comedy is always going to push someone's buttons. While I'm not going to hold up this commercial with the likes of Carlin or Hicks or Bruce (it's not even cut from the same cloth), this commercial exists only because of the groundwork those luminaries paved. Comedy is rough sometimes, and that's often what makes it funny. If you’re all that concerned, wear a helmet while you eat your kids’ meal.

Riding the rails of verisimilitude

The NBC show Kings doesn't have a hope in the world. Poor ratings and a difficult concept have pretty much written the show's fate in stone. It will likely be stored in the annals of great but canceled television shows next to the likes of My So Called Life, Gun, and Firefly.

One of the things that makes the show really come alive is a very strong and unified visual identity. There simply isn't another show on television that looks quite like Kings. Part of this "brand unity" comes from the strong national identity of the show's fictional monarchy, the kingdom of Gilboa. I won't take your time explaining the symbolic or heraldic significance (it's interesting, watch the pilot episode to find out) of the nation's flag –instead I'll simply present it below.

Pretty, simple, boldy iconic. Additionally it bears a striking resemblance to the recent flight of Amtrack Acela train flash banner ads:

Making things that make sense

I’m not going to get into the habit of using this blog as a simple link exchange, but tonight I read something particularly fascinating, prescient, and well conceived.

This NYTimes article from Allison Arieff about the roll of designers in the current economic climate is well worth the short time it will take to read.

The debate over “designer responsibility” is one that has existed since we left the caves. The ability to make objects that do not simply serve a function but also exist for aesthetic purposes (or perhaps exist only for aesthetic purposes) is one of humanity's defining features. Arguing about the necessity to do so is pretty much the root of every art discussion ever.

Is there reason to design a $73,000 cell phone? Certainly arguments could be made to it’s worth as a design object, but at some point the phone is being embelished for the sake of creating an intrinsically expensive article. Given these lean times there will likely (hopefully) be a reversal of this effect.

In the coming months I believe we’re going to see a number of healthy forward-thinking start-ups with low priced, cleverly designed products that are meant to ACTUALLY BE USED BY REAL HUMAN CONSUMERS. I’m not going to be so bold as to predict a new renaissance of affordable usability but a vague showing to that end doesn’t feel that unrealistic.

The G20 have logo cancer

President Obama remains in europe after last week's tranquil G20 conference. He's even missing throwing out the first pitch of the baseball season because he's so committed to prevention of oversight, better business practice, and global harmony.

If anyone in the G20's design department had turned this philosophy on their own logo treatment the world would be just that much better a place. Take a gander at how horsey this thing is:

Who let that through quality control? Seriously. Aside from looking more like a phone carrier than anything else* the logo is so bloated with elements that it could easily be two or three logos. In fact...

Here’s a fun game you can play at home:
Step 1 - remove any two elements from the existing G20 logo. Go ahead, just cover them up with your finger or a piece of paper or something.
Setp 2 - That's it. Your done. You've now got a better logo for the G20. This probably shouldn't count as an actual step.

It’s a great game because you can’t lose. Unless you're the G20 –then you're stuck with a Wendy's loaded baked potato for a logo. Sorry, better luck next time.

* There's a reason this thing reminds you of cellular telephony. In fact, there's a lot of reasons. For starters the four red squares in the G20 logo are the pretty much the same size and space ratio as the four grey squares in the T-Mobile logo. Secondly that little globe at the top? If you weren't thinking AT&T, well, you are now (I know, it's supposed to look like the UN but the UN also looks a lot like AT&T). Lastly putting "G" next to some numbers reminds us of 3G and 4G technology, the networks that power our iphones and oh yeah, most of Europe. It's like a perfect storm of visual reference.

Kodak's inkslinging campaign -or- When I think back to all that crap I learned at Stanford

In 1999 there was an interesting report out of Stanford U about the potential effects of negative political advertising on commercial advertising media. The paper theorized that the lack of controls in political advertising could eventually bleed over into the commercial form, leading to more “comparative” ads and generally mean-spirited ad spots.

The paper also conjectures that this will inevitably be BAD for commercial advertising, that those styles of political ads turn off consumers and lead them to dislike and distrust the product shown. In fact the presence of negative political ads contributes to the efficacy of standard commercial ads by providing a harsh contrasting example. By witnessing how foul a poltical attack ad can be we’re more accepting of a spot for a car or a new TV show or whatever else they want to sell us.

It would appear that Kodak never read the report:

Kodak has long enjoyed excellent PR. One of the big pop hits of the 80’s was essentially an ad for kodachrome film. For years the company could afford to keep the Cos’ on its side. Hell, the very word “Kodak” was invented to stick in peoples minds. But these days the photographic film industry isn’t looking quite so glossy. Companies are seeking new strategies and products. Apparently aggressively attacking your competition with all the production values of a late night infomercial counts for strategy in these lean times.

While Kodak is not exactly a newcomer to the printer market its wolfish attack ads certainly are. Printer ads are usually pretty basic, forgetable affairs but they can occasionally wander into the world of elegance. The kodak ad however, takes a running leap in the wrong direction.

Even the website the commercial directs you to is infuriating, demanding you turn traitor on your own printer by offering up it’s brand and model number before accessing ANY information about the Kodak ESP printers (the product you are supposed to be interested in).

I’m sure the folks over at Kodak think they’ve got our best interests at heart. I’m sure they think those monsters working for other printing companies are just about as bad as lord satan himself. Well, I think it’s time they got off their high horse, abandoned this asinine marketing strategy and try to get back in our good graces. My thoughts on the best way to do that: Bring back Dr. Huxtable