Showing posts with label advertising. Show all posts
Showing posts with label advertising. Show all posts

Monday, October 19, 2015

A people’s history of 88 Advertising (a.k.a. the true origin of the legendary Doc Marsh)

This is Doc Marsh.


He’s a sandhill crane that somehow graduated from medical school (I know, makes me wonder what I’m doing with my life, too) and is now a physician at Marshfield Clinic, a network of hospitals and clinics in Wisconsin.

Doc Marsh is too modest to say so himself, but he’s a pretty big deal. I don’t mean to drop any names, but check out the good doctor hanging out with none other than rock star Eau Claire School Board At-Large—and in Charge—Commissioner Joe Luginbill, a.k.a. the bad boy of the City of Eau Claire Utility Appeals Board.



Yeah, the Joe Luginbill. That ain’t no Photoshop, yo.

The reason I know that Doc Marsh wouldn’t be a shameless namedropper is because, contrary to his origin story on the Marshfield Clinic website, Doc Marsh wasn’t created by Marshfield Clinic. Rather, this alumnus of the Avian School of Medicine was the product of the finest ragtag group of advertising professionals with whom I’ve had the privilege to work: 88 Advertising.

Truth be told, I hadn’t thought about Doc Marsh or 88 Advertising in years. But back to school week—with all these commercials for school supplies and dorm gear1—coupled with an unsolicited reminder from Facebook that I’m still an admin for the Doc Marsh fan page we set up has made me nostalgic for the halcyon days of senior spring semester. This nostalgia has, in turn, provided a stark reminder of my rapidly evaporating youth, the fading sense of limitless possibility, and the ephemerality of all things.

So join me as I work through this via the most effective of quarter-life crisis remedies: a needlessly exhaustive history on a topic with limited, if any, general appeal.

* * *

ADV4800, better known as Advertising Campaigns, is the capstone course in the advertising major at the University of Florida. The premise is simple: the class is divided into several teams (or “agencies”) of about eight students each, and each agency creates and pitches an advertising campaign for a real-life client with a real-life advertising challenge. The agency whose campaign most impresses the client wins.

It’s treated as Very Serious Business. Some advertising majors have described the class as basically having a full-time job; some plan their schedules so that ADV4800 is their only class during their final semester, while others supposedly quit their actual jobs in preparation for the Campaigns workload.

While that may be a bit much, there’s good reason to take the class seriously. If rumors are to be believed, past clients gave the winning agency pretty great prizes: a travel agency purportedly gave free plane tickets to Europe to one winning team several years ago; a brewery gave its winning team a year’s supply of beer. It’s entirely possible that these are apocryphal Campaigns urban legends, but even without fabulous prizes, you get a chance to impress a client and their ad agency, and maybe you can parlay that into an entry-level position fetching crullers and advancing Keynote slides after graduation—which is the greatest prize of all, right?

And make no mistake; the course is structured to be treated as Very Serious Business. To ensure everybody treats the project seriously, agencies have the ability to “fire” underperforming or unpleasant team members via unanimous vote. A fired employee would either have to complete the project from scratch by themselves (close to impossible, and almost certainly an F), find another agency to “hire” them (pretty difficult as well—who would want to risk taking on another team’s rejected riff-raff?), or drop the course and try again next semester (which means delaying graduation).2


* * *

88 Advertising was formed entirely by chance. In this case, “chance” is slang for “Sprint’s spectacularly bad coverage in Gainesville.”

When I was at UF, there were two professors you wanted for Campaigns. Both had well-deserved reputations for being smart, insightful, encouraging, and all-around amazing people. (Basically, they were the Joe Luginbills of advertising professors.) One of them—the professor in my first real advertising class and one of my favorite instructors ever—left UF. It was genuinely upsetting (seriously, he was amazing), but we understood; I suppose there are only so many jorts and flip-flops you can take before wanting a change of scenery.

Luckily, the other professor stuck around, and I snagged the last seat in his class. This would leave me all alone in Campaigns without my three friends from previous group projects, so I repeatedly refreshed the Drop/Add page on my laptop to check if more seats were available for them to join me. It seems thoughtful, until you realize I was asking three other people to rearrange their entire schedule just so that I don’t have to be alone. (Was I a selfish dick in college? I didn’t think so at the time, but in retrospect: maybe?)

Finally, I caught lightning in a bottle: three seats opened up. I texted my three friends immediately (“QUICK 3 SEATS IN CAMPAIGNS RIGHT NOW”); two of them grab seats within minutes; one, I’d learn when it was too late, never got the text. He got stuck in the other Campaigns class, unfortunately.

If he had gotten the text, though, 88 Advertising wouldn’t have existed. Some acquaintances from our previous courses had a group of five and needed exactly three more people to complete their team, and our smaller group of three just happened to be sitting right next to them. Ours was the first team formed.

It’s not exactly clear why we picked “88 Advertising” for our name, but the explanation we settled on was that 88 miles per hour was the speed required for time travel in the Back to the Future films. We set up an official (and immediately-neglected) team Twitter account and 88advertising.com, a website that had our logo and a clip of Doc Brown saying, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” (Because we’re such innovative and creative thinkers that we don’t follow predefined paths! And, also, because when we brainstorm, we operate at 1.21 gigawatts! Thankfully, my agency didn’t make unforgivable dorkiness a fireable offense.)




We later found out that some neo-Nazis use the number 88 as a symbol; “H” is the eighth letter of the alphabet, so “88” is “HH,” or “Heil Hitler.” This was obviously distressing, and in our second team meeting, we discussed changing the name. The consensus: well, we’re definitely not neo-Nazis, but we did already buy the domain name, so… yeah.

Also, we arbitrarily decided to become arch-rivals with another agency that called themselves Checkm8te and had a chess motif on their identity materials. As far as I can tell, it was entirely one-sided (though one of our classmates told us on Pitch Day that “the biggest competition is between you guys and Checkm8te,” so maybe we eventually willed a rivalry into existence) and for the stupidest reason: we thought of the idea to have a numerical name first, damn it.



(And also, how are you supposed to pronounce that? If it’s supposed to be like “checkmate,” shouldn’t the name be “Checkm8”? You’d pronounce Checkm8te like “checkmatete.” But I digress.)

* * *

When we discovered that our client would be Marshfield Clinic, we were kind of bummed. No offense to Wisconsin’s finest health care provider or anything, but our dreams of free tickets to Europe or limitless booze evaporated, and in its place… a free checkup, perhaps? Or a coupon for 25 percent off a pap smear or something? Alas, there would be no additional prize for winning beyond the standard $100 bonus—a C-note that, it should be noted, would have to be split eight ways. So basically, $12.50 for each of us was on the line.

But it didn’t matter. Ours was a group of competitive people, and we all wanted to win, even if the prize would be barely enough to cover a meal at Chili’s, excluding tip. That’s not unusual; Campaigns was designed to bring out the fighting spirit in even the most indifferent student. What was unusual was that we somehow adopted a team policy that we were a team powered by love.

To wit, here was a set of informal team principles that we wrote, presumably instead of, y’know, actually working:



For the record, we never delivered a presentation drunk. And man, we didn’t like Checkm8te.

It gets even cutesier. This is an actual excerpt from a draft of our team philosophy:

88 Advertising is a group of eight advertising professionals who are smart, creative, dedicated, and driven. And we pretty much love each other, too.

Dorky? Kind of. Truthful? You bet.

It’s the special kind of love that comes with being around people whom you respect and admire. We all bring something to the table, and we bring out the best in each other. We’re here for each other, and we support each other—even if we’re cringing at each others’ bad jokes, or attempting and failing to give each other high-fives, or scamming free sandals from American Eagle campus reps.

We say, with varying levels of facetiousness, that we’re the most loving team ever. But that’s not just a reflection of our sentimentalism; it’s a reflection of the work we can produce. It’s true that our work is a product of our love, but just as true is that our love is a product of our work: the more we see what we’re capable of, the more we learn about each other’s abilities, and the more time we spend with each other both professionally and personally, the more our affection for each other is affirmed.

Yikes, right?

I remember I had a hand in writing that, and as tongue-in-cheek as that excerpt sounds—especially for us, people who weren’t just “smart, creative, dedicated, and driven” but also at times a bunch of jaded smartasses—I think I was being sincere when I wrote it. It’s not just that I really liked my teammates (that American Eagle aside isn’t a weird joke; we, as a team, scored free footwear from American Eagle by surreptitiously following the campus reps around the Reitz Union North Lawn and pretending to stumble upon the giveaway—seriously, these were my peeps); I wanted to have at least some evidence before graduation that, despite the advertising field’s reputation for being a cutthroat, hypercompetitive, dog-eat-dog field, you could do good work predicated on respect, admiration, and affection for your colleagues.

And we lived up to that: we did become fast friends with each other. We ate lunch and dinner and frozen yogurt together, at first as “on the clock” meetings, but then just because. We’d go out for drinks or sushi, then, because we were adorable, note the trips as “team-building exercises” on our required weekly Agency Activity Reports. (In retrospect, it must’ve looked suspicious to our professor that we had a team meeting… at a bar in midtown… that ended at 3 AM.) We gave each other personal3 and professional advice, talked about our dreams and fears for post-collegiate life, and cheered each other on whenever one of us scored and/or aced a job interview.




* * *

Somewhere along the line, we decided we needed a Marshfield Clinic mascot. We had two criteria for deciding what animal we’d use:

  1. Is the animal native to Wisconsin?
  2. Is it easy to draw the animal wearing a lab coat?

Some furious Wikipediaing later, we decided on the sandhill crane. There was some concern over whether the sandhill crane is unique enough to Wisconsin—they’re all over the country, so these birds are native to Wisconsin in the same way a housecat is native to Florida—but then we saw how easy it was to draw a crane in a lab coat, so that pretty much sealed the deal. As a placeholder, we called our creation “Doctor Marshie” and made mental notes to come up with a better name ASAP. I assume at some point we were all just, eh, whatever, let’s just chop off two syllables and call it done.

We did some rough concept art, but then hired one of our roommates to clean up our sketches. (88 Advertising’s accounts payable records show that payment was rendered in full in the form of Pabst Blue Ribbon.) This was the first official graven image of Doc Marsh:



There exists an image of a maniacal, knife-wielding Doc Marsh that was included in the art we received. We declined to use it.

My proudest contribution was some truly heinous Doc Marsh puns on the Doc Marsh Facebook page:




Also of note: we ordered a sandhill crane stuffed animal to be a sort of Doc Marsh avatar that ultimately served no real purpose in our presentation besides lookin’ cute (which I thought was supposed to be my job, amirite ladies?) and was really more expensive than it should’ve been. And we temporarily “adopted” a sandhill crane named Chevor at the Wildwood Zoo in Marshfield, Wisconsin. We got a bio sheet and photo and everything!



I put “adopted” in scare quotes because none of us remember actually sending the zoo a check; we remember contacting them for more information, and then the adoption certificate arrived. So there’s a chance we screwed the Wildwood Zoo out of $35, which, if so: we apologize. But if it’s any consolation, we probably used the $35 for team-building exercises.

* * *



This story ends the way you think it does. 88 Advertising’s pitch was selected by Marshfield Clinic as the best creative pitch (two other agencies, which our old Twitter account tells me were called +Moxie and Lighthouse, shared the prize for best strategic pitch), and we each collected a sweet $12.50, which was indeed enough to cover a dinner at Chili’s.



That receipt was real, by the way, and happened entirely by chance.

At graduation, we all sat together, and each of us put an 88 Advertising logo on our caps. It sounds impossibly lame when I say it, but it’s true and I’m going to say it anyway: we spent our final moments as undergrads together. And we spent them chanting “88,” probably to the eyerolls of anybody within earshot who knew who we were.

Sometime between then and now, Marshfield Clinic actually made Doc Marsh a real thing—although they made him look younger and less fat, which, ugh, typical youth-obsessed, body-shaming advertising. Make no mistake; our industry is evil, and not even highly-educated, fictitious birds are safe.



Also, can we all get free Doc Marsh plushies or something? Because suddenly our $12.50 seems somehow inadequate.

* * *

The easy takeaway from my 88 Advertising experience is some clichéd notion about the importance of having coworkers you like and about whom you care deeply. That’s true enough: many people spend as much as half (or more!) of their waking life at work with their colleagues, and the people at work become an imaginary family of sorts. If you’re indifferent to your coworkers, work tends to be boring; if you hate your coworkers, work tends to be miserable; if you love your coworkers, that love can imbue the most meaningless of tasks with a sense of mission and purpose.

Ostensibly, that’s what happened here. There’s no real reason for any of us to care about a chain of medical practices in Wisconsin; even if, inexplicably, Marshfield Clinic and/or its advertising agency were so impressed by our work that they offered us jobs, it’s doubtful any of us would’ve moved to Wisconsin to take it. Yet, we cared—a lot.

Some of it was just natural competitiveness and a desire to end our time at UF on a high note, to be sure. But a lot of it was the joy that came from creating a community that could depend on each other and the mild high that comes from growing closer by having a shared vision. In retrospect, it’s remarkable how much we jelled; I don’t recall a single fight or argument or even a cross word, even during the most stressful times. (I remember the opposite, actually; when we were close to a project milestone, we’d send emails and texts asking each other what we could do to make each other’s lives easier, because we were fuckin’ adorbs.)

But that would be a lame takeaway. The truth is, for all the hype about how Campaigns recreates what things will be like in the real world, the course hasn’t resembled my lived reality of what real-world work life is like. Campaigns creates a situation in which everybody has the same goal, and your team members have every incentive to trust and be trusted, to do good work, and to be there for each other. In the real world, your coworkers are often incentivized to sabotage, backstab, and create the illusion of working hard without necessarily doing so, all to get their promotion or their raise. Hell, I’ve worked in low-stakes workplaces, and this still exists when there’s nothing of real value to be gained—people will act shittily just to get the slightly nicer cubicle or a raise that amounts to 55 cents an hour or the right to the kitty cat Post-it dispenser4.



* * *

When I think back to 88 Advertising, I think of this: By senior year, and especially by senior spring semester, I had all but completely stopped making an effort to meet new people—it’s the last few months of college, so what’s the point? It’s going to be tough enough to hang on to your friends that you’ve known since freshman year post-graduation—time, geography, and the pressures of becoming an adult in a then-bleak economy all have a way of reducing even the strongest of connections to a tenuous, occasional-text-or-Facebook-message dynamic—that relationships that gestate during the nine months of senior year will wind up stillborn by the time you start moving out of your college apartment.

Even at the apex of the 88 Advertising lovefest, I still wasn’t Pollyanna about these realities. I remember thinking more than a few times how much it sucked that, in all likelihood, these connections are going to be temporary. And, of course, for the most part, they were: of my seven 88 Advertising colleagues, I’ve talked to exactly two of them in the past three years. And while that’s disappointing to think about—when I mentally counted the years just now, I audibly said oh damn to myself—that seems about right.

Senior year was my favorite year of college, and it was in part thanks to 88 Advertising5. Having this group of people, even temporarily, to accompany me through my final months of college and act at times as a support group, cheering section, and collective confidant played a role in turning what could’ve been a terrifying and nauseating transitional time into probably the time I felt happiest and most at peace and, if not necessarily fearless about the future, then kind of scared-but-excited about it.

So that’s my real takeaway from—and the legacy of—88 Advertising: that impermanent connections have value, and just because something is temporary doesn’t mean it doesn’t have meaning. And that’s heady stuff for what is essentially just a study group for a class project, but hey: transitional times have a way of filling normally insignificant things with more meaning than they should have. These people were pretty great, and I’m glad I got to know them, even if it was just for a little bit.

Or, at least, that was my takeaway, until it turned out that Doc Marsh became a real thing. That’s a much less bittersweet legacy for 88 Advertising, so I’m happy to go with that instead.

* * *

Oh, and also, we learned that “Use Twitter!” will not be well-received as an answer to, “How can Marshfield Clinic reach out to the Amish community?”



I can’t confirm that 88 Advertising had anything to do with @MarshfieldAmish. But I can confirm that @MarshfieldAmish definitely got suspended. I regret nothing.



1I started writing this back in September. I decided to finish it after I wished one of my 88 Advertising colleagues a happy birthday and he expressed interest in reading it (and to make sure it was completed before Marty McFly Goes to the Future Day).

2I’ve always been fascinated by this aspect of Campaigns. Wouldn’t it be crazy strategy if someone joins an agency with the intention of being a mole for another agency? The mole steals all of the team’s work, then acts like an ass to get fired, then gets hired by the agency he was working for all along. It’s an amazing bit of chicanery—especially if the agency who’s supposed to hire the mole double-crosses him and declines to hire him in the end.

3I remember one of my teammates was going through a breakup, and I used my column in the campus newspaper to try to cheer her up, resulting in an article describing all the reasons why a breakup can be a good thing right there in the editorial pages. And although, yes, I totally had a crush on her, I’d like to point out my super awesome restraint in not asking her out on a date, because I figured either she’d say no OR she’d say yes and my awkward-ass self would have, probabilistically speaking, found a way to make the date go terribly, and either way, I didn’t want to risk making her feel uncomfortable having to work with either the Dude She Turned Down or the Dude With Whom She Went On A Shitty Date for an entire semester. Also, I thought she was really smart and pretty and I got a case of the cowardice. Really, either explanation works.6
 
4Just kidding—I got that kitty cat Post-it dispenser thanks to an awesome coworker, so that’s actually a bad example. But my general point stands.

5It was also thanks in huge part to my amazing senior year roommate, but this essay isn’t about him, and we don’t really get effusive about each other ever since we got dinner at a Cheesecake Factory and a well-meaning waitress thought we were a couple and started earnestly suggesting post-dinner date ideas for us. It’s my bad—I had a mustache at the time, so I can see how she could’ve gotten confused.
 
6Probably more the coward thing. Hey, she was so cool and so cute and I got a little intimidated. It happens. Don’t judge me.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

“Perfect Vodka”? Yeah, no — let’s just keep calling it Coral Sky Amphitheatre

The former Coral Sky Amphitheatre—previously Cruzan Amphitheatre, Sound Advice Amphitheatre, Coral Sky Amphitheatre again, Mars Music Amphitheatre, and Coral Sky Amphitheatre the first time—has another new name: Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre. None of us should call it that.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against Perfect Vodka, and, frankly, the next time I make the decision to morosely nurse a broken heart with liquid therapy, I’m pleased to know that I’ve got a local, non-GMO, gluten-free option to fuel some inevitably pathetic texts imploring girls from yesteryear to take me back I didn’t mean it I’m so lonely [crying cat emoji]. And really, it’s not like “Coral Sky” is a particularly inspired name.

But companies regularly spend billions to influence what we think, say, and write, and we should stop being complicit in it.

This, first and foremost, includes news organizations. No honorable journalist would do pro bono shilling for a company, and no dishonorable journalist would do so without getting paid. Yet both are more than happy to drop a company’s name in an otherwise unrelated news story about a concert or sporting event or political rally, completely free of charge, because that company paid someone else for naming rights.

Some reporters may argue that they have a journalistic responsibility to properly identify the subjects in their stories using their self-declared names. For example, UNC-Chapel Hill announced in May that a building on their campus, Saunders Hall, would be renamed Carolina Hall. Nobody would quarrel with reporters using the new name because the new name reflects the evolution of race relations, respect for the school’s diverse student population, and the general notion that it’s not a keen idea to have school buildings named after Klansmen in the 21st century.

When Coral Sky becomes Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre, however, the only thing it reflects is the gaming by marketers of what constitutes a “name.” And when a venue runs through so many “names” based on who’s giving its owners money at the moment, it cedes the right to have a name; it instead becomes an unnamed venue that has very prominent ad space available. To put it more simply, if Live Nation insisted that the formal name of the amphitheatre was “Coral Sky Amphitheatre Sponsored By Perfect Vodka,” there isn’t an editor who wouldn’t zap the last four words. How is instead calling it “Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre” any better?

This is more than an inside-baseball, ethics-in-naming-journalism issue, however. It’s about reclaiming the way we think, the way we talk, and the way we view the world around us.

It’s not a coincidence that we think we need to go to “Publix” as opposed to “the grocery store,” or that we say we’re buying “Kleenex” instead of “facial issue”; it’s a part of a concerted effort to embed brands into every aspect of our conscious life. Try going a week without using brand names in conversation. Or even a day. It’s difficult, and even if you can do it, it’ll sound very unnatural to both you and those listening to you. That, too, is not a coincidence.

What makes venue sponsorships particularly egregious is that the companies involved are asking—nay, telling—us to use a brand name for no reason other than they say so. Dennis Cunningham, the president of Perfect Vodka, is quoted in the press release announcing the name change as saying that “[g]reat music and our smooth vodka are sure to make perfect memories,” which is revealing: they’re not just buying naming rights. They’re trying to buy a space in our memories—a space that they did not earn and have no business occupying.

There’s also something very worrying about getting accustomed to viewing everything around us as a medium for advertising. When we see that even things as fundamental as names are for sale at the right price, it trains us to view the places—and, by extension, the people—around us as mere commodities to be exploited then disposed of rather than things that have value, merit, and beauty beyond generating wealth. And South Florida—which, at its worst, is marked by conspicuous consumption, bulldozers, cosmetic surgery, and McMansions—doesn’t need any help fostering a culture of disposability.

To be fair, the venue at 601-7 Sansbury Way isn’t the Grand Canyon, and “Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre” isn’t the abomination that “Arizona Presents Verizon Gorge” would be. But it’s not inconceivable that an ambitious marketing executive will see a compliant public desensitized to the banal horrors of omnipresent branding and find new, previously sacrosanct places to stick their brand names and logos. The onus is on us to head that off now.

Our thoughts, our speech, and our culture shouldn’t be for sale. Live Nation can call its amphitheater whatever it wants, and Perfect Vodka can pay whatever it wants to Live Nation, but we shouldn’t go along with it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Fallon’s Quicken Loans ad: Sign a 30-year mortgage or be an un-American pussy, brah

 


For one fleeting moment, I thought Quicken Loans’s “Buy In” (or “#BuyIn”) TV commercial, the work of Minneapolis, Minn.-based agency Fallon, was a magnificent, self-aware satire of unscrupulous lending, the devaluation of patriotism and courage, and terrible advertising in general when the voiceover actor informed us that:

None of this makes rational sense. It only makes American sense.

It turns out that it was none of those things. The commercial is as sincere as it is boneheaded, which I suppose is its own sort of magnificence. They’re right, though—no part of this ad makes rational sense.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s start with the text of the voiceover, delivered with the sort of cocky, vaguely bullying cadence you’d expect from, say, a creepy dudebro in his late twenties super-seriously pressuring his buddies to stop being pussies and just hook up with that drunk girl at a high school kegger:

The American Dream is terrifying. American history is the history of the scary thing being the exact thing we have to do: cross that ocean, walk on that moon, fly. None of this makes rational sense. It only makes American sense. 
Here, the hard things show us who we are. Leaving your job to start your own thing. Having a kid when you still feel like a kid. Signing a 30-year mortgage on a home. Scary? Sure. But no match for our colossal self-belief. We’re supposed to do scary. Without scary, we don’t get to be brave. Buy in.

No, seriously.

* * *

Art Steiber, the vice president of marketing and sponsorships at Quicken Loans, told Ad Age that the campaign is specifically intended to assuage the fears of would-be homebuyers after the housing and financial crises of the last decade. And I get it; the economy’s improving, and there are undoubtedly people for whom homeownership is feasible but are understandably apprehensive about pulling the trigger.

But let’s remember that the subprime mortgage crisis was precipitated by predatory lenders hoodwinking consumers into taking out loans that they couldn’t afford and should have never been offered. The apprehension felt by consumers that reverberates years after the recession isn’t merely a marketing challenge for Quicken Loans to solve; it’s the hard-won wisdom that many people had their lives ruined for us to learn. Indeed, that fear is a good thing; it’s the final line of defense before you get pressured into making a bad decision.

It’s unseemly for Quicken Loans to dismiss that fear so cavalierly—and, worse still, make ignoring that fear some sort of virtuous deed. Buying a house shouldn’t be some brave, capricious decision that doesn’t make rational sense; it should be the result of a sober, dispassionate, realistic analysis of your financial situation and your personal goals.

This commercial, in fact, reminds me of an infamous ad from Century 21 in 2006, just before the housing meltdown. That spot—called “The Debate”—features a wife who’s bullying her husband into buying a house while their real estate agent joins in on the bullying via speakerphone. The tag-team pressure tactics work, the husband agrees to buy the house, and it’s supposed to be a happy moment—until, presumably, they defaulted on their loan a couple of years later and had to move into his in-laws’ basement. It’s pretty heinous:




Fuckin’ Suzanne and her research.

What Quicken Loans is trying to do is tell consumers not to trust their instincts. They’re dressing it up in patriotic imagery and the themes of courage, but the message remains the same: ignore the part of you that’s telling you to think this through and do it. Advertising does this all the time, of course, and it’s easy to laugh it off when we’re told to Call Today, Don’t Delay for infomercial ephemera. But when the same technique is applied to buying a house instead of a Slap Chop, just a few years after the destruction of so many people’s personal wealth stemming in part from imprudent house-buying, it’s some kind of appalling.

* * *

Let’s take a moment to recognize how wonderfully misguided this passage from the voiceover is:

American history is the history of the scary thing being the exact thing we have to do: cross that ocean, walk on that moon, fly. None of this makes rational sense. It only makes American sense.

Let’s ignore that they’ve glossed over a lot of American history with “ocean, moon, fly.” (And we’ll ignore the fact that the chronology is off; I’m pretty sure we were flying before moonwalking, both literally and otherwise.) I love that their misguided appeal to American exceptionalism included the implication that “rational” and “American” are antonyms.

More seriously, though, that passage is factually inaccurate: all those things did make rational sense. Finding efficient trade routes, beating the Soviet Union in the Space Race during the Cold War, and traveling quickly between faraway places—what parts of any of those things are irrational? Quicken Loans gives away the game inadvertently here; they know that, for many people, buying a home is an irrational decision—based more on ego and appearances than what’s best for them financially—but they try to downplay that irrationality by falsely claiming other things were irrational, too.

I don’t blame them, of course; more honest copy would read:

American history is the history of the scary thing being the exact thing we have to do: Plessy v. Ferguson, the Vietnam War, KFC Double Downs. None of this makes rational sense. It only makes American sense.

But it doesn’t quite have the same effect.

* * *

Not to belabor the point, but not everybody needs to own a home. And more importantly, not everybody needs to aspire to own a home.

One of the creepier things about the commercial is the way it presents homeownership as a necessary component of living the American Dream and, by extension, being a true American. Reinforcing the idea that there’s one single ideal life to which we should all aspire is pretty pernicious; it leads to disappointment, crippling debt, and a perpetual cycle of acquiring things to fill an ever-expanding hole in your soul.

A lot of advertising is predicated on making products seem like universal desires; it’s easier to convince somebody to want a product if they’ve already been conditioned to accept that product as something they’re supposed to want. But forced conformity is bad for us all. Don’t get me wrong; if someone chooses to want their little box made of ticky-tacky, then that’s fine, and I’m not judging—as long as it is indeed their choice and not the choice of societal pressures and terrible TV commercials.




(The commercial also presents “having a kid when you still feel like a kid” as a noble thing to do, which is also pretty messed up—being a parent isn’t for everybody and arguably isn’t for most people, and those who choose to become parents should probably at least feel like young adults before popping the little ones out—but that’s a rant for another day.)

* * *

But here’s the part of the ad that annoys me the most: they’re commodifying courage. Or, more bluntly, they’re trying to convince us that buying shit is an act of courage.

Advertising has long tried to convince us that buying shit is a legitimate form of self-expression. In lieu of developing a personality, the clothes and the cars we buy can convey that for us. In lieu of making actual choices in our lives, we can sate our need for freedom by choosing from different, mostly identical brands of cola with varying caloric content. I know, that’s nothing new or revelatory.

But there’s something grotesque about an ad like this one that tells us that, in lieu of actually doing something courageous, we can just buy something really expensive. I’ve seen a lot of ads attempt to commodify all sorts of things—love, charity, hope, security, etc.—but I’m straining to think of an ad that explicitly said, “Be brave, buy this thing.”

Sen. John McCain has talked a lot about “defining courage down”—that is, devaluing courage by using it to describe all manner of acts that aren’t genuinely courageous. While McCain’s courage credentials are impeccable1, I disagree with some of what he says; I think he defines courage too narrowly, which unfairly cheapens some of the acts of everyday, mundane bravery that are rarely applauded. Where I think he and I would have no quarrel, though, is saying that buying shit is not courageous, and the idea that it is will simultaneously make people less able to recognize actual courage and less inclined to do actually courageous things.

People have to do genuinely courageous things all the time, and not necessarily in the big, taking-bullets, rescuing-people-from-a-fire sort of way; they move to new cities, they start and end relationships, they follow their dreams and help others do the same. It’s gross to see courage so nonchalantly trivialized. Fuck off, Quicken Loans.

* * *

It’s perhaps unfair to talk smack about an ad campaign without saying what I would’ve done differently. So just spitballin’ here, but maybe something like this?

We know buying a home can be scary. We remember what it was like seven years ago. 
Buying a home might not be right for everybody, and it might not be right for everybody right now. But we’ve come a long way since 2008, and if homeownership is something you’ve been thinking about, it may be worth taking another look into it. 
Talk to your financial advisor. Talk to your family. Figure out what your goals and resources are. And if you decide that buying a home is right for you, we want to help. Call us when you’re ready. Quicken Loans. USA, all the way, numba one.

Okay, it’s not my finest bit of copywriting, but better, right?


1All right, fine, but can we at least agree that his courage credentials were impeccable pre-Palin?

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Stouffer’s mac and cheese TV commercial by JWT New York is remarkably terrible

Hey everybody, let’s talk about this breathtakingly shitty commercial, called “Breathe,” from Nestlé’s Stouffer’s, promoting their high-saturated fat, low-taste macaroni and cheese frozen dinners:


The spot, a part of a campaign by J. Walter Thompson New York that seeks to boost weakening frozen food sales, begins with a teenage girl eagerly talking about her day with her parents, both of whom appear to be annoyed that their daughter is talking to them.

“They ran into Jeff and Ash—like, literally ran into him,” the girl recounts, as the father shoots a why-the-hell-is-she-talking-to-us look to the mother, who in turn flashes an insincere smile while not even disguising her lack of interest in her child. The daughter continues—“So awkward! He spilled a little soda on his shirt!”—as a voiceover plays over her:

This story had 30 minutes left, until Kim realized that Stouffer’s mac and cheese is made with real cheddar, aged to perfection for six long months. When you start with the best cheddar, you get the best mac and cheese.

The daughter is so enraptured by the hundreds and hundreds of milligrams of sodium in her serving of hastily-microwaved food-like substance that she stops chattering about stupid teenage girl nonsense like her thoughts and feelings and the people in life about whom she cares. The father, ever the smartass, asks her, “So what about Jessica?”—to which the daughter replies, “What about her?” And just like that, Operation Get My Daughter to Stop Sharing Things with Me is a resounding success.

This ad, ostensibly targeting parents who value dinnertime as a family event, is such a complete misfire that so thoroughly misunderstands its audience that I’m genuinely curious if JWT took some side cash from Kraft to bungle it. The reality is, parents who at least make an effort to make at-the-table, TV-free family dinners a thing want to listen to their kids talk about what’s on their minds. It is, in fact, the whole damn point of a family dinner. The problem isn’t that their teenagers are sharing too much; it’s that teenagers are sharing too little or nothing at all.

Here, the daughter is happily going into detail about her life—and true, it does sound like inconsequential, high school cafeteria minutiae. But it’s clearly important to her, and when someone—especially your own child—trusts you enough to share, the least you can do is be kind enough to listen without making faces. Besides, if your kid learns that you can’t be trusted to care about small stuff, why would she trust you with the big stuff?

In short, JWT at some point pitched a commercial that essentially said, “Stouffer’s: For terrible parents1 who want their kids to shut the fuck up,” and Stouffer’s inexplicably said, “OH MY GOD, CAN WE SIGN UP TWICE?” Well done, all.

* * *

Okay, I know I bang the gender critique gong more often than I intend on this blog, but watch another commercial in the campaign, called “Cell Phone”:


A teenage girl is looking at her cell phone. When she takes a bit of her lasagna, the purported deliciousness of her unit of food causes her to put her phone down. A voiceover explains: “As Katie puts her cell phone down for the first time all week, she realizes that Stouffer’s lasagna is topped with fresh cheese that browns beautifully. Fresh cheese and a touch of aged parmesan is [sic] what gives us our irresistible flavor. When you start with the best blend of cheese, you get the best lasagna.” Her cell phone buzzes; her parents look at their daughter expectantly; the daughter ignores the phone and says, “What?”

First of all, there’s some seriously mixed messaging here: in the first commercial, the parents are trying to stop their daughter from talking to them; in the second commercial, the parents are trying to stop their daughter from talking (or texting, I guess) to her friends. Which is it? Or do parents who serve Stouffer’s just want their kids to stop talking to everyone? Geez, get your pitch straight, guys.

But more importantly, why are they picking on teenage girls here? Look, I’m not saying that Stouffer’s is a part of some conspiracy to make the world into a phallocratic dongtopia or anything2, but two commercials in the same campaign that are predicated on stopping teenage girls from talking? Two commercials in the same campaign that presuppose teenage girls just talk about silly, unimportant stuff? Pretty lame, especially if we’re trying to get girls to Lean In or Step Up or Speak Out or what have you.

(It’s worth noting that ConAgra’s Manwich has a similar, and far superior, ad campaign by DDB West based on a lot of the same ideas, including a spot in which Manwich stops a teenage girl’s texting. The key difference is that, in Manwich’s ads, the parents actually seem to care about and enjoy the company of their kids—sons and daughters. And of course, they’re narrated by Ron Fucking Swanson.)

* * *

And as long as I’m taking swipes at Stouffer’s, take a look at the Nutrition Facts for Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese, as presented on its website:


“Serving Size: 2. Servings Per Container: Not Given.” This is the opposite of helpful.

Just as confusing, despite each serving (which we know is exactly two somethings) containing 6 grams of saturated fat, the label still goes on to say that the product is “[n]ot a significant source of Saturated Fat.” Is this why Stouffer’s feels no shame about how unhealthful its foodesque offerings are—in their world, 6 grams of saturated fat apparently rounds down to insignificant? Huh.

Yes, yes, I know—this is probably the result of some sloppy coding. But still, get it together, Stouffer’s.


1I intentionally avoided making the comment that, if you’re feeding your kid frozen garbage, you’re probably a terrible parent anyway, so this ad knows its intended audience all too well—which, to be fair, would be an amazing defense of JWT’s incompetence here. But that’s not cool; plenty of parents would love to cook healthful meals for their kids, but they work two jobs and live in a food desert and are barely making ends meet and thus, Stouffer’s from Walgreens could really be the best of a limited set of bad options. Plenty of horrible parents make home-cooked meals for their kids; plenty of genuinely wonderful parents hate the fact that they’re feeding their kids frozen meatloaf and are working really hard for long hours to make sure they won’t have to in the future.

2There’s no need for a conspiracy; it already is, amirite ladies? No? Fine, whatever, I have mac and cheese and lube and pictures of a sexy Raccoon Mario girl, I don’t need you.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

This McDonald’s coupon is so profoundly sad, it makes me want to cry

This McDonald’s coupon—and all that it implies—is so profoundly sad, it makes me want to cry.

"Valid February 14th only" "BURGER LOVERS" "49¢ Hamburgers & 69¢ Cheeseburgers" "Valid February 14th only" "Limit 10 per customer." "Must have coupon for redemption."


Notice that McDonald’s doesn’t even bother to use the phrase “Valentine’s Day.” It’s like McDonald’s is just saying, “You know the drill, lardass.”

And the worst part is, they cap the deal at ten hamburgers. Listen, if somebody is spending a part of their Valentine’s Day at a McDonald’s and they feel like eating more than ten hamburgers, it’s obvious it’s been a really shitty day. Just give them the fucking burgers, McDonald’s.


Anyway, this is the awkward part in which I mention the reason that I have the coupon so neatly torn out is because as soon as I saw it, I put it in my wallet because I’m about 99 percent sure I’ll be making use of it on Feb. 14. Yes, on Valentine’s Day, I will be lovin’ it because, sadly, no one’s lovin’ me. Okay, now I really am going to cry.

This Forever 21 model really hates his Cloud-Sleeve Bomber Jacket

While I’m still on the “make fun of teen clothing retailers” beat: this guy really does not look happy about modeling Forever 21’s “Cloud-Sleeve Bomber Jacket” (I’ve archived the page here, in case cumulonimbus coats become a thing and Forever 21 sells out of them):


I know that models usually shoot for an aloof, mildly disdainful look because stupid people find cold indifference alluring1, but this goes way beyond that. You can see the resignation in his eyes when he realizes that, oh God, people are going to see me with cloud arms and there’s nothing I can do about it.


From another angle, you can see strife all over his face as he reassesses the entirety of his life decisions.


And finally, you see him wondering if it’s too late for him to finish up his HVAC certificate.


(It’s not, and it’s important, honest work.)

Although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want a cloud jacket now. If anybody wants to make that happen, my email address is jdellosa@gmail.com. But no pressure.



1Needless to say, I am a stupid person who needs to get better taste in girls2.
2Not like that. You’re gross, dude.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Aéropostale’s ridiculous product descriptions make me feel old like whoa

Shopping at any teen-oriented mall clothing retailer is usually enough to make me feel impossibly old—music that’s unfamiliar and therefore annoying, pictures of models who aren’t old enough to buy beer in Canada, and fellow shoppers who are trying to gauge whether I’m a creepy dude trolling for barely-18s or if I’m a vaguely out-of-touch uncle searching for a nephew’s birthday gift who still thinks Hollister is totes rad. (Joke’s on you, kids—the correct answer is “I am in ‘overwrought quarter-life crisis’ mode and am dealing with being closer to 30 than 20 by dressing like a 16-year-old in 2005.”)

But there’s no retail experience that makes me more acutely aware of my senescence than shopping on Aéropostale’s website. Aéropostale is definitely not for me—they’re “principally targeting 14 to 17-year-old young women and men”—and they make that clear with some amazing product descriptions for each and every one of the products they sell.

As far as I can tell, Aéropostale is headquartered in the town of Riverdale, and everybody’s biggest concerns are running “a smooth campaign for class prez” or making “that first impression count when meeting your GF’s dad.” (Incidentally, Aéropostale’s Long Sleeve Textured Woven Shirt and Multi-stripe Crew Neck Sweater, respectively, can help with each.) Indeed, the product descriptions are simultaneously ridiculous and weirdly poignant—at least for me, each of my eye rolls are accompanied by a pang of nostalgia for the days when my biggest worries were minor enough to be solved with the purchase of affordably-priced apparel.

In any case, let’s marvel at some of these product descriptions that somebody was inexplicably given actual, spendable money to write.

Description: When that girl from first period gets flirty and a sweetie from second shoots you a smile, you know the Brooklyn Calling Star Pocket Tee is workin' its magic! With its stellar print and stylish chest pocket, this shirt has all the ladies swooning. Pair it with dark-wash jeans to turn up the charm!


Admittedly, it’s been a while since my day was divided into periods, but I really don’t remember a chest pocket being a component in making a lady—let alone all the ladies—swoon.

Description: Go into the big exam knowing you're too legit to quit, and tackle those tough questions in this Brooklyn Calling Striped Colorblock Pocket Tee! The bold, high-contrast style gives you a super-smart look, so put on your flat-brimmed thinking cap, then finish the essay while you're in beast mode.


So, I’m going to go into the big exam like MC Hammer in 1991? Does that mean I’m going to fail? And what does finishing an essay while in beast mode entail—do I use the active voice instead of the passive voice or something?

Description: If your idea of a great staycation includes comfy style and tons of video games, throw on our Aero NY Skinny Sweatpants and grab that controller! These fleecy bottoms feature a super-soft construction, hand pockets and a stretchy ribbed waist; Aero appliqués and "NY 1987" embroidery add a classic signature touch.


I really like how Aéropostale found a positive way of saying, “If all you’re going to do is be a lazy fucker in front of the TV, wear sweatpants, you big life-waster.” Jake the Dog was right.

Description: Whether you're stuck in Lametown, cruising NYC, or kickin' it in LA, our Aero Banner Logo Pullover Hoodie cuts a super-trendy look for any place in the USA! It's decked out with blocky "Aero NY-87" text and features a fleecy feel and classic kangaroo pocket.


Aéropostale: clothing for teens who hate their dumb lame town and I hate you all and none of you get me and I can’t wait until I’m 18 so I can finally get the hell out of this place.

Description: Dude, it's okay to admit when cold temps make ya shiver, but you won't ever need to when you layer up with this toasty Brooklyn Calling Long Sleeve Colorblocked Thermal Tee! Waffle-knit fabric ensures warmth, so your GF will never find out how fast you succumb to chilly air; colorblocked raglan sleeves add way-cool casual style, too.


Let’s ignore the contradictory message of “It’s okay to say you’re cold, but buy this shirt so that no one knows you’re cold” and instead focus on how brazenly manipulative this product description is—it’s a stone’s throw away from just outright saying, Buy this shirt so that your girlfriend won’t know you’re a total pussy, bro!

Description: The cosmopolitan cutie concealed on this Free State City Girl Graphic T has traveled the world lookin' for love, but you'd be the only guy to catch her eye! It features the names of some awesome urban locales; pair this tee with crisp chinos and get ready to give those smiling ladies your digits.


This T-shirt is called “City Girl,” and the description says that it “features the names of some awesome urban locales.” Serious question: Does Aéropostale think Denmark is a city?

Description: When you accept first prize for the best-decorated pumpkin in the patch, make sure you're rockin' our Solid Lace Crop Tank! You'll make a memorable impression thanks to its classic solid shade, cool lace detailing, and cute keyhole-closure back.


“Best-decorated pumpkin in the patch” isn’t a euphemism, right?

Description: Toss on this Locker Stock Xmas Games Graphic T, then polish those pong skills during all the crazy festivities! It's designed with colorful plastic cups stacked to form a Christmas tree. Don't forget to take a break and toast to your fun-lovin' bros!


This is the one that made me feel completely ancient. “Xmas games” and “pong skills” are Aéropostale’s way of studiously avoiding referencing alcohol—because, again, their target demographic is young folks between the ages of 14 and 17. In other words, I’m shopping for clothes at a store that will feature a shirt with a ping-pong ball and Solo cups but has deemed it inappropriate to actually say the words “beer pong.” Even American Eagle—for which I’m also too old—has no qualms about a Christmas-themed booze reference. (On the other hand, they also have no qualms about having Santa with a candy-striped phallus, so, yeah.)



Bah. I’m too old for this shit. I’ll be at Banana Republic.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Abercrombie & ditched: Mike Jeffries is out as CEO; I dance on his professional grave

Mike Jeffries resigned as CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch on Dec. 9.

This is certainly good news, as Jeffries is notorious for being an asshole of impressive magnitude. Under his leadership, Abercrombie & Fitch was sued in 2003 for employment discrimination for racist and sexist hiring practices; apparently, Jeffries loved him some white dudes, and this was reflected in who was hired for his stores and who got the best jobs once they were hired. (This is a polite way of saying that women, black people, Hispanics, and Asians had a tough time getting hired, and those that did often worked out-of-sight in the backroom.) The lawsuit ended in a settlement that included the company paying $40 million to discriminated workers and a revision of its hiring and promotion practices.

Jeffries also earned a lot of ire over some well-publicized remarks about who Abercrombie & Fitch’s target market is. From a 2006 interview with Salon:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he says. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

I mean, in a way, the candor is laudable, but yikes.

In any case, Abercrombie & Fitch’s falling profits and brand image had put Jeffries’s future with the company in jeopardy in recent years, so while his resignation happened quickly, it wasn’t exactly unexpected. To be fair, many mall clothing retailers are suffering, thanks in part to the recession and teens with lighter wallets and changing tastes.

But Abercrombie & Fitch—by far the priciest of what some1 call the Teen Mall Clothing Triple A, along with American Eagle and Aéropostale—was probably the most doomed in the wake of the recession. Abercrombie & Fitch appealed to kids who weren’t rich but wanted to appear rich; when the recession hit, the faux rich kids couldn’t afford their clothes anymore and the real rich kids weren’t buying their clothes from them in the first place. And once that became evident, fewer and fewer people felt compelled to don the moose.

So let’s take a moment to dance on the professional grave of Jeffries, a creepy dude with creepy fake blonde hair who appealed to the basest parts of American vanity and consumerism and still found a way to fuck it up. I hope he enjoys his retirement while he can, because once he passes, he will surely find himself damned to an afterlife where I presume a bunch of larger folks wearing Faded Glory-brand jean shorts and camo cargos will pelt him with copies of the September issue of Farm & Tractor Fashion for all eternity2.

* * *

In any case, Jeffries’s resignation reminded me of a small little project I did with a friend several years ago. We sneaked into an Abercrombie & Fitch and a Hollister at the mall and surreptitiously placed little activist flyers into their clothing. I thought we were being sneaky, until a customer asked us a question about a price, and we had to explain we don’t actually work there (“Oh, I’m sorry, I just saw you guys handling the clothes and I just assumed—my bad”).

Granted, the flyers don’t reflect my best writing or my best thinking, and rereading them, they make me cringe a bit. But I still look at them fondly, because I liked this version of myself that cared strongly about things and devised weird and quirky plans to express my opinions. Let’s take a look at a sampling of my efforts:


This one took an anti-consumerism and anti-advertising angle and, in particular, the inanity of paying a company money for the right to advertise on your body. It’s interesting that I picked $59 as the upper-limit for ridiculous prices to pay for a logo graphic T-shirt.


Here was a flyer that took a feminist tack, albeit with some sloppy, inelegant writing (if you’re going to sound cavalier about eating disorders, then your writing better be coruscating). I believe I was floating the theory that teen clothing retailers intentionally making clothing sizes inconsistent to mess with girls’ body image and sense of self-esteem, which is ultimately beneficial for Abercrombie & Fitch and other image-based retailers—a theory that, as far as I know, has no evidence behind it, but kind of plausible, right? Also, I’m not sure where I saw “Independent Grrl” booty shorts, but I think it’d be hilarious to own a pair.


So basically, at some point, I thought, “You know how to get the message out in a way that resonates with my generation? Get some John fuckin’ Keats up in this shit!” This is proof that, had I majored in English, I would’ve been the most obnoxious person ever. But still, the last line is the beginning of a burn that could’ve been decent with a bit more workshopping.


1By “some,” I mean “I.” But it is a handy way of looking at the teen mall clothing retailer landscape, right? Aéropostale is the budget choice; American Eagle is moderately priced and of moderate quality; and Abercrombie & Fitch is the highest tier. (I don’t mean this as a dig, by the way. One of my favorite T-shirts is from Aéropostale—a gift from a family friend—despite my having graduated middle school. But it's a really comfortable shirt and I love it so there.)

2That’s probably a little too mean.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Oh, Crest

Crest offers "58% more free" to make its 2.9-ounce travel-size toothpaste 4.6 ounces.


Hey, Crest, I know you had good intentions here, but I don't think you understand why we have to buy the travel size in the first place.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

“I hope your day goes okay today” flyers

One quick story about hoping people have a nice day, while we're on the subject: Several years ago, I stood in the middle of Turlington Plaza at UF and handed out little flyers with “I hope your day goes okay today” written on them. Several hundred of them, in fact.



Turlington Plaza is one of the busiest places on campus, with people bustling from one building to another, so it’s a prime spot for businesses to hand out flyers. With everybody getting bombarded with commercial messages as they scurry to class, I liked the idea of using the same technique to silently hand out what is pretty much the least commercial message ever.

Many people would grab a flyer and mutter thanks—and then, after walking several yards, turn around with a big smile and say, much more enthusiastically, “Hey, thanks!”

A few people asked what the flyer was supposed to be advertising. I said it’s not advertising anything; I really just hope your day goes okay. They still looked a little suspicious.

One person handed the flyer back to me; on the back of the flyer, the words “You are beautiful” were written—which was really touching, especially since, at the time, I had kind of a weird mustache thing going on that was decidedly not beautiful.

Another person returned the flyer, saying, ominously, that he didn’t deserve to have a good day today. He left pretty quickly before I could ask what’s up.

But this was my favorite reaction: A big, muscular, fratty-type dude with a pissed-off face took a flyer and shoved it in his pocket without looking at it. I remember thinking that he so wasn’t the target audience for this sort of project. But then, an hour later, he walked by again; as he passed by, I offered him another flyer without realizing it was the same guy.

“No thanks, man—already got one!” he said happily, showing me the front of his binder. He had one of those transparent overlay binders; he had unfolded the flyer, smoothened it out, and slid it into the front of the binder, next to some photos of his friends. That kind of made me aww.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Dear Tombstone Pizza

Dear Tombstone Pizza,

I know you mean well and all, but if I have had the sort of day in which cramming a frozen pizza down my gullet seems like a reasonable nutritional choice, it is highly unlikely that a salad will be a part of my culinary experience.

Love,

Joe

P.S.: "1/4 = 1 SERVING"? That's cute.

AXA’s fascinatingly bad TV commercials: ruminations on gender, fate, and love

Come with me as I way overanalyze a pair of insurance and retirement commercials!

* * *

Here’s a TV commercial for AXA, an insurance and financial services firm, that’s pretty lame, but benignly so.


A man at an airport so absorbed with the Financial Services Fearmongering app on his tablet that he doesn’t even notice a fellow businessman who sat down next to him, leaning over with a big, expectant grin. They have the same tie, and the businessman wants to make small talk!

But alas, he’s so consumed with the “LIFE INSURANCE: Do you have enough?” question that he ignores the businessman. The businessman is so disappointed and so frustrated at this failed attempt at human connection that, a mere ten seconds after sitting down, he dashes off to find another seat—because, you know, screw you for not noticing me even though I didn’t even say “excuse me” and can clearly see you’re engrossed in something. An on-screen graphic delivers the devastating news: “That was a $40 million dollar deal.”




To emphasize how big of a missed opportunity this was, they redundantly include the word “dollar” in the graphic—that was a forty million dollar dollar deal, damn it.

The voiceover brings it all together: “We all think about life insurance. But when we start worrying about tomorrow, we miss out on the things that matter today. At AXA, we offer advice and help you break down your insurance goals into small, manageable steps, because when you plan for tomorrow, it helps you live for today.”

And indeed, we’re shown that in the alternate universe where the man saw an AXA advisor, he would’ve (1) been so worry-free that he doesn’t even wear ties, yo; and (2) noticed that he and the businessman have matching socks, with all the smiling and chuckling and surprised finger-pointing that that entails.



And boom—40 million double dollars, here we come!

* * *

Here’s the other AXA TV commercial in this campaign, which is lamer still.


A woman sitting in a coffee shop is reading the legacy media version of the Financial Services Fearmongering app (“RETIREMENT: Will your savings last?”) while a sketchy-looking dude is drawing a picture of her1. Sadly, she leaves the coffee shop without even noticing him, which is a tragedy, because—“That was her soulmate.”



Look at his face there: “I tried everything—creepily staring at her from afar, surreptitiously drawing a picture of her—and nothing worked! Ugh, women today can’t appreciate a nice guy.”

A voiceover once again offers an explanation for what we just witnessed: “We all have to plan for retirement. But when we start worrying about tomorrow, we miss out on what matters today.” And had the woman seen an AXA advisor who would have helped her live for today, we see that she and the dude would’ve spent so much time at the coffee shop that the lights are off and everybody—including the staff—is gone. And then off-camera they presumably rob the coffee shop to finance his career as a sub-mediocre sketch artist.

* * *

The obvious critique is a feminist one: when AXA wants to talk to men about missed opportunities, it’s about financial deals; when AXA wants to talk to women, it’s about soulmates and true love. And it’s a fair enough critique; women are actively engaged in business and have concerns that extend beyond finding Prince Charming, and these two commercials juxtaposed against each other suggest that AXA doesn’t look at its potential female clients as serious-minded about finances. (Although, to be fair, the man in the life insurance spot does meet with a female AXA advisor, so there’s that.)

What’s kind of neat about these ads is that, somehow, AXA (or, more specifically, its ad agency) found a way to construct a pair of possibly mildly sexist ads that somehow become worse if they’re gender-swapped.

Let’s say it were two businesswomen at the airport with matching scarves. One woman tries and fails to get the other’s attention and, afterward, huffily finds another seat as the “That was a $40 million dollar deal” graphic appears. I can see myself offering two critiques: Is AXA trying to say that women are so shallow that they’d base a $40 million deal on clothes? Is AXA trying to say that women are so sensitive that they’d get upset because they couldn’t get someone’s attention after only a few seconds?

And if it were a man who narrowly missed his supposed female sketch-artist soulmate, complete with a “That was his soulmate” graphic, it’d look objectifying—as though a woman is comparable to a business deal, just another thing to win or acquire.

A better fix would be to simply switch the graphics—the woman at the coffee shop missed a $40 million deal, and the man at the airport missed his tie-and-sock sharing soulmate. Because, seriously, look at their eyes.



The only business deal that went down that night is a horizontal merger, if you know what I mean2.

* * *

On the other hand, is it even really sexist? Everybody talks about how we need to find a proper work-life balance and how your job shouldn’t be the totality of who you are. And most people will likely agree that love and family is more important than work and business. So isn’t AXA showing that the woman (who’s concerned with finding someone to love) has better priorities than the man (who’s concerned with a business deal)? Isn’t the ad really sexist against men who don’t understand what really matters in life?

Maybe! But probably not.

Obviously, women have historically had a much tougher time being taken seriously in business and money matters, so, even if we’re being extremely charitable with AXA’s intent, it still isn’t helpful in knocking down some stereotypes. And in matters of love and family, it’s generally been women who scale back on—or entirely give up—their careers and business lives, and these AXA commercials subtly reinforce that cultural norm.

A less comfortable possibility: Maybe we really don’t think love and family is more important than work and business. Think about how much time we spend at work, or thinking about work, or trying to find better, more lucrative work. It’s probably more time than we spend on “love,” right? And hey, I’m not judging—who are any of us to say that anybody’s priorities are better than the other?


* * *

But really, what’s most fascinating about these otherwise unremarkable ads is how they play with the notion of fate: If you’re not in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, and in exactly the right mood, you might miss out on a business deal! Or a soulmate!

And I know it’s just a silly pair of ads, but that’s kind of a pernicious mind-virus with which to infect your audience, because that way madness lies. Literally everything is the product of such a precise set of circumstances that it can be brain-bending to think about it too hard—if I left work a few moments earlier, I wouldn’t have gotten into that car accident; if I hadn’t stopped to get a cup of water from the water cooler before leaving, I wouldn’t have left work those few moments later; if I hadn’t eaten pretzels as a snack, I wouldn’t have been thirsty for water; if I had enough change for Oreos, I wouldn’t have gotten pretzels from the vending machine; if I hadn’t given some of my change to that homeless guy on the corner, I would’ve had enough change for Oreos. ERGO, I AM NEVER GIVING MONEY TO HOMELESS PEOPLE EVER AGAIN.

Of course, that’s ridiculous to conclude. And imagine if, say, you were planning on stopping by a convenience store on your way home, which, obviously, you don’t because of the car accident. And let’s say that that convenience store was robbed by a violent gunman3 who shot and killed everybody in the store—what then? Did your car accident save your life? Do you eat more pretzels now? Do you give more money to homeless people?

So it’s strange for AXA to make a pitch of, “Use our services to make sure that a precise set of mostly uncontrollable circumstances align properly so you don’t miss out on something!” I doubt anybody would take these ads quite that seriously, but still, it’s kind of a mean-spirited albeit metaphysical fear-based appeal. (Plus, using the ad’s own logic: who’s to say that, by talking to $40 million deal guy, you missed a chance to talk to some other dude who had, like, a matching suitcase who would’ve given you an $80 million deal? What then, AXA?)

* * *

And finally—“soulmate”? Really?

This is neither here nor there, but I think the idea of a soulmate—or The One, or your lobster, or whatever—is depressing. There are a lot of people on the planet, after all, and if there’s only one soulmate out there for each of us, then guys—we’re probabilistically screwed. Our soulmates might not be on the same continent. They might not be born yet, or they might have just died.

Or what if, by some odds-defying stroke of luck, your soulmate happens to be in the same city as you are and you just happen to be on the same bus, but they’re busy on their phone. Or they’re in a bad mood. Or they just got into a relationship, or just got out of one so they’re not ready to date. Or maybe they’re just too preoccupied planning for retirement. What then?

A belief in soulmates is either a belief in abject despair, or it’s a belief that the universe loves us so much that it’ll bend the laws of statistics and probability to accommodate our hearts’ desires. And honestly, I don’t think the universe even really likes us as just friends.

Plus, believing in soulmates can be kind of dangerous, especially if you genuinely believe you’ve met yours. After all, it’s harder to get out of a relationship—even a toxic one—if you believe that your partner is your one and only. And “soulmates” talk often ignores the effort that goes into successful relationships in favor of an assumption that everything will just fall into place.

So basically, BOO AXA FOR PROMOTING UNREALISTIC NOTIONS OF LOVE. And also, for making me put in way more thought into your commercials than I’m guessing anybody involved with making them did.


1See what I did there? It’s funny because he’s sketching a picture of her, and it looks like he’s been sketchily digging through her garbage to find her old pantyhose. I’m kind of an expert at puns, you see.

2Sex.

3Or gunwoman! I just talked a big game about possible sexism, and here I am, assuming ladyfolk can’t be robbers. Shame on me.