In a previous post I wrote about my longtime reluctance to criticize new ad campaigns. Obviously, that misgiving does not apply when it comes to praising them. If I see something I like I’m delighted to write about it here.

And so I have. And so I will.

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been captivated by the ad campaign promoting the FX network’s upcoming penultimate Simpsons’ marathon, where they will be running every Simpsons episode ever made, all 552 of them, from start to finish. Fittingly, the theme: Every. Simpsons. Ever.

Though all the campaign pieces are funny, without doubt the anthem commercial is the hero. It brilliantly imagines a world decimated by some unspecified apocalypse; each vignette beautifully depicting the ruins. The detail within these tableaus is stunning, as good as any you’ll find in a big budget genre feature. Better than many, actually. In each scene is also a cleverly situated television set and on that TV a classic bit from a Simpsons’ episode is playing. Oblivious to the spreadingdecay, someone (or thing) is watching. The takeaway: while the world may be ending who gives a crap there’s a Simpson’s marathon!

It’s just the kind of humor we have enjoyed from the show itself: biting, dark but somehow always joyful. (I won’t rhapsodize about the Simpsons here. Suffice to say it isn’t the longest running sitcom in television history for sucking.)

As in every Simpsons ever it is the details of this commercial that truly make it spectacular. When Mr. Burns utters, “Release the hounds!” we witness a group of feral dogs running up the street. Upon seeing Lisa’s crooked teeth for the first time her dentist screams “There is no God!” The transpiring Apocalypse backs him up. While Homer insanely yells for his burrito two deer idly graze outside the TV shop. Against a black screen a big yellow super comes up: “WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE.” Homer pops up emitting a prolonged girlish scream.

Hmmmm… awesome-y.

FX knows their target too well. For this is every fanboys’ wet dream of a TV commercial. Dystopia and The Simpsons. I can hear Comic Book Man now: “Best. Spot. Ever.”

Second commercial pretty stellar as well…

images-1.thumbnail

The face of criticism. it ain’t always pretty.

It dawns on me I haven’t critiqued an ad campaign in quite a while. I could tell you that’s because nothing out there strikes my fancy. And there are periods of time when it does feel that way. Yet, I write about countless subjects that do not require a witness. You’d think if I’m going to host a blog about advertising that I’d write about it. Often.

So, why my ambivalence?

Truth be told I think most criticism is folly. Let me tell you a story. In college, I aspired to be a music journalist for Rolling Stone magazine. (Back then it was still a relevant publication.) In pursuit of this goal, I reviewed albums and concerts for both school newspapers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Highlights from this period include the resounding thumbs up I gave to the Replacements and Violent Femmes. (If not for me who knows where these two bands would have wound up?) Anyway, I also reviewed plenty of local talent, including a hair band called Whiz Kid. Whiz Kid played Lover Boy and Head East covers for drunken sorority girls (and the men who loved them) at various venues around town. For 2 bucks a head one got 3 sets of music.

Like almost every novice critic I rejoiced in ripping no-talent outfits to shreds. Whiz Kid was no exception. I might not be up on that stage but I had my pen, which was mightier than any guitar. So, I wrote a story, making fun of their lame music, silly matching outfits and ridiculous big hair. I used every bit of my marginal writing skills to tear them a new one. And then I promptly forgot about it.

Not Whiz Kid. A couple weeks later I ran into the lead singer at an after-bar party. He asked me why I’d so cruelly laid into his band. I said, no disrespect, brother but you sucked. I mean Lover Boy… Give me a break!

The vocalist did not punch me. Instead he hit me with something far more lasting. He told me the reason Whiz Kid played shit music was to get gigs, which he needed in order to pay rent and put food on the table for his wife and new baby. He told me none of the bars in town hired original talent unless they were famous. Whiz kid was not. He had to sing Working for the Weekend because that’s what 19-year-old girls (and the men who loved them) paid money to see.

0

They actually did an original tune… sort of.

From that night on, I abandoned my ambition to write criticism. I had been stifled by the truth. Whiz Kid was literally working for the weekend, every weekend, in order to survive. I felt I had no right to criticize them for doing so. I was not aiding culture in any way. I was merely hurting this band.

And so to this day it takes an especially notable campaign for me to write about it, in particular if I’m considering a negative opinion. Obviously, I still do criticism. But only after giving the matter serious consideration. And I always remember Whiz Kid.

stakeland-trailergore-photogdtsr1
“Meat. It’s what’s for Dinner.” (from Stake Land)

Being alone this weekend, I stayed up super late and re-watched two exceptional horror movies, Blade 2 directed by none other than Oscar-winner, Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Strain) and Indie director Jim Mickle’s nasty little treat, Stake Land. I rarely watch movies twice but these two films deserve the attention. The stories. Effects. Direction. Acting. In every way both movies deliver.

These aren’t my daughter’s vampires. Here, the predacious creatures treat the human race as merely cattle: warm-blooded animals useful only as food. Pale, powerful and ugly these virulent beasts rip through people like stoned teenagers raiding the pantry at 2 AM. They are primal and frightening. Not brooding and handsome. Why I love them so!

Now to relate this back to something perhaps you can relate to. Hopefully… Sort of… Maybe.

Back to the food chain and human appetites… Unlike the hungry vampires who literally drool before devouring one of us we don’t look at our living food that way at all. When I drive by cattle grazing in a field I don’t think of a sizzling piece of medium rare steak or a cold glass of milk.

grass-fed-beef1
Why don’t they look delicious?

I see a sedentary beast with flies buzzing around its head. I’m guessing a mountain lion looks at these same creatures in an entirely different manner. Lustfully drooling, like those vampires. I find that totally intriguing. Think about it. We don’t perceive our food sources as delicious until they are presented to us as such, i.e. breakfast, lunch or dinner. When I go fishing, a passion of mine, I don’t contemplate crunchy filets drizzled in lemon. Likewise, I don’t think a hunter is envisioning dinner when he draws a bead on a wandering elk.

Why, I wonder, are we like that? When other animals on the food chain are not. I remember the way my otherwise domesticated house cat looked at birds in the yard. With piercing eyes, he licked his lips, often emitting a disturbing, guttural sound. Like a freaking vampire.

The classic ad campaign for the Beef Council (“Beef. It’s what’s for Dinner.”) was outright carnivore porn, showing rare and succulent slabs of meat in extreme close-up. Yet, these plated cuts of beef were a long way from the barn or slaughterhouse.

Leftovers

And so, in an admittedly convoluted way, we’ve come to the topic of advertising.

People respond to presentation. When hungry we don’t think of a chicken or a cow or a trout in its natural state. We imagine it cooked in our favorite ways, surrounded by other favorite mostly prepared things. Advertising is all about presentation. It needs to make us want something, whether we even need it at all. It will stop at nothing to do so. The fantasy of any advertiser (no matter the category) is to create hordes of drooling customers, who look upon their products lustfully.

But something about our human nature won’t allow us to envision food from something walking around. Why is that?

242
Who doesn’t love a good debate?

I’m not sure what spurred the memory but the other night I got to thinking about a sophomore debating class I took at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Perhaps it was the latest flare up in the un-ending battle between Israel and some faction of the Arab world –this time Hamas. After all, here are two “sides” that have been warring (and subsequently debated on) for decades (seems a lot longer, doesn’t it?), with no apparent victor. Like “gun control” and “abortion” the “Middle East” is one of those debating class teeter-totters.

As I reflected on this class, it dawned on me how important it was in shaping my development as an advertising copywriter. The ability to create a compelling and fresh argument from tired tropes is paramount to good copywriting. For most clients, the benefits and solutions within their respective categories are extremely similar, if not identical. Therefore, practicing our skills on classic debating topics is very worthwhile. (By the way, most of this very paragraph has been constructed in the form of a syllogism (if/ then/ therefore), a term and concept I learned in debating class!)

I recall one assignment in particular, because it forced all of us out of our comfort zones: We had to compose an argument for the opposite side of an issue we believed in. So, for example, if you were Pro-Choice you had to write an argument for the “Right to Life.”

It was an infuriating exercise, inflaming our young passions in all the wrong ways. Which is also why it was such a valuable lesson. Forcing me to argue on behalf of something I was ignorant of or ardently opposed to was great preparation for a career in Adland!

After all, in my career I’ve had to write persuasively about countless products I know nothing about and will never use –everything from enterprise software to feminine protection. At Leo Burnett, I had to create numerous campaigns selling cigarettes, in my case Benson & Hedges. At another agency I worked on a pitch for an online gambling entity. I don’t drink alcohol because it nearly killed me but I’ve written national campaigns for Johnnie Walker and Anheuser Busch.

Scenarios like these are not uncommon. For many of us they represent just another tricky day in Adland. Putting aside one’s moral compass may be harder for some than others but either way the value of classic debating skills is obvious.

Leafly_NYT_aed
Such a legitimate looking ad…

The bastion of left wing liberal media, none other than the New York Times, last Sunday accepted for publication two ads all about legalized marijuana. One from a for profit company called Leafly, which is basically “the Yelp for information about legal cannabis.” In other words, where to find it and how good it is. In the same issue the Times also published an ad for an institution squarely against legalized, marijuana: grassisnotgreener.com. An affiliate of Project SAM, or Smart approaches to Marijuana, their ad warns of the dangers inherent in legalizing this “highly addictive drug.”

AdAge posted a comprehensive story about the event, well worth reading.

And make no mistake this is an event. For over 150 years, the venerable “Grey Lady” has been the benchmark publication for any and all “news that’s fit to print.” The fact that it has run an ad for where to buy pot is truly historic and gives the burgeoning enterprise true credibility. Which, of course, is exactly what grassisnotgreener is worried about.

Cynics may rightly point out that the NY Times took either ad at least partly because they needed the money. Perhaps. Like all newspapers in the digital age, it is struggling mightily to stay in business. Still, the Times have forsaken profits for years just to stay credible. Does taking this sort of advertising change that?

In my opinion: no. But there are likely other opinions. Rather than debate the issue –plenty of folks will do that- let’s look at the ads. After all, this is a blog about advertising.

The Leafly ad (above) depicts two overtly healthy and successful people. A young woman is jogging past an elegant brownstone, where we also see an executive upon the steps. Call outs tell us that both persons legally use marijuana for health reasons. The headline below them: Just Say Know. Obviously, this is a play on the (in) famous “Just Say No” campaign from the 1980’s, in which Nancy Reagan and others beseeched young people to forgo the temptations of illicit drugs. “Why do you think they call it dope?” was another beauty from the era.

Why the pun? I reckon to show how times have changed. Now it’s not even a debate. Making an informed choice about using this powerful drug is our prerogative, as predicated by the Compassionate Care Act. From a visual perspective, the ad blatantly uses cues denoting prosperity. So much so, it might well be a piece for an investment firm, which, I’ll bet, thousands of Times’ readers thought it was at first glance. Telegraphing affluence and prosperity, Leafly made an ad that looks utterly and predictably respectable. Save for the fact that it’s about smoking pot!

The other ad also borrows another famous ad concept from the eighties. Honestly, it’s a rip off of Rolling Stone magazine’s iconic print campaign, developed by the once glitteringly renowned Fallon/McElligott & Rice of Minneapolis. I’m not completely sure this was intended. The layout is different, not as good. Other things.

SAM_ad_full_page_NYT138

Regardless, I’m less comfortable with it. For one thing, the ad seems to say (in keeping with Rolling Stone’s campaign) that the perception of pot is of a hippie while the reality is actually a successful professional. The problem is that the ad intends a completely different message: that legalizing marijuana will lead to a business model just like Big Tobacco, with all its itinerant evil motives.

In my opinion as a creative director, both print ads are thoroughly average. They don’t take advantage of their stage. On the other hand, that might be a good move. You know, for better or worse, pot is business as usual.

The whole thing makes me dazed and confused.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,478 other followers