The Walking Dead, saison 1
We’ve opened Pandora’s box…

The Walking Dead season finale contained one of the most violent scenes I’ve witnessed in a film of any kind and it didn’t involve zombies at all. A ruthless gang of survivors had the protagonists of the series dead to rights. And then the heroes turned the tables, eliciting vile payback. Rick bit open the throat of his captor and then guts the heathen who was about to rape his son. More death. Like that.

The previous week’s episode featured the entirely unexpected murder of a young girl, who’d lost her mind and killed her sister trying to prove that her subsequent “turning” would be evidence that the undead were, what, normal? These episodes were brutal, nihilistic and, basically amazing.

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The living people have become the walking dead themselves. They move forward killing everything in their paths, like zombies. The flicker of hope for humanity grows ever more dim. It’s barely there.

During a commercial break (yes, I watched the network broadcast) was a preview of a sequel to The Purge, a film about legalized crime including (and especially) murder. I didn’t see the original movie but enough people did to warrant a sequel.

Then came a Hyundai spot where you can build your own zombie killing car. Benign in terms of mayhem the spot is meant to be funny. I suppose…

My, oh my. So many visions of the Apocalypse! We Are What We Are is the title of a film about modern day cannibals, itself a remake of a Spanish film about people eaters.

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Read it with the lights on…

I’ve been a horror fan since I can remember. The first real book I ever read for “fun” was Salem’s Lot. As a boy I thrilled at Hammer’s vision of the undead. Christopher Lee’s Dracula and his gory sexy brides formed my world view –or at least provided lurid escape from the sketchy real world: my parent’s divorce, step-father’s suicide, gang-bangers on every corner, teachers that didn’t give a shit, friends who had it worse than me and acted accordingly.

By comparison, fictional evil was somehow… attractive.

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Lee’s Dracula and friend. What’s not to like?

For me, hanging out with miscreants on the street corner was far more threatening. Pretending not to be scared in real life was a lot harder than bearing monsters in books and on screen. Enduring evermore-gruesome fictions was (and is) a way for a young man to demonstrate courage. It’s a theory.

And now you feel it don’t you? The mainstream embraces horror like never before, as I did as a teenager and still do. In films, books, comics, games, television, music and even commercials. Always profitable but formerly seedy, the horror genre has risen from the grave!

You have become like me, God have mercy on your souls.

If the story is good does the truth even matter?

Watch the above clip from Mad Men, where the inimitable Don Draper delivers a moving story to a group of silver-haired Hershey clients in a pitch for their business. Then pause the clip. Think about what he said. It’s a gorgeously romantic picture, linking the venerable chocolate bar with all that is great about childhood, parenting, and indeed life in these United States.

And then he tells the truth.

With a roomful of happy clients, and as the media guy is going in for the close, Don does an about-face, a shocking one: admitting that, in fact, he was an orphan, raised in a Pennsylvania whorehouse. The story only gets sadder… and weirder. He ends it by recalling one of the prostitutes buying him a Hershey bar if he’d stolen enough cash from her john’s pockets while the pair were off “screwing.” Understandably, Don’s clients and partners are mortified. This grotesque portrait is the antithesis of Draper’s previous story. It is another brilliant glimpse into why this show and this character are so freaking special.

Yet…

I think Don’s ability to create the first tale in spite of the second is precisely why Hershey should hire him anyway. The man is remarkably capable. That he can spin such a marvelous yarn while having no actual basis for it make him the consummate copywriter.

Occasionally, I, too, have had this morbid fantasy (death wish?) of exploding a pitch by telling the unvarnished truth. It’s not that I desire losing. Anything but. It’s just that sometimes I feel compelled to remind everyone in the room that we are all in the business of telling stories, that what we are creating together is grandiose fabrication. Strategy is merely the plot.

Though I wasn’t orphaned in a brothel, by most standards my childhood was far from ideal. Chances are neither was yours. The point is some of us were able to transcend our compromised upbringings by creating stories in our heads that made us, well, happier in our conditions. This ability may have started as a coping mechanism, then evolved into a means of survival. For me it became a vocation. I found I could create stories for brands that in turn made them “feel good.” I could make people want things they did not possess the same way I filled these wholes in myself: with myths.

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My life has no meaning… but I can brighten it with Colgate!

Left brain thinkers often fail (refuse?) to realize that emotional connections to brands can be the result of deep seated anxieties or longings. Apple’s iconic “1984” commercial made obvious virtue of negative emotions, supplanting societal angst over a computer driven society by introducing the first personal computer. When Coca Cola made its epic “Buy the World a Coke” commercial it was interpreted as a love anthem, which it was. But beneath that song was perhaps a yearning by the copywriter for a world that absolutely did not exist, empirically and personally. Can you say Viet Nam? And it’s not just in ancient TV commercials. So much of what we do now –interstitially, experientially, et-cetera- is totally based on creation myths. Even a lowly banner beseeches us to take stock of our present situation and, upon finding it lacking, to take action. Click here for relief!

Critics admonish this ‘gift’ as duplicitous, which of course it is. Even the subhead of my own blog suggests as much. Sigh. It’s called copywriting. For most people the real world is deeply challenging. We believe in God to make us feel better. Well, guess what? We are made consumers for the same reason. Think about that next time you’re noshing on a chocolate bar.

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Just add hot water…

Time for a true and funny story and, as it happens, the learning of one my new favorite phrases: Chocolate Teapot. What the hell is a chocolate teapot you ask? I’ll get to that. But first the story…

Partly because of my agency’s history and also our Bay Area location, at gyro we handle a lot of technology clients. On our roster we have some of the biggest tech firms in the world and just as many small. All of them are dear to us. The big ones keep us honest. The small ones keep us sharp. Or is it the other way around? Suffice to say, we are fortunate for having all of them.

Like any agency, when a RFI (Request for Information) and/or RFP (Request for Proposal) comes over the transom we quickly assemble the management team to see if the company would be a good fit –for both parties. Like any agency, we are reluctant to pass on new business. It happens. But usually we at least opt to meet the prospect.

A while back a query arrived from the new CMO of a technology company based in New Zealand. The fellow was planning on expanding operations in the US and was looking for an agency to help him to it. Without naming names, his company did have credibility as a going concern in its country of origin. The business model intrigued us. We scheduled a meeting.

So the guy comes in. He’s a nice enough person and the senior members of the agency carved out two hours for credentials and conversation. We had coffee service and bagels and everybody was up for the meeting. After going through our “creds” we got into the man’s business, talked strategy and outlined various scenarios we thought might be of interest to him. A spirited and fun discussion followed.

Somewhere along the way the man uttered the expression “chocolate teapot” as in ‘the website was as useful as a chocolate teapot.’ I’d never heard the expression and neither had my colleagues. We all appreciated the poetry of it. Pour hot water into a chocolate teapot. Useless!

Two hours go by and the man is completely engaged –a good thing- so we all silently agreed to go over our allotted time. About three hours in our Managing Director steered the conversation to the sensitive topic of budget. We rightly assumed we had a willing prospect and besides, at that point, what else are we going to discuss?

This charming, bespectacled New Zealander replied, “I have five or six thousand dollars to play with.”

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You should have seen our faces. Our smiles looked like they had been carved out by a plastic surgeon. Not to be crass but if one added up the salaries in the room and multiplied them by three hours we’d already eclipsed that number. With politeness we resolutely ended our meeting.

Afterward, one of us joked: “Well, that was about as useful as a chocolate teapot.” Though thankfully seldom used, the phrase became part of our vocabulary. Which, I guess, is the icing on the teapot.

Orbit number one

Orbit numero dos

I’m not going to editorialize (too much) on Orbit gum’s new ad campaign, featuring comedienne, Sarah Silverman. It’s certainly watchable, though the brand and agency have arguably done better. Worth noting I’m not a big fan of anthropomorphizing objects like gloves and coffee cups.

Interesting, however, is the brand’s nearly total about face in protagonist -from longtime campy blond spokesperson (the so-called Orbit girl) to an edgy Jewish gal, Ms. Silverman. No two women could be more dissimilar! Not too long ago it would be the “ethnic” gal being dinged for the perky blond. Progress!

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Adios, blondie.

Especially intriguing (or is silly a better word?) is the hispanic version of the same TV commercial I discovered while previewing the original. As far as I can tell, the two spots are virtually identical, save for the actors and language.

Over the years I’ve had countless pieces of copy translated into other languages, which typically means sending the work to a network office in another country. If print, then it’s simply a matter of transcribing the text. For obvious reasons, television is trickier. One requires a proactive strategy. For example, if you anticipate the need for a translated version, it behooves you to generally shy away from concepts featuring dialog, opting instead for campaigns relying on voice-over. That way you only need to redo the AVO, and not the film.

Orbit chose to completely reshoot the TVC. That’s an expensive choice. The client is doubling the cost for basically one execution. Other questions arise. For instance, I wonder if the Spanish-speaking actress is also a celebrity comedienne in her country or if she’s just commercial talent? Is the story the same in both spots? Looks like it is but I really have no idea. I’m guessing she and it are mismo. (Perhaps one of my Spanish speaking readers can help us out?)

In Hollywood, it is not unheard of for certain foreign titles to be remade for English speaking audiences, sometimes even shot for shot. The popular Mexican-made horror film, Rec was remade almost identically in English as Quarantine. Incedentally, I liked both pictures. There are countless other examples in TV as well as film. Stands to reason advertising would be no exception.

But still…

I found the foreign Orbit commercial unintentionally hilarious. I know I’m being childish. Wouldn’t be the first time. I also think it’s fascinating to view both films side by side, just to see the distortions and similarities. Kind of like seeing one’s reflection in a fun house mirror. Ay Carumba!

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Like a Cat 5 in NY…

I’m writing this on a malfunctioning computer attached to a malfunctioning human being on the long flight to San Francisco from New York. Regarding my computer: Upon pulling a wad of printouts off a table in the “war room” my laptop fell to the hard, wooden floor. I thought it had survived but now I’m not so sure. All my web pages keep opening up in extreme grandpa close-up. And while this does make my tired eyes happy it is also causing pandemonium on my desktop. I highlight this banal fact primarily to segue into my postmortem post on my pitch in NY, or PMPMP.

Quite a week. Or was it two? Without naming the client, three of gyro’s offices (including mine in San Francisco) participated in a whirlwind global pitch in New York. Hardly my first rodeo but by any standard this pitch was a doozy, replete with all-nighters and lost weekends on both coasts -pretty much everything you’d expect from just such an activity.

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“I’ll kick your ass for putting down my work!”

Except, remarkably, for fighting. Given how many sleep-deprived Type-A’s were involved I’d have expected more clashing and scheming. I’m not saying we were saints but I’ve seen these pressure cookers go off like dynamite in a microwave. Didn’t happen. Not to be a homer, but maybe there is something to this “Uno” culture we talk about at gyro.

Cut to Friday, when we delivered a big, careening hurricane of people and ideas. Prior to that, the pressure had been building all week and as the first bands rippled through our offices the energy became palpable: people running around, printing docs, yelling into phones. Then when the client finally came off that elevator: total quiet. In the eye now. Hush. The adrenaline crackling like electricity… kaboom! 90 minutes of full-on energy. The pitch.

And then, just like that, it’s over…

A bit later, sitting in the cab to JFK, I find myself feeling depressed. Not because we did a bad job. Frankly, I think we killed it. So why? Did I miss the crazy camaraderie? The caffeinated late night writing sessions? The crap take-out? My colleagues?

That’s part of it. One can’t help but develop a corps d’esprit. But there’s also a strange sadness that isn’t so easy to describe. My business partner calls it “post pitch depression.” It’s a perfect name for it. After all, we’d gone through a protracted labor and given birth to three ideas (triplets!) in front of parents who may or may not even want them!! Intense!!!

Understandably, I am spent and a little shell-shocked. I don’t drink alcohol anymore but I most certainly would if I could.

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She liked her captors, too.

A pitch is a force of nature. For all of the stress and pain it causes, they also create a Stockholm Syndrome among the participants (me anyway).

I don’t want it to end even though I desperately want it to end. I love my teammates even though I want to kill them. Weird shit like that. Post pitch depression. I’ll get over it. And there will always be another.

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