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“Hey, baby, let’s make an icon together!”

The other day I told someone that I had two fine Redwood trees in the backyard of my new home in Mill Valley. “Those are so iconic to California,” the person responded. At first I nodded in agreement but then I wondered aren’t palm trees more iconic to California? I suppose one could break it down using Southern and Northern California.

But that’s not the discussion we are going to have. Let’s take a fun but hard look at the “iconizing” of everything. Theses days, the word icon gets tossed around to describe just about anything. For example, someone says ‘those red apples are so iconic.’ To what exactly: The fruit category? Fall? Computers?

It’s gotten to the point that if we see something in the same place a few times (a billboard, a building, a homeless dude) it becomes an icon. The word “icon” or “iconic” has become overused in the same way the word “awesome” has. Hell, I’m guilty of doing it myself. Especially when it pertains to advertising. That typeface is so iconic! And this photograph… And that bottle… And this label…

If everything is an icon then what isn’t?

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Mundane, random and yet somehow iconic…

With popular culture usurping legitimate culture the matter has gotten exponentially worse. Maybe it started with Andy Warhol. A box of Tide became an icon. A can of soup. Now we can’t go down the grocery aisle without being bombarded by icons.

If ad agency folk are in the business of creating icons then clients are in the worse habit of declaring their brands to already be icons. How many times have I heard statements like “I don’t know, Steffan. We could never do an ad like that! Our brand is an icon.” Um, it’s fucking motor oil. Real brand icons like the classic Ford Mustang or Coca Cola bottle still resonate. But for every one of them there are countless poseurs. Poseurs we embrace like bogus celebrities.

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So many icons so little time…

Perhaps another taproot of icon-ubiquity was the advent of personal computing, when and where we all started clicking on icons. There, some little symbol represented a bigger property. More and more of them were added to our desktops and iPhones. Icons upon icons upon icons. The virtual world became an icon for the real one.

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The sublime adoration of anything…

(Author’s note: albeit altered, this post is a rewrite of a previous one.)

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…

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Crazy good!

For the past few days, even longer, I have been working on a manifesto for one of our (hopefully) new clients. Actually, I’ve been working on two. Even more actually, I’ve been working on manifestos for 25 years, since becoming a copywriter.

Nothing suits me more. For like many a creative soul, I am by nature a show off. And this is the way I can do it. I know I am not alone. Most copywriters get off on writing manifestos. At least they’d better. Writing such documents is at the heart of what we do, and can do, for our clients.

Most of you know what I’m talking about. For those unawares, a manifesto or mantra or anthem is the bringing to life in words the highest and most noble aspirations of its subject matter, aka the brand.

Yes, it is advertising copy but in the best sense of the word. Think Apple’s great script to the modern world: Think Different. Consider the lines that first and forever defined Nike to a generation: Just Do It. We know these iconic tags because we fell in love with the manifestos. Frankly, neither line would have lasted this long, or even gotten out the door, if not for their beloved manifestos.

The power and glory of a brilliant manifesto cannot be overstated. They raise the hairs on the back of your neck. They make CMO’s smile. They win pitches. Most of all they change things: attitudes, behaviors, even lives.

At least the good ones do.

Alas, we’ve all heard or, God forbid, written our share of shitty ones. They can be purple or redundant or both. They get long pretty damn fast. They turn into cheesy rip-o-matics. Yet, in a weird way, even the bad ones sound pretty good. They are like pizza that way.

Why?

Because we slave over them. Into these haloed paragraphs we put everything we know or think we know about writing, about persuading, about life. Here you won’t find speeds and feeds, racks and stacks or friends and family call free! None of that. For these are the best neighborhoods in Adland. No thugs allowed.

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The “ad” scientist…

One of the things I’ve come to disdain about our business is how damn serious we take it. Not the craft itself, which I think is beautiful and even pure, but rather the extemporaneous crap we built around it over the years. Stuff like process and proprietary tools; the things we fill our slides with that come before we actually do what we do, which, for those who’ve forgotten, is create work that gets people to think and/or behave in a favorable way to our clients. I was going to say: we make ads; but I realize that “advertising” has become an outmoded term. Still, we are always selling something, even if it’s just a philosophy or an idea. Yet, because of this variable I accept, begrudgingly, that advertising isn’t all we do.

Whatever your take on the matter, you must agree we have complicated what we do beyond what is necessary to doing it well. This is why briefs are no longer brief. This is why Cannes has become a cluster fuck. This is why I am writing this post.

By definition, planning and strategy are the progenitors of creativity. The agency gets an assignment and we formulate a team. The left brains give us facts and insights. The right brains turn them into ideas. In a healthy agency the two sides work together. Part of this is collaboration. Part of it isn’t. Each assignment predicates a different balance of both. Inviolate in all this are the people. The better the people the better the outcomes.

Yet, as obvious and true as all this seems (to me anyway), agencies (not just mine, not just yours, all of them) have endeavored to codify every step we take in getting to our outcome. We call it our process. Basically, process is how agencies mitigate the fear involved with taking a risk. We create the illusion of proof to support an idea. This insight divided by that challenge equals a solution. Ta da!

Another bit of reverse alchemy occurs when we justify an idea after the fact. True story. My one-time creative partner at Leo Burnett, Mark Faulkner devised the brilliant green color that to this day represents the iconic Altoids’ campaign he and I created so many years ago. Taken for granted now, in the campaign’s infancy it was questioned. After all, the client reasoned, the product was white not green. As was the packaging Altoids came in, with red piping.

Altoids 1

I recall vividly my longwinded reply to this client. I stated that Mark’s color scheme evoked the “industrial strength” of a bygone era, like battleships and tough guy locker rooms. I talked about the “steam punk” phenomenon, likening the color to a powerful nostalgia “locked up” in every tin’s DNA. I said a lot of shit that day. And I’m pretty sure everyone in the room bought it. Everyone, that is, accept my partner. Mark rolled his eyes at me (not the first time) and stated where the color really came from: “I chose it because it looked cool.”

It looked cool.

In the end Altoids became a billion-dollar brand and the campaign a perennial award’s show favorite because he made it “look cool.” All that came afterwards –a textbook full of complicated nonsense- had less to do with Altoids’ success than Mark’s divine intuition. Food for thought next time we pray at the altar of agency process. For though we have made our agencies into churches of organized religions, divine inspiration often has nothing to do with it.


Understanding meaning without understanding words…

Tim Nudd of Adweek asks if Beats by Dre “just out-Nike-d Nike” with a new five minute film celebrating the World Cup, which begins shortly in Rio. The answer is yes and the reason isn’t the game’s featured stars’ prowess on the pitch but rather what these athletes do before the games. Hence the film’s title, The Game Before the Game. The rituals, the cultural details, the family involvement. These are the things that make this film shine.

In particular, the riveting opening scene featuring Brazil’s Neymar Jr. engaging his father in a quiet but intense telephone conversation -apparently a pregame ritual. What I especially love about this scene is the use of sub titles. The intimacy of the words is made even more poignant by seeing them.

Not too long ago, in my previous agency, we proposed a concept featuring an Italian mother speaking to her child before sitting down to a bowl of our client’s pasta, which was a huge Italian brand. While the commercial was intended for an American audience, we wanted to highlight the client’s authentic Italian heritage by filming the dialog in Italian and using sub titles. We were filming in Italy with an Italian cast for that very reason: to be authentic.

The client vetoed the idea. In fact, they were vehemently opposed to it. The reason cited was that American audiences would be frustrated by having to read. Instead they preferred we find an Italian cast that spoke English well enough to deliver the lines.

What a fail that was.

In my opinion it is the use of sub titles that drew me in to the Beats’ commercial. Hearing the men speak in a very personal way, in their native tongue, is what establishes the films high level of integrity and authenticity. The filmmakers could have chosen another way to open the spot making it “easier” on foreign audiences. But they didn’t. They could have tried getting the two men to recite their lines in English. But they didn’t.

Conversely, what my provincial client failed to grasp is that we live in a global world. Hearing other languages is a part of our everyday lives, regardless of where we live. Why should commercials be any different?

To this argument, our client said their Middle-American target was not sophisticated enough to appreciate a commercial in another language. Bullshit. While I partially agree the average American may not have patience for a movie with sub-titles they certainly could tolerate a 30 second commercial. Plus, and this is key, the fact that the characters were speaking Italian would say a lot more about the pasta’s authenticity than the inane lines we had scripted. Our pleas fell on deaf ears, pun intended.

In 2014, l like to think most advertiser’s are “progressive” enough to get that American audiences can handle a foreign language being spoken in a TV commercial as well as the sub-titles (if necessary). Ironically, in other countries other languages (particularly English) are a part of modern advertising. Granted, English is the default language of the world.

Whatever. Are we still asking if “it’ll play in Peoria?” Are we that provincial? Are we that stupid?

Special update: super similar story via AdAge:http://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/world-cup-marketers-air-subtitled-spots/293973/?utm_source=daily_email&utm_medium=newsletter&utm_campaign=adage&ttl=1404854361

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