So, after all these years, Barbie is finally making her foray into the real world. A new commercial from Mattel heralds the diverse line-up of figures, featuring a curvier doll, a petit doll, and others, none as Stepford-like as the leggy, thin blonde who has represented the brand for decades.

For obvious reasons, this is a good thing. And the film does a nice job of introducing the concept. The spot has a more serious tone than what we see in most toy commercials, with softer music and adult language. Yes, young girls are shown playing with dolls, in a light airy setting, which is typical. But the children deliver lines that are far more socially aware. “It’s important for Barbies to look different,” a child says, opening the spot. Later, one states she likes her Barbie because it reminds her of her mom. I respect that the children are not mere shills. A huge improvement.

What’s even more unusual is that the film is intercut with shots of Mattel designers talking about their vision for these new dolls. Now girls have dolls “they can relate to,” says one. We see these designers making the dolls as well, spinning their hair and sewing their outfits. That’s radical. I can’t think of a toymaker ever showing its toys getting made. In the past, dolls were always seen imitating human behavior. Showing them being built defies that illusion.

But so what? I think children comprehend dolls are manufactured and can appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into it. Granted, a hip designer creating a prototype probably looks nothing like the factory workers who really do make these Barbies but that’s another story.

Before writing further, I have to commend Mattell and its ad agency, BBDO San Francisco for not only evolving Barbie into the 21st century but for making a commercial with a degree of gravitas. Both things are remarkable and deserve praise.

That said, I still wonder about the oldest stigma regarding Barbie and dolls in general: that they are only for girls. As with Disney’s Princesses, I think there’s something forced about steering girls into passive feminine roles. I have three daughters and lived through it. I always cringed when they obsessed over dollies. It’s all so weirdly Victorian. We boys grew up with Star Wars figures and G I Joe. Men of action, power and violence. Then video games. Science, technology and war. Not that that’s a good thing but it completely reinforces that it’s a man’s world.  Even though it’s understandable, there are no boys and only 3 seconds of one man in this commercial. Maybe in the next campaign they can find a way to be less “girlie.” Likewise, where is Ken? Will he be gaining weight and going bald? Or will they take him another direction a la Bruce Jenner?

The ambivalence in my lead is based on mitigating factors I will get to. First some praise. These new GE commercials are more than TV spots they are truly short films, carefully and wonderfully produced. Every element has been rendered at the highest level of craft. Listen to Beck’s score, for example, how it gently but persuasively pushes our buttons, keying in on what is humanly relevant and even profound. Making us feel the message.

Not to be a shill for GE or its ad agency, BBDO but I could easily rhapsodize about any aspect of these commercials. The casting. The writing. The cinematography. Like them or not, anyone who knows anything about production will recognize the obvious care (and cost) that went into making these commercials. BBDO has long been known for it’s prowess in making exemplary TV campaigns, and these will do nothing to hurt that reputation.

Tonally, both commercials remind me of certain odd, brave feature films that, like them or not, are deserving of praise. Spike Jonze’s award winning film, Her. And the decidedly more flawed but fascinating Luc Besson feature, Lucy. Vaguely unsettling but ultimately heart-wrenching stories of technology, people and the mysteries of life are what propel those films and these commercials.

The comparison is more obvious with Her. Its quirky yet deeply intimate style is, in my view, exactly what the filmmakers of the GE commercials were going for. I chose Lucy because, despite a dubious concept and being silly around the edges, it shoots for the stars and damn near gets there. Lucy is fresh and interesting film. It’s not boring. It tried hard to rise above its genre and B-movie pedigree. Morgan Freeman and Scarlet Johansson certainly helped.

Likewise, these commercials try harder than most. Way more.

That said I am struggling with how similar the GE Scary Ideas film is conceptually to the attached German commercial for Epuron, The Power of Wind, which won countless awards in 2007-08, including top honors in Cannes. You can’t tell me BBDO’s savvy creative leadership were unawares. I’m certain they not only knew about Wind but likely set about emulating it. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Ten years ago I would have called it plagiarism. Now, I’m not sure the term even applies. Is it iteration or a rip off?

Yet, whatever quarrel we may have conceptually or otherwise, we all need to appreciate a client and an agency that tries and unequivocally succeeds at doing something interesting. Period.


Admiral’s Club, O’Hare Field, Chicago

Picture perfect day in Chicago but once again I’m at the Admiral’s Club in O’Hare airport. Here the sunshine is more of a nuisance than anything else. Right now it’s pouring in through the windows causing numerous guests to uproot and move. Twenty miles east the city’s annual Gay Pride Parade is probably breaking all records for attendance. It truly is a perfect day for being “out.”


“Admiral’s Club” Halsted Street, Chicago

Anyway, once again, I’m flying to Los Angeles. Trust me I’m not complaining. This is exactly what I want and need to be doing. Talking with companies interested in producing my movie scripts is an avocation I will pursue to my grave, and, given my latest script is about the undead , maybe even after that!

Meeting with entities interested in my services as creative director and/or copywriter is even more important. That’s my vocation. My forays into freelancing have been a great experience for me and hopefully to the agencies I’ve helped. I’d like to do more of it. As I wrote on Twitter the other day, “Hire me and you get ECD talent at CD prices!” What’s not to like? Don’t answer that.

By the way, I intend to write about my experience on the other side of the desk from a creative director. It’s been surprisingly fun and satisfying NOT being the boss. Creating and presenting ideas more than makes up for any loss of credentials.

Still, Chief Creative Officer was my last job. This particular trip west has me visiting the CEO of a pretty terrific company who just might be looking for a creative leader. The more I read about his company the more I like the opportunity. I’m thrilled to meet him.

I’m telling you all this because I don’t have another essay prepared. Frankly, if my flight wasn’t delayed for mechanical difficulties I couldn’t have even written this. Who’d ‘a thunk being unemployed would be so damn time consuming?

Too bad I can’t make a living writing Gods of Advertising. But like fishing, it’s a labor of love. Even so, I beg your pardon for its ‘Dear Diary’ like content. I’ll be back at my desk soon enough. And for those of you coming back from the Advertising Festival in Cannes: Welcome back to yours!


Strangers TV spot 1
Strangers TV spot 2

Are drugs turning your kid into a stranger?

That’s the provocative question being posed in a pair of new commercials created by Energy BBDO for The Partnership at Drugfree.org. In each spot a bewildered mom struggles to recognize her own children. Using older actors playing strung out losers (in place of what should be ordinary kids) is the campaign’s primary conceit. They are belligerent and ugly people; the kind of people kids become once they start abusing drugs and alcohol.

I admire the simplicity of the idea, dramatizing what otherwise is a complicated and challenging problem. A legitimate approach, it definitely has legs. To that end, I wouldn’t mind seeing coming spots push the ugly transformations even further. The two users in this commercial come across as goofier than plagued.

Yet, maybe that’s a good move (intended by the client and creatives), allowing parents and kids to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Addiction is just that: a tunnel. The further in you go the harder it is to get out. In recovery they call the darkest place in it one’s bottom. Trust me, I know. Yet, for as long as there have been anti-drug commercials there have been acute dramatizations of brutal despair and disgusting consequences. The characters in these spots aren’t quite there yet, thank God.

On a special note, it’s gratifying seeing (and writing about) so many quality campaigns coming out of my hometown, Chicago. First the exemplary Mayhem campaign from Leo Burnett. Followed by Secret’s timely and provocative meanstinks work from the same agency. And now “Strangers” from Energy BBDO. Spring is here –sort of. We will soon have a new Mayor. And the Bulls are heading into the playoffs as a number one seed. Are Chicago’s agencies following suit? The arrow is pointing up.


Getting down with the boss!

One of my all time favorite Homer Simpson lines is when he refers to alcohol as the “cause and solution to all of my problems.” Let Homer’s sagacity serve as fair warning, because it’s time again for that bit of bacchanal known as the office Christmas party. While just about every business has some kind of shindig few do it with such desperate ardor as Adland. After all, we have a reputation to uphold. Everyone knows adfolk like to throw down. Hell, Mad Men devoted an entire episode to it. I think it ended with a drunken secretary mowing over the leg of an agency partner. One can dream, right?

Growing up at Leo Burnett Chicago, I can tell you I’ve seen more than one mother of all office parties. Back in the day, it was typical for the agency to spend several million dollars “producing” the annual celebration. Of course, back in the day we made commercials costing that much. All. The. Time. Ask Joe Pytka. I say produced because that’s the right word. As early as June teams were assigned to the Breakfast. Scripts were written. Storyboards rendered. Talent booked. And whoever was responsible had better do a good job of it. Nothing took priority.

The day started with a posh breakfast for everyone, followed by a 2-hour show, replete with speeches, skits, films and surprises such as the appearance of a celebrity from a current campaign. One time, in a salute to Marlboro, an agency leader rode up to the stage on a horse. This year, I hear Allstate’s “Mayhem Man” might be dropping in…through the roof?

But breakfast was only the beginning. As soon as the curtain fell, everyone rushed back to the office to get bonus checks. That’s right, everyone got a bonus. And I’m not talking about paperweights and tie clips. Most people received a noticeable chunk of their salary. Some more than that. Crazy, huh? Such were the joys of private ownership. You had to be there. Seriously. (BTW, Breakfast Day wasn’t some greedy 80’s scheme. Adman Leo Burnett started it. No bourgeois poofer, Leo busted his ass to succeed and expected all who worked for him to do the same. For the effort you were amply rewarded. That simple.)

After breakfast, you went to your group party for dinner and fellowship. Speeches were given, toasts made, that sort of thing. That night, every good restaurant in town had a group of us in.

Round two was the main event. Everyone converged on one or two of Chicago’s biggest clubs. Here is where the naughty happened. Remember- folks had been drinking since 8 AM and, in addition, were newly rich. It’s a heady brew. In the age of political correctness, our holiday office party was like a “Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free” card in Monopoly.

Nowadays, we scoff at this excess, and we certainly don’t partake in it, at least not to the degree I’ve described. But that doesn’t mean you won’t see the boss making out with a coat check girl, the weeping assistant, or the normally conservative gal from HR, empowered by Jaeger bombs, doing karaoke on top of the bar; in other words all the things that make holiday parties fun.

Obviously, as a reformed drinker I’m more of an observer. While still enjoyable, the last few years I’ve slipped out from my party well before midnight. Tonight I’m not even going. Taking my daughters to their riding lessons in the suburbs. Yee-Ha!

And yes, I’ve written about all this before. (What can I say? I’m attracted to the dark side.) Here’s a favorite post, retelling an office party story my father told me.

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