Ads As Absurdist Comedy

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Two current TV commercials have me thinking that they were written by Samuel Beckett: Toyota’s “The Ex” spot for its Camry and Oscar Meyer’s “It’s Yes Food” hotdog ads make us wait far too long for a payoff that proves to be utterly disappointing…not to mention just a stupid violation of basic, tactical rules of 21st century advertising.

The Ex” concept involves a twentysomething guy who bumps into an old girlfriend on the street. She’s all made-up in a bimbo sort of way while he’s appropriately schlubby as the stand-in for the target audience for the spot. She rattles on incessantly, going from expected catch-up stuff to really weird blather and free-association nonsense (hearing voices, aliens following her, that sort of thing). He walks to his car, a Camry which a pretty brunette and two little kids are getting into, and the guy remarks that he “dodged a bullet there,” followed by a narrator who intones, “Those who choose well, choose Camry.”

It takes just under a minute to get to those lines. For all but last few seconds we’re stuck wondering what the spot is promoting. Is it a commercial for insurance? A new smartphone app that hides your identity? Maybe the guy is a comic and has a special coming up on cable? The entire commercial is one long set-up that begs for some hint of its purpose or context.

So Toyota spent oodles of money to tell us what? Make good choices? Er, I think we already knew that.

The shocking part is that it couldn’t come up with something more meaningful and relevant to tell us about its Camry or, gasp, info that might actually prompt a follow-on action other than a bemused chuckle.

I can imagine the thoughtful conversations that went on with its ad agency, though: Target customer properly identified (check), entertaining content (check), snarky self-satisfied payoff (check). The mood of urban sophistication with an undercurrent of common sense and success are probably spot on for the brand (and there are endless PowerPoint slides to prove it). There are surveys and focus groups that have already proven that the spot raises important but vague potential behavioral qualities like “consideration,” as if the brand name Toyota wasn’t well-enough known to be on anybody’s real list.

Oscar Meyer delivers the same message with its latest campaign for its all-beef hotdogs, albeit with a different creative immolation: A somewhat middle-aged husband asks his wife if he can do a serious of nutty things — become Facebook friends with the babysitter, let their kid use a chainsaw — and she tells him “no” before he can even complete his requests. Then he asks her if they can have hotdogs for dinner and she replies “yes,” followed the the omniscient voice announcing in the last few seconds of the spot “In a world full of no’s, it’s nice to finally say yes. New Oscar Meyer Selects hot dogs…”

It’s the same punchline: Make good choices. Oscar Meyer has nothing to tell us about how, what, where, when, or why its products are particularly good (conversely, all of the the various “no” examples in the commercials are obvious). Hot dogs for dinner? You’d think there’d be something interesting and, yes, funny to say about that idea, but no. These spots are too busy being funny for the sake of being funny, as if the ad agency folks were trying to entertain themselves. The most important thing we learn from Oscar Meyer is that it’ll spend lots of money to tell us nothing important about its product.

Of course, these spots will be celebrated for furthering some brand strategy and held accountable for nothing else, just like Toyota’s ad. Sales, or even any activities that are remotely attached to selling in the real world, are beyond the purview of the campaigns. Like Beckett’s Godot, they’re not in the script. They’re truly absurd.

Here are a few thoughts for brands to consider before making the same mistake:

  • You can’t own funny, so don’t waste your money teeing-up a joke. It’ll never be worth it to your viewers. The Oscar Meyer and Toyota spots could have been created for any brand (and the ideas likely pitched to others first).
  • Get to the point. We live in a world full of multi-taskers who are distracted and impatient with things they genuinely care about, and you want to make an ad that is 99% set-up and 1% payoff?
  • Advertising isn’t art, it’s commerce. It’s supposed to have a sales punchline. Avoiding it doesn’t make the spots any more ‘content-ish’ or pleasing. It just renders them pointless and inert. We all know they’re ads. Act like you know it, too.

Ultimately, they’re not funny at all. Just stupid. They’ll probably win awards.

Image via flickr

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