Commercials I Like

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My recent post about commercials that I find irritating might have led one to believe that I’m annoyed by commercials in general, but that’s really not the case.  I find advertising sort of fascinating, and I get real enjoyment out of a well-made television commercial.  In an effort to balance negativity with positivity, here are my thoughts on a few I’ve liked lately.

The ESPN campaign for the FIFA World Cup has a simple goal: alert unaware Americans, of which I’m sure there are quite a few, that the World Cup is coming soon and it will be televised on ESPN.  They do that quite well, but they also accomplish a couple of secondary things, most notably convince skeptical American non-soccer fans that this is a really big deal and worthy of their attention, and get Americans that are already interested in soccer absolutely, foaming-at-the-mouth, crazy excited about it.

The first ad I saw them air is a nice, concise 30-second spot featuring footage from World Cups past and a simple voiceover.  The key here, for me at least, is the use of “City of Blinding Lights” by U2, which is just the perfect song.  It was also famously employed during the introduction of Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee for President back in 2008, a totally goosebump-inducing moment for me.  I feel like a memo went out to all of the people that score things like this that this should be their go-to song.

The second spot they started running has a subtler goal: convincing American soccer fans that ESPN isn’t going to screw things up this time like they did in 2006.  They want to be sure that we know that they are going to be using a legitimate announcer with an English accent (Martin Tyler) as opposed to a converted baseball announcer (Dave O’Brien).  This is a smart move and addresses the main complaint the fans had about ESPN’s coverage four years ago.  To keep the dramatic atmosphere going, they’re sticking with U2, this time using “Beautiful Day.”  Say what you want about modern-day U2 being sell-outs, but they sure know how to create atmosphere.

Recently they started airing a longer spot, which is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch.  This time they’ve doubled the U2 quotient, not only using another of their songs (although this time one that I’ve never heard before), but also having Bono provide the voiceover.  At least I’m pretty sure that’s Bono.  It’s funny that U2 is basically the face of the World Cup for ESPN, considering the dramatic way Ireland was eliminated in qualifying.   I’m not sure that the message of this commercial really holds up, but I find it to be totally riveting.  I think I might even have shushed Johanna the first time I saw it.

The World Cup is one of the easiest things I can think of to advertise.  The formula is obvious: take some dramatic soccer footage, add a great song, and put some generically grandiose voiceover on top of it.  But with this campaign ESPN could have settled for an easy 8, and went for a 10 instead.  Kudos.  I don’t care if you don’t have any interest in sports; if you can watch these three ads and not be at all excited about at least the concept of the World Cup, I probably don’t have much interest in knowing you.

I wonder if these were done by the Wieden+Kennedy agency, the same people that are responsible for the classic “This is Sportscenter” ads that have pretty much defined ESPN’s advertising over the years.

To the extent that it’s possible to be a fan of an advertising agency, I’m a fan of Wieden+Kennedy.  They’re also responsible for the Rube Goldbergian Honda “The Cog” ad, which was actually made for the UK (note the steering wheel on the right), but became a minor internet sensation.

I don’t like everything they’ve done.  They’re responsible for the current Old Spice campaign, which I think is kind of annoying and serves as a good example of ads that are just weird for no particular reason.  Don’t get me wrong; I like weird commercials.  I just don’t like commercials that seem like they’re trying to be quirky just to get street cred.

Even though I don’t like the commercial, I certainly can’t argue with its success.  That video has almost 9,000,000 views on YouTube.

The main reason I like W+K, though, is that they achieved international success based almost entirely on merit.  As far as I can tell, they were just an advertising company in Portland that lucked out by getting Nike as a client, and then proceeded to keep the account and grow into a powerhouse by consistently making some of the most iconic ads of all time.  They came up with “Just Do It,” for God’s sake, which I think is totally brilliant.  Maybe I have their origin story wrong, but if I don’t I think that’s pretty awesome.

I’m not sure if they do all of Nike’s ads or just some of them, but I’m a big fan of Nike advertising in general.  Nike, like the World Cup, is inherently easier to advertise for (or at least make seem cool) than something like Wal-Mart or Advil, but they still deserve credit for being pioneers with the concept of basically ignoring the product and selling the brand as a lifestyle.  Nike just seems so much bigger and more important than, say, Reebok.

Here’s a spot from Nike that I believe began airing during the Vancouver Olympics.  Classic Nike.  Their employees sit in cubicles just like everyone else, and their shoes are made in the same sweatshops as every other shoe company’s, but their ads make them seem so viscerally cool.

If Nike commercials don’t make you want to go to the gym, then…well, you probably really need to go to the gym.  It’s like how Hoarders always makes me want to immediately throw out everything I own.

Here’s an ad from a couple of years ago that I believe was directed by Guy Ritchie; if that’s true, this is the best thing he’s directed since Snatch.

I don’t know how I feel about the first-person perspective gimmick, but the whole concept is great, and it’s so wonderfully slick.  It’s like a European episode of Entourage. The best part, though, is Arsène Wenger’s super-exaggerated head motion.  Let’s just say the man is better at spotting young talent than he is at acting.

I mentioned earlier that I don’t like commercials that are weird for no reason.  Usually they sacrifice coherence for the sake of style, or drop in a “cool” celebrity that dominates the spot and doesn’t make any sense.  Oftentimes I think the ads themselves end up being memorable, but I can’t even remember what it was they were supposed to be advertising in the first place.  Hewlett-Packard lately has been running a series of ads that would seem to fit that description, but actually pull everything together really well.

On paper, an HP commercial featuring Murray from Flight of the Conchords sounds like a recipe for disappointment to me.  And I suppose that if you weren’t familiar with the character, you might be a bit confused about why they chose to go with a weird guy from New Zealand as their spokesman.  But I don’t think his inclusion really takes away from their message, and all of the ads are funny while still managing to be informative about cool things that HP products can do.  As an added bonus, fans of the show will immediately be paying attention, and I’m sure it’s not lost on HP that the fans are overwhelmingly young, educated city dwellers with expendable income.

HP, like Nike, has a history of good commercials.  Everyone seemed to like the “Hands” campaign from a few years ago.

So, there was a little bit of variety here, but I also seem to really like commercials about sports.  I’ll try to broaden my subject matter a bit the next time I visit this subject.  For now, though, I’m going to watch those Nike commercials again and then head to the gym.

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