Every day, talented writers, directors, and actors work hard to fill screens with television’s most important product: the commercials. But which ads are actually entertaining, or even effective, and which make viewers feel worse about the product? Why Is This Commercial? takes a closer look at the TV commercials that baffle and beguile us.
The product: The AT&T mobile network, and its ability to allow users to talk on the phone and surf the web simultaneously on the iPhone 5
The pitch: A deadpan, suited-up young man (played by Beck Bennett, from the sketch-comedy troupe Good Neighbor) asks a group of elementary-school kids whether it’s better to do two things at once or only one, to which the kids quickly answer “two,” thus proving that even children know the importance of multitasking. One of the children then demonstrates the awesomeness of doing two things by showing the interviewer how he can shake his head and wave his hand at the same time. When another little girl tries to show Bennett that she can do that too, he cuts her off abruptly, saying, “Hold on, I’m watching this.”
Nagging questions: Has the education budget been slashed so severely that entire grade-school classes are being rented out as focus groups? Shouldn’t someone point out that it isn’t always better to do two things at once, like texting and driving, or eating and swimming, or mixing brown liquors with clear ones?
How well does the ad sell the product? The “It’s Not Complicated” campaign debuted last fall, and has been a success inasmuch as the spots have generated a lot of chatter on social media—some of it along the lines of “I hate that commercial with the guy in the suit and the kids,” but more of it in the neighborhood of, “You know what commercial right now is actually pretty funny?” Much of the credit for how well the ads work is due to Bennett, who ably maintains the tone of a reporter doing man-on-the-street interviews, and acts intensely interested in whatever the children have the say, as though their opinions were essential to directing AT&T’s ongoing corporate strategy. The rest of the credit is due to the way the kids are handled. They seem natural, but the style of these commercials isn’t really improvisatory, or documentary-like. In the “Dizzy” spot, for example, the little girl who shouts that she’s “absolutely positive” that two things are better than one doesn’t sound like she just spat out that line spontaneously. She’s believable, but the moment and the line still feel rehearsed.
Does this campaign make a good case for AT&T? The commercials definitely push across simple ideas: a fast network is better, versatility is better, and so on. And they’re entertaining, by and large. People who find cute kids annoying may disagree, but in an advertising age dominated by destructive arrested adolescents, hipper-than-thou types, and people desperate to capture their best friends’ most embarrassing moments on their cell phones, it’s refreshing to spend 30 seconds with a group of people who seem genuinely pleasant, enthusiastic, and receptive to each other.
That said, the commercial “Dizzy” most resembles is another AT&T spot from a few years back: the “taco party” ad, in which one man’s slow cell-phone service causes him to miss the invitation to an impromptu work-lunch, and thus to rant prematurely about his co-workers’ failings. That was a funny commercial, with enough detail in the performances and writing that it stood up to repeated viewings, but it didn’t emphasize AT&T enough to make what the ad was selling clear. The same is true of the “It’s Not Complicated” ads: they’re pitching the idea of speed and flexibility, not really demonstrating why AT&T in particular is the best network to choose. This campaign would be like McDonald’s trying to sell hamburgers by explaining that the human body needs food. (Although actually, a similar campaign for fast food already exists, in the form of Checkers/Rally’s “You Gotta Eat.”)
It doesn’t help that the “It’s Not Complicated” spots appear to be another in the cycle of passive-aggressive shots fired between AT&T and Verizon, via commercials that merely allude to each other. Verizon ran an ad showing a map of the U.S. with far bigger areas of Verizon coverage than AT&T. The latter countered with the claim that Verizon had manipulated the data to make AT&T look worse than it actually is. Verizon launched the “Easy Choice” campaign, in which a man shows a bunch of different charts to a focus group, making the point that no matter how he crunches the numbers, Verizon comes out on top. And now AT&T has its own focus group of kids, essentially saying, “Look idiots, here’s what really matters about cell phone networks.” Any day now, expect a Verizon commercial in which the “Can you hear me now?” guy explains the principles of telephony to paramecia.