Artists Pay Back (The Blog)

January 23, 2011

NEW Cautionary Tales! (Now With 100% Less Caution!)

"Don't do as I did...unless you like fame and fortune."

As 2010 came to a close and 2011 was dawning with all its shiny newness, there were three seemingly disparate stories that all had a similar thread running through them. Though each of these were potentially niche stories (in the areas of football, trash TV, media) they all made their way into the general flow of conversation in the public consciousness. Representing football, you had Michael Vick’s journey from NFL superstar to convicted felon back to NFL Superstar (V2.0, now with pocket passing!). As for trash TV (in every sense of the word), you had all the subjects of 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom in general and Amber Portwood specifically, the show’s de facto breakout star (for all the wrong reasons). Finally, there is media’s new “Golden Voice” Ted Williams, and his one-in-a-million (YouTube hits) journey from rags-to-Seacrest.

At first glance it wouldn’t seem like these stories had much in common aside from being discussed and debated in their own ways ad nauseam. Yet all three were incorrectly touted as being “cautionary tales” either by the subjects themselves or those responsible. Not only are none of them effective cautionary tales, they have the distinction of contradicting the very caution they purportedly offer.

There are a great many words you can use to describe Michael Vick depending on your point-of-view: amazing athlete, criminal, redeemed citizen, animal abuser, good teammate, etc. And all of these are fair and true in some way (again, depending on how you see his case overall), but the one thing he is not, is a cautionary tale. He has been hitting the talk circuit preaching to teens the dangers of falling in with the wrong crowd and professing a newfound respect for animals. But it’s really hard to listen to his message that “everything can be lost with bad decisions” now that he is on the verge of signing what should be a pretty lucrative contract after not only performing beyond anyone’s expectations, but better than he ever had pre-arrest (Prison! Better than training camp! Discuss!). Sure he’s still in a lot of debt, but it’s hard to imagine that in a few months from now, that last remaining concern will have faded. But cautionary? How so? He committed a crime and went to jail losing huge fortune, a (more or less) sterling reputation and a job that is the envy of millions. Then he got out of prison and struggled with a hostile public, crushing debt and a skeptical league. A cautionary tale ends there. You can find the moral where you want, depending on how much personal responsibility you want to take, it’s either “don’t torture and kill dogs for enjoyment because it’s highly illegal and makes you pretty disgusting human” or “don’t let peer pressure/the wrong crowd ruin your life” and the capper should be “just remember Michael Vick.” Except that he is on the verge of regaining everything he had before. Sure the prison time must have sucked, but that’s all in the past and now he is set up to be someone with a huge fortune, a (more or less) sterling reputation and a job that is the envy of millions. So really the lesson is, don’t commit the crime if you can’t back it up athletically after your prison sentence is over. Should he have gotten a second chance. Sure? The Eagles took a chance and it worked out for them. He served his time and the NFL decided to reinstate him. (Though it would have been perfectly fine and reasonable had they made the decision to not reinstate him. They didn’t “owe him another opportunity” as some had suggested upon his release. There was work for him elsewhere had they decided the PR hit wasn’t worth the potential upside.)

Then there is 16 and Pregnant. From the start, this show was touted for its gritty look at how hard life is for girls who become pregnant in high school. It was designed to show kids who have a hard time grasping the ramifications of such a colossal decision/mistake. The producers and network seemed so earnest in their hopes to open a dialogue and hopefully do their part to curtail probably the worst decision/mistake a teenager can make. And that was all well and good (and, for the most part, true). (By the way, yes, I do know that every now and then it works out and it doesn’t apply to everyone and I’m sure you were/had/knew a super-awesome teen mother. But, isolated incidents aside, it’s still far more likely to be a tremendous mistake for all involved than a good thing. And even when things turn out okay, it’s fair to say they would have been as good if not exponentially better had the parties involved waited. And yes, it is a worse decision than drug use. Drug use is bad and idiotic and so on, but at least it only has the potential to ruin one life. A pregnancy drags down two young people and, worst of all, the poor kid who had no choice in being raised by the knucklehead teens who aren’t smart enough to properly implement birth control.) The problem is the same producers/network then decided to cash in on the teens with the follow up series Teen Mom by bringing back the same girls and following their lives after the birth, not so much out of societal concern now but more out of ratings points. And, in the moment the girls went from “Documentary Subjects” to “Cast Members,” the caution went out the window with the bath water. These girls are now showing up on Access Hollywood, gracing the covers of People and living a life that most teens would kill for. Or at least, get pregnant on purpose for. Which brings us to Amber Portwood. She’s pretty much an awful person and horrible mother (shocking, I know), but none of that matters to some young girls because she is FAMOUS and has a six figure salary. (And, much like the Kate Gosselin’s and Octomom’s out there, she is more famous BECAUSE she is an awful person and horrible mother. Good job, society.) These girls are now just more of the MTV detritus that have more zeroes in their paychecks than brain cells in their heads. They are barely distinguishable from their channel mates at this point, really the only difference is that the Jersey Shore kids are payback for bad parenting, Amber Portwood is just a bad parent. The sad thing is that for many of these girls, the cautionary tale part is likely yet to come. Stay tuned.

And finally we have Ted Williams, who, until about a month ago, WAS a legitimate  cautionary tale. Here was a man who was gifted with a great radio voice and found some success in his field until his life was derailed by drugs and alcohol. He lost everything and wound up homeless for many years. Until one day, Ted met YouTube and, of course, went viral. Within days he was living the celebrity lifestyle. Agents! Morning shows! Ohio sports teams! Kraft! Oh and of course Rehab! The tricky (and oft overlooked) thing about Ted Williams isn’t that he was so much discovered, as he was rediscovered. He already had a career in radio and it derailed. He wasn’t fielding offers from the NFL and MTV fifteen years ago because, though his voice is really good, it’s not exactly rare. No, he is getting all of this attention because he was homeless. Homelessness actually became a good career move. So I’m not sure that’s a cautionary tale either (again, not yet anyway, if he has trouble adjusting to this skyrocketing fame trajectory – and he already has – the “cautionary” part could sadly kick in again.)

All of these stories share this common thread. The supposed “cautionary” part (getting pregnant, using drugs, killing dogs) arguably or explicitly benefitted the person in question. Though all of them aren’t guaranteed to be worse off had these events not occurred, they certainly wouldn’t be doing as well. Minus the fall from grace, Ted Williams would likely be just another voice talent living a modest life. Minus the babies, the Teen Mom girls would just be high school graduates in college or the workforce. And though Vick may not seem to fall into this, it could be debated that he fell upwards when he landed with the Eagles. Atlanta would most likely still be holding on to him without the arrest and he may not have received the coaching or teammates he needed to elevate his game. He certainly wouldn’t have been as big of a story and drawn as much attention if not for “the comeback.” In essence all of these so-called “cautionary tales” are really tales of bad situations where the subject ended up better off from having their fall, rather than learning (and, thereby, teaching others) from the terrible situation they all played a personal part in creating.

Are these tales intriguing?  Absolutely.

Are they enviable? Debatably.

But are they cautionary? No. Sorry.


February 24, 2010

The Final Word on Super Bowl Ads

Why is this the “final word?” Because it makes a better title than “Super Bowl Ads – I Should Have Written This Two Weeks Ago.”

Anyhow, I thought I’d put together a quick breakdown of the Super Bowl ads from this year’s contest between the New Orleans Saints (THEY WON!) and the Indianapolis Colts (WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?!) Surely you watched the game because, as you may have heard, the Super Bowl broke a TV viewership record that had stood since the dark days before DVR’s (we did have -shudder- VCR’s with timers!), before cable (well, okay there was cable but we didn’t have it yet), before the internets (which meant before accessible porn) and before puberty (well, okay there was puberty but I didn’t have it yet). Back then M*A*S*H* was the most watched show ever (SPOILER ALERT – the chicken was a baby).

So, back to the Super Bowl ads. I have been in the field of Advertising for nearly twenty years and I work on the creative side of the biz, so I do have some authority in this area. Here is my expert analysis:

They sucked.

Okay, yes, the Betty White one was a pleasant surprise and I liked the little kid slapping the dude over his bowl of Doritos (though the production values and off-beat editing bothered me at the time, I later found out it was a “viewer-submitted” ad – who is their agency again?). The Letterman/Leno one was also fun, but really the rest? Lame.

I’m not the only one who felt this way. I heard lots of grumbling about the lack of “good ads” this year. But here’s a little truth. They mostly sucked last year too. And the year before that. And so on. In fact, they really haven’t been great in many, many years (and even then, it’s not like there weren’t more than a few clunkers, but the ratio was better). There are probably numerous reasons for this, but not the one that you’re most likely thinking – that the creative types have lost their mojo. That may be a valid thesis if not for the fact that great/entertaining/stunning/poignant ads debut all year long.

Part of it is that, with expectations so high and with the unattainable fantasy of previous years to live up to, failure is almost inevitable. But there are additional reasons they fail that have nothing to do with heightened expectations and everything to do with laziness. Here are a number of ways they go astray all of which can be avoided.

Why They Failed

  • GET ME AN ANIMAL – Yes, for a certain segment of the population the math is simple. Monkey In A Suit = Hilarity. Or maybe just get some sort of rodent, rodents are funny, right? People love dogs, lets put a dog in there. Sure there have been some great animal-centric ads in years past (cat wranglers is one of my personal favorites) but it shouldn’t just be lazy shorthand. When you have a crappy ad concept and you throw in a monkey, do you know what you get?  A crappy ad. With a monkey.
  • DEJA VU – Or “Hey, it worked last year, let’s do it again.”, Go Daddy, any of the Budweiser Clydesdale ads are all just variations on a theme in the worst way. I don’t expect much from the first two, but come on Bud, you’re better than that.
  • GUYS ARE EMASCULATED DORKS – Much like the “get me an animal!” line of lazy thinking is the whole “let’s just do something where some doofus gets reamed.” I’m not saying that most guys aren’t idiots, I’m just saying that the basis of comedy is surprise and you’re not going to catch anyone off guard with this tired angle.
  • WHEN IN DOUBT, HIT SOMEONE – Yes, slapstick is funny. This is especially true for men (known in scientific circles as the Three Stooges Phenomenon), yet somehow it’s become such a crutch in so many ads that it’s no longer guaranteed to work. The idea is to use it as an exclamation on a funny concept (see: Terry Tate Office Linebacker), but not always as the joke itself.
  • JOKE, JOKE, JOKE, BLAH… – At some point it became almost mandatory for ads to go for the comedy (which is why we see so much of what’s listed above with a heaping helping of desperation sweats). But it doesn’t have to be the case. Look no further than at what is often considered if not The Greatest Super Bowl Ad Ever, at least the ad which kicked off the whole “I watch the Super Bowl for the ads” craze in the first place. Apple’s 1984 spot. Was it funny? No. Was it memorable? Well it was 25 years ago and it’s still mentioned every year. And, that kids, is the whole point of advertising – creating a memorable impression.

How They Can Succeed Next Year

But I’m not just here to complain, I’m here to help. As I said, it’s not that the creatives have no idea how to put together good commercials, they just seem to follow the same over-traveled roads above as soon as someone says, “okay, Super Bowl ideas…GO!”

There are good commercials out there and they’re currently airing in heavy rotation. If you’ve been watching the Olympics like me (yes, I even enjoy curling) you may have noticed something. There are some really good ads running. In fact, there are three in particular that are better than anything produced during the Big Game. They’re not all funny. They don’t have a need for some doofus guy. And, thankfully, there’s not a monkey in sight. They’re just well thought out and nearly pitch-perfect for their respective companies.

These four ads highlight areas where the Super Bowl ads failed and how they can succeed in the future.

  • YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE FUNNY – It’s okay to put together an ad that’s serious if it really nails the target. Advertising can be emotional and even in a male-dominated event like a football game this can still work. My favorite spot running during the Olympics is the P&G “Always Be Kids” ad. This one nails the emotion, the set up is great and the tag line is true. And it all is in perfect sync with the brand. It should be noted that this ad has faced some criticism both mostly valid (hint: the kids and the snow have have the same predominant pigment) and mostly moronic (what about dads, huh?) but I still stand by it as a great commercial.
  • COOL VISUALS ARE A PLUS – I love the Nike ad “The Human Chain.” It takes a unique visual approach, adds the perfect song (which has extra heft what with LT’s appearance and his subsequent release) and furthers Nike’s eternal Just Do It campaign. Technology makes almost anything possible and let’s not forget this is a visual medium – take advantage of it.
  • USE CELEBS PROPERLY – Hire a big name for your ad and the rest takes care of itself, right? Wrong. If you’re going the celeb route, make sure it works. Sure snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler isn’t a household name, but she resonates with the Olympic crowd (especially those “hip young viewers” advertisers crave) and she’s starring in a memorable AT&T ad. Okay, so the ad may not exactly say “AT&T” (full disclosure, I couldn’t remember who it was an ad for) but I remembered it and that’s a good start.
  • WHEN FUNNY WORKS, IT REALLY WORKS – The best ad running on any TV anywhere right now, is the Old Spice “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” ad. THAT is how you do funny, people. If you’ve seen it, you’re nodding in agreement. If you haven’t click the link. Okay, back at me. I’m on a horse.

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