Monday, February 07, 2011

Bread and circuses.

Allow me to quote the Roman satirical poet Juvenal, and thus leave you awed with the mistaken impression that I read poetry in Latin when I’m not flying jets and playing polo:

… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

In other words, if you want to keep the rabble from becoming troublesome, it might be as simple as amusing them.

As I write this, it’s Super Bowl Sunday, and the chatter online feels almost equally anticipatory of the interstitial advertising festival as of the contest itself. For most of the time I spent in the ad game, I had mixed feelings about this. On one hand, it was wonderful to see what creative people could do with the handcuffs of money and cultural convention removed. The Super Bowl provided some epic moments for McLuhan’s “greatest art form of the twentieth century.” On the other, though, the whole ritual took on a sort of pagan quality, where for one day the marketing world cast off accountability and common sense and danced naked around the bonfire to see what they could get away with. In the grand scheme of things, though, I thought it was all fine. Everybody seemed happy, no harm done.

Writing Consumer Republic changed this a little for me. I’ve come to see advertising whose sole purpose is amusement as a bit of a waste at best, and subversive at worst. The idea that a brand can win us over by putting on a little puppet show rather than having a conversation with consumers somehow trivializes the democratic purpose of marketplaces. I still think this is fine when it’s confined to the circus; it would worry me a little, though, if it ended up somehow becoming a model for all dialogue between brands and the People. Liking this kind of thing too much could make us slaves by making us passive.

I really do hope everybody enjoyed the ads. We just have to remember what we were watching. This wasn’t marketing (even ad folk evade the ROI question when it comes to the Super Bowl). This was entertainment. Marketing’s job is to give us a right to vote and a reason to do it. Now that it’s Monday morning, that’s the game we have to go back to, all of us.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some verbs to conjugate. And a yacht race.


Francis Moran said...

Hey, Bruce.

I haven't had the chance to look at many of the ads yet and I certainly don't quibble with your main point that too often, the Super Bowl is an excuse for, as you put it, a puppet show with no opportunity to create a conversation.

Judging from my tweet stream today, though, at least two of the advertisers sparked powerful conversations with their ads.

In the case of Volkswagen and its terribly endearing Darth Vader kid, that conversation has been all a good brand could want it to be.

On the other hand, Groupon, with its regrettable and very poorly executed concept, has started a conversation of quite a different tone.

Now, don't crash the yacht while you're busy conjugating.

BrandCowboy said...

Hey, Francis,

I think that's a fair observation. I watched the Radian 6 metrics roll by this afternoon on Brand Bowl, and there's no doubt a couple of brands made people smile and talk about it. But what you could also see in that data was how fast it all faded to nothing. At the 24 hour mark, online chatter about most of the brands had all but fallen silent. Then, it becomes the impression left rather than the experience of an ad that's commercially important. And if I'd paid $3 million for that thirty second spot yesterday, I'd want that impression to have something to do with what I was selling or what my brand stood for. Against that standard, it's hard to see who really scored.

Francis Moran said...

I've only just had the chance to watch the Chrysler ad with Eminem and the great tagline, "Imported from Detroit." I have to say I really liked it.

What do you think this campaign, assuming it's more than a one-shot wonder, will do for the brands of both Chrysler Detroit?

BrandCowboy said...

Maybe I'll have to plead guilty to cynicism on this one.

I agree that the ad is very engaging. Moving, even. The creators have learned at the knee of W+K very well, in terms of the can't-miss power of an emotional pitch supported by a great track.

But I can only get there if I divorce the ad from the brand, which I guess you can guess isn't my inclination. Put them together, and it starts to feel obscenely insincere. It's not only that the company is owned by Italians now, but that Chrysler has so often tried to swan us into cheering it on in the past. It's like a recidivist womanizer, trying to charm its way to forgiveness yet again. The ad was great, but where it came from made me roll my eyes, if I'm honest.

Still, if, as you say, they stuck with it. Made it real. Flattened our cynicism with commitment, history would end up recording it as a bold, important move. I'd like that happy ending. I'd be very pleased to be proven wrong.