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Good Commercial, Bad Commercial #1: Verizon vs. Kayak

In the earliest days of television, commercials made no pretense toward entertainment value. They consisted of variety show hosts and contractually obligated celebrities staring into a camera with a product in hand, extolling the virtues of the product and the company that made it with nary a hint of fiction to the script. It wasn't long before someone got the idea to frame commercials as miniature shows in and of themselves. From then on, advertising media had two jobs: catch a viewer's fickle attention and then encourage him or her to buy the product. I would argue that this new approach created a third, hidden goal. Not all attention is good attention. In fact, if you annoy your audience, they're likely to change the channel whenever your commercial comes on and maybe they'll even choose to boycott your product just because the ad is irritating.

This may seem illogical at first glance, but there's some truth at the core of the mindset that says a bad commercial equals a bad product. More to the point, a bad commercial indicates a company that either doesn't understand its customers or simply doesn't care enough about them to make a considerate advertisement. It's front-end customer service, a litmus test for careful companies.

Which brings me to the two commercials in today's entry. The first is one of the most recent ad in the wholly manufactured mobile phone war between AT&T and Verizon. For several months now, the two companies have been running a huge number of commercials that focus on what they consider their strong points. AT&T claims that its phones have faster extra features and a no-nonsense attitude toward reliability. For this they've employed actor Luke Wilson to stand in as a plain-talking everyman in a series of stupid but generally inoffensive commercials. Verizon has taken to touting its larger area of coverage, utilizing a map with red dots while branding AT&T as the "blue" company.

The most egregious of Verizon's red map ads is this insufferably stupid throwback to an antique chewing gum commercial. There are so many layers of why this is a terrible ad. First, it features a bunch of people acting silly, which indicates that Verizon has tried to brand itself as the "fun" phone company. Do people want their phones to be fun? Moreover, do they want their provider to imply that those who use their phones look like lazy idiots? The biggest problem with this commercial is its co-opted jingle. The original Big Red gum commercials were cheesy and grating, thanks in large part to that song. It's a terrible decision to harken back to an annoying commercial from twenty years ago when you're trying to sell a serious product today. It's like watching a lesser cut-away gag on Family Guy.

On the other end of the "commercial as entertainment" spectrum we find Kayak.com, a one-stop online travel agent. They've been doing a series of cheeky narrative ads that are memorable for being edgy and often pretty funny. One features a couple of coworkers who madly make out behind their boss's back, which is fine on its own. The best of these commercials, though, is the Las Vegas nun spot.

This is a great commercial because it's bawdy and alluring, but not in bad taste. It brands Kayak as a smart, hip company that knows how to access its customers' sense of humor. It doesn't have any stupid catch phrases or irritating songs, just a couple good actresses and an amusing premise that doesn't overstay its welcome. It also provides relevant information that a customer would actually care about, not just a meaningless gimmick.

Advertisements really ought to be considered thirty-second TV shows. Companies need to decide what kind of show they want their customers to see. Will it be the annoying intro song, a sharp comedy, or a compelling drama? Most importantly, will the ad encourage viewers to watch, remember and maybe more than anything, approve of the commercial?