When Peter Sealey, then VP of marketing at the Coca-Cola Company, decided he wanted Coke ads made by big-time Hollywood directors, someone had to tell him that you don’t tell Martin Scorsese to reshoot something because "I can’t see the label." No, apparently, what you say is, "Thank you, Mr. Scorsece, that was great."
I thought of this during the Oscars when AMEX launched their ad by M. Night Shyamalan. It’s set in a restaurant. Shyamalan, playing himself with real cunning and some restraint, sits by himself at a table. As the camera pans past him we hear a "the joke’s on you" laugh coming from someone who has just glimpsed the possibility the joke’s on them. This emerging note of panic is a perfect prelude to what follows.
What follows is a mother and son who look alike, a baby carriage that comes to stop before almost motionless couple, and a man who scalds himself with a touch.
The camera finds a couple who doing that thing that couples sometimes do in restaurants: have a humdinger of an argument sotto voce. It sounds as if the man is saying, furiously, "If I don’t understand a movie, I just stand up and walk out, I don’t care." Ah.
Then the man begins to choke. He looks to his wife for help. She returns his gaze with truck stop malevolence, and then looks across the restaurant at Shyamalan with…complicity, compliance, dull acknowledgment? We can’t tell.
A waitress drops a couple of empty glasses from her tray. People standing around tables suddenly disappear. We understand that these people must have been ghosts because their departure goes unnoticed.
A diner engaged in the most banal conversation plucks a fly out of the air with her tongue.
Then the camera approaches a table with three guys in cowls. One of them loses his hood as a waitress passes. When he brings his hand up to replace the hood, we see that his forearm is tattooed with occult symbols. I have no clue what is intended here, but I came to think of these three as the monks of the apocalypse. I happen to know that this is not the sort of clientele a restaurant normally encourages.
Then a pretty, young waitress approaches:
"Mr. Shyamalan, I love your movies, I’ve seen every single one of them. Like in the 6th Sense …" A deluge ensues including the charming line, "the village, first of all, I love everyone’s shoes…" Shyamalan ducks away from this witless chatter. He doesn’t have to look at her. This is not a conversation. It’s a recitation…not quite as odd as the other things that have happened here, but something else that’s, well, essentially mysterious.
Then we here Shyamalan’s voice over: "My life is about finding time to dream, that’s why my card is American Express." And now we see Shyamalan entering the restaurant. A flurry of questions arise: Was this not Shyamalan we saw in the first place? Was this ad our moment of prescience? And with his line ringing in our ears, we wonder "is this restaurant a place he will find time to dream? Are these visions the dreams he looks for, or invasions that keep him from dreaming? Or is the real problem chatty waitresses?"
Notice two things. This ad is riddled with indeterminacy, and in the presence of this indeterminacy, I start making stuff up.
Indeterminacy used to be a "no-fly" zone in popular culture. I was actually there when Warren Beatty confronted Robert Altman about the opening moments of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Altman wanted all the voices at once. Beatty wanted one voice at a time. It was one of those "all voices at once" conversations, I can tell you. Actually, there was quite a lot of shouting.
So here we are almost 20 years after Sealey’s reign at the Coca-Cola Company, and things have changed most markedly. Now American Express reaches out to a director, and the marketing team knows he will make an ad that’s hard to follow. They give him, um, a blank check with the clear knowledge that he might even make fun of people who get angry when they can’t follow a movie or an ad.
What happened? We grew to love indeterminacy, meanings that withhold themselves, ideas that can’t be thought very easily, emotions threatened to damage the instrument of feeling. Popular culture has moved on. On Oscar night, for instance, Robert Altman gets a life time achievement award while Warren Beatty settles into a hard earned, well deserved obscurity.
Marketing, thanks to this kind of work, is perhaps now catching up. In the words of Diego Scotti, VP of global advertising at AmEx, New York,
Maybe you don’t need to be so loud and obvious to capture consumer attention. When you go quieter, with longer takes, you break through more.
They certainly have mine. If we are sincere when we talk about cocreation, this, clearly, is one of our best methods. When we unleash indeterminacy, consumers will rush in to make things up, including our messages and our brands.
Frook, John Evan. "Always" Intact Amid Coke Shake. Variety. July 22, 1993. here.
Solman, Gregory. 2006. GM tops at Oscars. Adweek. March 6, 2006. here.
Thanks to IF and PFSK for the head’s up here.