AT&T and Verizon are both making a pitch for their "unlimited calling" plans. Their campaigns converge in an interesting way. I wonder if we are not looking at an emerging anthropological approach to creative.
The AT&T ad opens with a middle aged African American walking down the street. His phone rings. He says,
Then comes a quick succession of people answering their phone. One after another, they say:
how its going!
yeah buddy! brother!
what’s up! (3)
Verizon features a Dad, as he comes storming out of his suburban home, daughter in tow.
"Today, I plan on not freaking out about my wireless bill."
And with this he offers a recitation of every "hip" word and phrase he can think of, including that he’s "kickin it," and "totally down with my boys." Each cliche comes with its own daffy hand gesture. Clearly, Dad has been watching too many "urban" movies.
Finally, the daughter can’t stand it anymore and she says "Dad!" We can tell by her tone of voice that what she is really saying is, "Dad, you are embarrassing me, yourself, my friends, our ancestors and every God featuring, sensate American. Stop it!"
Dad snaps to as if from a trance, and looks sheepishly at the Verizon gang trailing behind him. They pretend not to notice his humiliation.
At first glance, this looks like the triumph of Cliff Freeman advertising. Mr. Freeman was the guy who created a string of funny ads, including "Where’s the Beef," and "Sometimes you feel like a nut…sometimes you don’t" These ads were designed to amuse, but more than that it used "real" people and an earthy humor.
As Madison Avenue struggled to find a model that worked, increasingly it resorted to Mr. Freeman’s funny. It might not be very strategic. It certainly wasn’t sophisticated meaning manufacture. But, hey, at least it got a chuckle or two. It wasn’t long before we witnessed the triumph of funny over loud, funny over function, funny over endorsement, funny over testimonial, funny over pleading, funny over Carney barker demonstration. Funny came to rule the day. (This is my impression and not historically well grounded. I welcome comments from people who confirm or improve its veracity.)
Now it seems like whenever the agency can’t decide what else to do, it goes for funny. Hey, the client is not always very media or culturally literate (business school saw to that), but they do know funny when they see it. And amusing consumer seems low risk thing for advertising.
But are these ads merely an exercise in Freeman’s approach to humor, to raw, real people treatments? A closer look says that there is perhaps something anthropological going on. ATT and Verizon appear to be using culture in a particular way. In this event, the hero of the piece would be less Clifford Freeman and more Irving Goffman, the great student of our world.
Notice that the AT&T ad depends upon an ethnographic exercise. It records and replays the way people answer their phones. It makes greeting phrases the hero of the ad. In they make us present in that happy moment when one friend acknowledges another with an exclamation of joyful recognition. This is what a cell phone makes possible. It’s a wonder that some brand should not investigate this cultural domain before. Brands flourish when they are fed in this way.
The Verizon ad is also a steal from our culture: the middle aged man who appropriates gestures and language that belong to another generation. We have all seen this. Some of us have done it. There is something comic and human here, and the ad plays both to perfection.
In both cases, much of the punch of the spot depends upon a non verbal tick or a trick of speech. And off the top of my head it feels like there are several examples. There is the Jimmy Dean ad in which Father sun tells his daughter that he needs a good breakfast to light and heat the eastern seaboard. What makes this work is the little girl’s facial gestures which delicately mixes interest and dubiety. As it happens, the star of the Verizon ad appeared in a Subway ad (I think it was) in which he asks an accountant if he can "manufacture [his] butt" in lieu of a receipt. What makes this piece work for me is the little hand gesture he gives after the request as if to say, "I mean this is really the only sensible way to do this, no?" And finally, one of the really great ads of the last couple of years was the Volvo ad that shows a little girl talking and talking in the back seat as her Dad drives her gently home.
A lot of "funny" ads are funny because they mine contemporary culture, and more specifically what they discover in their ethnographic expeditions is a nonverbal behavior. So why? What is going on here? I will have to leave the answer her for another day. I am in O’Hare and I want to post this before they call my flight.
For more information on Cliff Freeman, go here.
I searched to find out the agencies and creative teams responsible for these ads. No luck. Please if anyone knows, let me know.