Advertising and its new anthropological content

Cliff_freeman 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,

hey bud!

Then comes a quick succession of people answering their phone.  One after another, they say:

hey buddy!
how its going!
what’s up!
what’s shaking!
what’s popping!
what’s crackin!
yeah buddy! brother!
what’s up! (3)
hey! (3)

Verizon features a Dad, as he comes storming out of his suburban home, daughter in tow.

Dad says,

"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.   

A question

I searched to find out the agencies and creative teams responsible for these ads.  No luck. Please if anyone knows, let me know. 

3 thoughts on “Advertising and its new anthropological content

  1. Natasha Estey

    You hit the nail on the head: an anthropological approach to creative, effectively mining contemporary culture. Some advertising out there these days seems to strike a chord. “They get it” is my response. They must have done some ethnographic research is my afterthought. I recall a recent MacDonald’s ad that simply reveals all the different ways people interact with (read consume) a Big Mac. I saw myself in one of those images – adding extra ketchup to my hamburger before turning it upside down and contemplatively, pleasurably taking that first bite. They “understand” me is how that ad made me feel. They tapped in to something. You articulated what that “something” is very well in this post. Thanks!

  2. Michael Powell

    Well, being an anthropologist, I’d like to have us take credit for this and many other well-deserved trends, but what this style of funny rather makes me think of is Seinfeld. Seinfeld humor is all about a critique and hyperbole of everyday life, the mundane, the truly boring routine made extravagant and ridiculous. Another genius behind that style of comedy right now is Larry David. In a way, those guys are careful observers of everyday life, just like ethnographers.

  3. MHB

    what’s wonderful about the AT&T ad is that it provides access points for millions of consumers. If s/he hears a phone salutation that rings true, the consumer can place themselves in the AT&T spot. While the Verizon spot taps into the idea of generational dissonance, something that cuts across all cultures, methinks that the ad may not travel as far. That said, it also comes down to my personal taste, I like ‘real’ people in ‘real’ moments (answering the phone) moreso than real people in hyperbolic scenarios (heaps of slang said with a wink)

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