Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mad-Libs from Hell

Years ago, when I was studying advertising design at Art Center in Pasadena, a charismatic teacher of mine said something I've always remembered. He said, "All advertising is an interruption. So you'd better make it good."

It goes without saying that advertising has gotten worse and worse in recent years. It's generally dull, desperate and apparently created by an infinite number of chimpanzees. But it has certainly gotten more interrupting. Mankind has devised very clever techniques and technologies to thrust messages at us--everything from pop-ups on Websites to those irritating little, superimposed animations at the bottom of a TV screen. But, at the same time, almost in inverse proportion, we've become mentally challenged with devising clever messages themselves.

Last night I was watching a college football game (UO vs ASU, but that doesn't matter) and I was noticing that my view of the action on the field kept being blocked by these obnoxious animations at the bottom of the screen, promoting some stupid show. Once I missed a game-changing fumble because it was hidden behind a dancing graphic. It was like having a person get up in a theater and climb past you just as the first, critical plot point is revealed. "Luke, I am your...." "Excuse me, excuse me, gotta get to the snack bar."

The interruptions are everywhere. Recently, wrapping around the cover of a local newspaper, I noticed the unfortunate juxtaposition illustrated above. A very tragic story of a missing little boy, non-sequitured with a very clever media buy in which the paper runs an ad in a false half-cover--fooling you into thinking it's part of the editorial. Hi-jinks ensue. Of course, even a funny or creative ad in that place would have been inappropriate--probably even more so, like Mad-Libs from Hell.

Advertising breaks on television now last longer than the shows segments themselves. I timed one channel the other day and found that the commercial breaks ran an average of 8 minutes while the actual programming ran for only 5 between them. So what we had was like a Home Shopping Channel interrupted by entertainment.

It used to be that advertising itself was more entertaining that the programming. Brilliant writers and art directors, attracted to the industry by high salaries, glamor, and the promise of seeing their ideas come to life, produced some of the funniest, most creative work in the history of advertising. People had a reason not to go to the bathroom during a break (they now have time to paint the bathroom), because they might miss something truly entertaining. Smart advertisers knew this and kept it coming; a funny ad had a direct lever on  their profits,while dull ads drove people away.

But those days seem to be gone. The only tactic advertisers seem to know is to just get up in your face. Yell at people. Poke them in the eye. Interrupt them. Use exclamation points liberally!!! Bore them. And creative people are reduced to headlines like "Boatloads of Fun." I think the creator of the above ad may have resisted using an exclamation point as a form of passive-aggressive protest. But I may be giving him too much credit.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Would "The Hours" have been a better movie in 3D?

No. I don't think anything could have saved that movie. But it might have been fun to see Nicole Kidman's prosthetic schnoz comin' atcha. Woah! Girl, watch out where you point that thing!

Technology's not helping.

Back in the 80s there was a new technology called "colorization" that allowed studios to "paint" old black and white movies (like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Psycho, and the first ten minutes of The Wizard of Oz) in vivid colors, as if the original filmmakers would've shot them that way if they'd had a choice. Colorization turned out to be the cinematic equivalent of painting marble statues "realistic" colors; something the ancient Romans apparently did.  Nobody accused the ancient Romans of good taste, or the ancient colorizers of the 1980s.  And many people, including me, thought the colorization of some classic films was an atrocity. But if a movie is a turd, painting it in bright colors doesn't cover up the smell.

Now, of course, the new visual technology is 3D, something they've been trying to poke at us for decades. Naturally it's supposed to be much better than the last time they tried this, back in the 70s, and before that, in the 50s. But it seems about the same to me; gives me the same headaches and eye-strain. And sitting there for almost three hours, like I had to do with Avatar, trying to fool my optic nerve that this was really 3D and not some moving pop-up-book, was just too much for my brain to swallow. I had flashes and "floaters" for a couple of days after. And, like colorization, 3D still didn't help the awful dialog.

But I have read that lately it's hard to get a movie produced unless it's in 3D--or about vampires.

So if 3D finally comes into its own, and all movies need to be shot in it; you know what's next. We've seen this before. Now comes the inevitable battle of format (remember Beta vs VHS?), and the inevitable throwing out of your own huge video library again to start anew (hopefully in the winning format), and the inevitable purchase of $10,000 TVs that can display 3D (for the single 3D movie that you own), and the inevitable choking of landfills with old 2D flat-panels and all of their toxic components. The whole prospect makes me tired.

Then there's HD. Not Hyperactivity Disorder, of course; High Definition. About the only use I can see for HD is watching sports. At least, then, you have a chance to see who actually has the ball and can read the numbers on the jerseys. But for everything else it's just TMI. Everybody looks awful in HD; much worse, somehow, than they do in real life. It seems to accentuate every blemish, rosaceal bloom, and ingrown hair. It's particularly unflattering to older actresses who would otherwise still look beautiful. Also HD just does something weird to the eyes. They're--I don't know--sparkly, villainous.

And here's another bit of visual technology that, while clever, is dumb: being able to watch a movie on your SmartPhone (or SmartFone or MeFone or Dwoid). Does anybody do this? Is it actually fun to watch a movie on a 3" screen and hear it through tinny earbuds? But just in case it is, you now can. You just can't watch it in 3D, yet. Or rely on your phone not to drop your calls.

The whole thing makes me bitter, of course, because while the entertainment and ad industry are spending heavily on new, dubious technologies, they aren't spending spit on writing.

Which means, on me.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Important Information

Have you ever noticed when you're feverishly opening the box containing your brand new XRS 2900 PS5-Pro Game System and a booklet falls out entitled "Important Information," you tend to immediately chuck it away with the rest of the superfluous packaging?  You already know what's in there; cautions about not taking the XRS 2900 PS5-Pro into the bathtub with you, warnings about the dangers of eye-wrist-neck-kidney-and-elbow strain, and all sorts of legal weasels about how the manufacturer won't be held responsible for any misadventure that should befall you should you disregard any of the aforesaid caveats, or anything whatever that happens to you whether you disregarded aforesaid caveats or not. It's all just designed to paper over their butts in case you feel litigious after you electrocute yourself in the bathtub.

But beyond that, there's something stultifying about the words "Important Information" themselves, regardless of whether they appear on the cover of a booklet or a junk mail envelope or at the beginning of a DVD. They are right up there with other lies. It's never important. And it's barely information. So overused are these words that they have actually conditioned our eyes to glaze over whenever we see them--or hear them.

Like when you're watching TV and a commercial begins with the hairy-voiced announcer intoning, "Important Information about your life insurance..." Click.

Of course the advertisers think it's important--or at least their lawyers do. It's the same as when they brag about their commitment to excellence, or their customer service, or their quality you can depend on; it's just them saying so. And what else would they say? That they have indifferent customer service you can depend on? Or "dull blather that won't make any difference to your enjoyment of our product"?

The scary thing is that if there were ever an announcement of an event that were, indeed, important information--say the impending impact of the moon into the Pacific--we wouldn't pay attention, because we'd assume it was just another non-important announcement about not taking your XRS 2900 PS5-Pro into the bath with you, or that you may be paying too much for life insurance.

I think that if the manufacturers really wanted you to read the cautionary manual they'd entitle it something like:

Grisly Death & Hideous Disfigurement

Details within.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Millions of Ways...No, Billions of Ways

There are a million ways to say anything. Almost any idea can be expressed in an uncountable array of styles. To utter an idea one day is to merely restate the same idea from the day before. There are a million and one ways to say anything. If you don't like the way I said it, let me say it another way. Sentences come in a myriad of flavors. It's all been said before. Words are all alike; they taste like chicken. There are a billion ways to...

What I'm trying to say here is, the right words are important, but you can polish the ideas right off of them if you edit them too much. For God's sake, don't end up like Proust.

Or me.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Boredom is the force that will save us all

Yesterday I had lunch with a wise colleague, Michael Reardon of Fieldtrip Design, and, inevitably, we got to talking about the economy and our respective businesses. In spite of the fact that private sector jobs have been steadily growing since early 2009, that domestic manufacturing has been growing, that the Stimulus Package seemed to be working up to the point that it ran out, people are still not spending, and so our own businesses--advertising and design--are languishing. It's a Catch 22. The overriding ethic driving our economy is for everybody to do nothing.  Though "parking our economy" would be a more apt metaphor than "driving".

But Reardon said something that made me go hmmm. He said he was optimistic because people will just get bored with being depressed and want to move on at some point. And so they'll go back to the stores, buy new cars, new computers, new hip replacements, new shoes,  just like they did before. All out of boredom.

It's said that the economy is more influenced by emotion than any other factor. The stock market alone seems to be governed by sixteen-year-old girls. And boredom is certainly an emotion. If emotion is taken literally, by its root "motion," then the boredom with the bad economy should move us right out of our funk sooner or later.  There will be a tipping point where, collectively, everyone will just get up off their whiny butts and go do something --preferably shop.

I should know this. Berry's Law of Persuasion states that the emotional is to the rational as three-to-one (yes, that's my law, and yes, that ratio is made up, but it's still quotable). This is something I've preaching to my clients for years; that when people decide to buy a new thing, they make up their minds emotionally first and then cobble together a list of good "reasons" to justify it. In other words, they want it before they need it.  This is the whole point of advertising to begin with; to get the "want" started, to push those emotional buttons. And this is what is going to get our economy moving again. It won't be a collective rationalization that the matrix of economic indicators warrant prudent investment in a new pair of shoes. It will be, "I'm feeling bored. I need shoes." 

So I left the lunch feeling everything's going to be fine. People will just get tired of listening to phrases like "in this economy," or "The Great Recession" and start shopping again to make themselves feel better. Then, retailers will have to stock shelves and hire help. And manufacturers will have to crank up the plant to fill those shelves, and also hire help. And we'll all be fine again; saved by boredom.

This post is boring me. Wanna go shopping?