Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Anchors Away!

Some of the smartest, most entertaining spots on the air lately have been cable-network promos—particularly campaigns for HBO, ESPN and TNT. This new CNN.com work fits right into that category, making amazing use of UFAs—unexpectedly funny anchors.

Indeed, there’s a huge lesson here for the mother brand. CNN.com attracts a slightly different demo (younger, tend to live at the office, where they check in online, say, every three minutes) than CNN proper. So the marketing department felt it had license to be looser and quirkier. The result is the difference between attempting to invest the network with gravitas (which always ends up leaden) versus something that’s light and observant, clever and human. Put another way, which would you rather watch—Wolf Blitzer addressing the camera in dead earnest about why he’s a dedicated newsman, or Wolf Blitzer making deadpan fun of himself?

That sense of ease allowed the creative team (the work was done directly through production company Hungry Man, with Brendan Gibbons writing and directing) to dispense with the obvious—we don’t see actors mousing around at a computer or compulsively clicketing-clacking at changing news headlines. Instead, this is a far, far funnier thing: The anchors themselves are the embodiment of the brand and stand in metaphorically for the news. (The device comes across immediately—and provides a genuine surprise.) Moreover, as the site’s users kick the CNN brand names around, the anchors get to show talents we never dreamed they had.

Take that cutie, Anderson Cooper. A proven Jeopardy champ, yes. And host of The Mole, for sure. But who knew he could be such a master of comedic timing? One spot, with a sort of “Who’s on first?” rhythm, starts with Mr. Cooper visiting a typical CNN.com user at his desk. “You want the weather?” he inquires. “Give me the news,” the junkie responds. The guy then plows through questions, which Cooper answers in a delightful staccato with lightning speed. His delivery is a cross between one of the smarty-pants characters on The West Wing and an updated Joe Friday.

“How do they name the hurricanes?” the guy asks.

“There’s a list,” A.C. says.

“Can I get on the list?”

“What’s your name?”

“Scooter.”

(beat)

“I doubt it.”

All the actors in the spots are versatile improv types who are excellent at continuing their little comic business no matter what’s happening—so the anchors make great foils. That’s the case in the spot featuring Lou and Sanjay (that’s business editor Lou Dobbs and health expert Dr. Sanjay Gupta). Open on a conference room, where a thirtysomething blonde woman is deftly eating her Chinese food right out of the carton while questioning, and interrupting, Lou. He gamely natters on about corporate outsourcing (what else?). Meanwhile, she keeps making goo-goo eyes at Dr. Gupta, who smiles right back.

It’s hilarious, not only for the comic chemistry on the set, but also because of the insight it has about contemporary office life and Internet behavior—you might be flirting with running off to an item about personal health while checking something for business.

The most memorable spot, for me, is the only one that breaks from the “under your command” conceit—but nevertheless is so worthwhile that it almost acts as a public service. It’s a moment of real-life banter between Mideast correspondent Christiane Amanpour and the actress in her scenes. (There’s a whole section of outtakes on CNN.com, all of which are well worth watching.) The woman asks about Iran and Iraq, using the hard “i” in both. Ms. Amanpour takes a moment to correct her pronunciation to Ee-ran and Ee-raq (“It’s a personal bugaboo,” she says).

It’s funny enough to see this interaction, but then the spot ends with the actress tragically mispronouncing “Chechnya.” (For the record, the Web site does offer a pronunciation guide for some of the more difficult geographical locations.) Christiane, while you’re at it, can you do anything about nucular?

Paula Zahn appears briefly in one commercial—a young woman eats a sandwich at her desk while seeking some news from Wolf. The woman rolls her eyes dismissively at every one of Wolf’s nuggets: “Read it already,” she says, or “Got the e-mail!” Finally, she says, “Paula, help me out!” and Zahn, standing in the corner, says, “There was a case of botulism found at the local deli.” “Thank you, Paula, that was helpful,” the woman says.

More spots with more anchors will roll out eventually. Certainly, “The power of CNN under your command” is a great way to tackle the idea of personalization and customization of news (that’s self-service!). The most ironic part is that in coming up with something light and funny for the Web site, the creators have inadvertently hit on a breakthrough way of promoting the overall brand. The intention was to make the news site accessible. But in the end, they made the anchors accessible.

So goodnight, Wolf, Anderson, Sanjay, Paula and Lou. It’s been real.