Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Nextel’s Cell Block

I’m so glad that in this first campaign for Nextel from TBWA\Chiat\Day, the agency avoids all the usual telecom suspects: no obsessive guys in trenchcoats, no repetitive catchphrases, no B-list celeb endorsers or once-proud A-listers interrupting and/or hang gliding and break dancing. And no talk of free talk or extra minutes, since we know the billing will come out about the same anyway. Unfortunately, the spots are as annoying as most telecom ads, just in a whole new way.

From a design standpoint, Nextel is now the proud new owner of the bold color yellow. I like it. A robust, mustardy shade, it provides a good contrast to the now-bolder black logo. And yellow, as the press release tells us, “is the most visible and luminous color of the spectrum and the first color the eye processes. … Think of road signs. Bees. Yellow pages …” (And, um, think of the quirky ABC Network campaign of a few years back, created by Chiat\Day and remembered for its breakthrough use of … yellow.)

The new tagline, which juxtaposes “Nextel” in uppercase letters with “Done” in lowercase, has a black “finish line” to the side of it, like a Swiss border sign. It works. It’s quite snappy and telegraphs the idea of speed and efficiency in one syllable and the modern vernacular.

I also like the look and attitude of the yellow wild postings that appeared on city streets in the last few weeks, offering just one word: “Do.” Intriguing. And a teaser print ad provided hope for all non-weenies at corporate meetings: “Stop believing that whoever talks most in the meeting wins.” If only.

All four spots use the same comic device: People are shown whipping out their phones and talking through them in face-to-face situations—meetings, lunches, weddings and as actors on a stage. Obviously, this would never happen in real life, so it’s a memorable contrivance, conveying speed and immediacy (the adrenaline of completing tasks) even as it induces cognitive dissonance.

But unless you already know about Nextel’s “push-to-talk” service—which allows its mobile-phone users to connect immediately, instead of pounding the keys, pressing another button and waiting for the call to connect—it’s hard to figure out what benefit is being sold, since the p-t-t phrase is never mentioned.

Two of the spots are interesting and funny, if you suspend disbelief, and two are pretty bad. As soon as an old boss walks into a boardroom in the spot called “Meeting,” everyone around the table snaps open a Nextel phone in unison, like Star Trek guys landing on a planet surface and pulling out their tricorders. Then the attendees speak into the phones in quick, staccato bursts, making mundane points slightly more interesting with their telereadings.

That snapping action and the final line, “Let’s eat,” are the only funny things in the spot; otherwise, it’s an embarrassing ripoff of the FedEx “Fast Talker” spot of the ’80s, from the casting right down to the alliteration of the P’s. (“Pittsburgh’s perfect Peter. Peter, may I call you Pete?” the fast talker said. In this spot, the big boss says, “Pittsburgh? Pursue the potential pitch for property pronto.”)

But that’s not the weakest of the lot. The absolute worst is “Wedding,” which looks like a scene out of an ’80s soap opera (à la Luke and Laura). The joke, again, is that even at this sacred event, the attendees whip out phones—yes, even the pastor, and the bride and groom—to exchange the quickie vows. Then the pastor says, “Next!” (Why not just go to a drive-through?) More annoying than the throwback look of the wedding (this is Joe Pytka, after all!) is the casting of the bride: a woman with a squeaky, nasal tweety-bird voice who bats her eyelashes and trills, “I do.” And then is thrilled to kiss her phone.

“Lunch” is quite good and certainly the easiest to digest. Two guys sit catty-corner to each other at a table in a fancy restaurant. One is hiring, the other wants the job. There’s a quick, intense negotiation over salary, and it starts with the men drawing their Nextels like pistols at a High Noon-ish duel. What they shoot at each other is numbers: “180-100, 170-110, 160-120,” until the job seeker agrees to 120. It’s funny, looks contemporary and has great punch in its unexpected rhythm.

In terms of sheer production, the “Romeo and Juliet” spot is the best to look at, and it’s entertaining, too. Beautifully shot and edited, and cleverly written, it features teens acting out a sped-up version of Shakespeare, with phones opening and slamming shut as love, misunderstandings and suicides fly by. (At one point, Juliet pops up and says, “Better now,” which is funny, then she hurls a knife into her gut, which is a little too graphically convincing). It’s well shot, acted and choreographed, and amusingly edited. But Spike TV got on the air first with its Romeo parody, and what exactly is the take-away here?

So now we have a new category convention to add to the guys in raincoats: phone whipper-outers. The problem with the Nextel Doers is that cell phones are a necessary evil that are as disruptive as they are useful in our lives. Until Nextel can prove otherwise, our problems are far from Done.