Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Voices Carry

uzzers and vomit and bells, oh my.

Although my eye was immediately drawn to the raw, textured, handmade look of this animated JetBlue spot, my inner Ms. Manners was a bit taken aback that the first commercial out of the gate from JWT for the storied startup had company founder David Neeleman talking about, uh, puke.

But there it was, over and over.

Neeleman seems to be an exceedingly polite fellow (and we know he’s smart) who has the blond, blue-eyed good looks of a Ford heir. Unfortunately, he also has the colloquial speech patterns of a typical Ford heir; his voiceover is at times fast and hard to understand, and at others, read awkwardly from a teleprompter.

But the animation is so intriguing and has such unexpected pacing of fits and starts that we want to hear him out. “I try to fly at least once a week, and I like to inner-duce our customers to the flight attendant call button,” he says, explaining that on other (horrid airlines) passengers were so afraid to use it that they would wait until a kid threw up, and then they’d get, “What is it? What is it?” (The “What is it?” is the best part of the spot, because the voice is terrifyingly cold.) Then we get a picture of “awful evil call button” and an illustration of aforementioned kid spewing green bile, in all of its cover-your-eyes glory.

What elevates the spot from the usual earnest CEO testimonial is that it almost has a split identity—a squeaky-clean All-American exec speaks, as the illustration exposes an id. (VW is doing the same thing with its evil little “Fast” character, but in a more misogynist way. And of course, United has been doing fabulous animated commercials, on a much larger and more celebratory scale than these.)

Ironically, the last major spot from JetBlue’s previous agency, The Ad Store, made fun of just such testimonial ads from other, soon-to-be-extinct giant airlines, for congratulating themselves and expecting to be rewarded for things that should be an obvious and ordinary part of service. (For example, in the spot, a JetBlue crew member in blue overalls announces, “When people fly, they expect their bags to go with them.”)

So in some ways, the testimonial move seems like a step back from the smart-alecky tone of previous spots, and makes JetBlue appear to be more like the rest of the pack. But looked at another way, maybe by this point we all have satellite-TV-and-leather-seat fatigue—perhaps everyone knows that stuff about JetBlue, and within the cutthroat airline industry, most competitors, if they’re nimble, will eventually catch up (or die).

JetBlue is the ultimate experiential brand, grown by word-of-mouth. So, as simple as a testimonial may seem, this new campaign is all about giving a voice to that experience, with lots of flexibility and room for growth. The various illustrations—including animation, paper cutouts and miniature doll pieces—have a wonderful rhythm and flow, and the stories have an on-the-fly populist quality, which fits the brand. (Especially when positioned against the lavish animation of United.)

Eventually there will be 20 different spots (10 by the end of April and 10 more by year’s end). JWT has built a huge infrastructure for breeding more stories: Customers can e-mail their stories to the microsite, but better than that, JetBlue “story booths” will be erected in 18 cities in the next few weeks. Indeed, the story-matron is coming to town. Less like circus tents and more like futuristic spaceships, the booths are made of high-tech honeycomb mesh and have LED screens underneath the shell, pressure-sensitive floors and voice-activated walls. Plus, a virtual crew member will guide the storyteller through the experience. At the other low-tech extreme, instead of a national print campaign, JetBlue will distribute postcards asking people to write their stories and submit them.

So far, I like the visuals more than the stories—they’re sharper and more unusual. One spot, about an on-air proposal, has been done before, but I was still entertained by the look of it. I also liked the one with a certain Vivian stating that she was put in a nice leather seat in row two, and announced, “Hey, I’m in first class!” A crew member responds, “Honey, everyone here is in first class.” A celebration of democratic values is great, but still, there are only so many blissed-out testimonials a viewer can take. That’s why I feel so indebted to Melissa McCall. “I wanted to not like your company, if only because everyone loves you,” she says in one spot. “So, on two recent flights, I brought a piece of paper, ready to write down every irritating detail.” Needless to say, the page remained blank. “I wanted to not like you, but it can’t be done,” she mock-cries.

The radio is also very funny. Like Don Novello’s books of old, a copywriter called up JetBlue agents with the darndest questions, and taped the interaction: “Do you have to wear Bermuda shorts in Bermuda—like is there a law?” was typical. In every case, he was treated with the utmost patience and kindness. (That’s what working at home in Utah will do for you.)

The campaign really builds traction as it goes. As for the first spot, I guess you can say it’s the ultimate word-of-mouth.