Blank Verses at the CLIOs

In “Man Out of Time,” Elvis Costello sings about a man with a “heart like a fridge” and a “German sense of humor.” Well, a slightly odd and advertising-based (but still technically German) sense of humor informs the campaign that won the Grand CLIO for Innovative Media at the CLIO Awards this month. The prize went to Scholz + Friends in Hamburg, Germany, for its singular work for Doppelherz, a pharmaceutical brand whose name sounds loud and painful but actually means “double hearts.”

The company’s food supplements treat such unsexy maladies as memory loss and bladder problems, and thus its target audience is senior citizens, who, the agency decided, are mostly found at live cultural events. So, Scholz staged a culture-vention, and crashed several well-attended poetry readings-one at a Berlin university, another at the Literaturhaus in Hambug, a fine-looking 19th-century building with crystal chandeliers. (I’ve never heard of an American city having a House of Literature, by the way. A House of Tacos perhaps.)

In this age of niche marketing, you’ve heard of narrowcasting — this is more like card-table-casting. Literally, a man and woman sit at a folding table in the corner of the room and perform what may be the first-ever “literary commercial break.”

Because it’s backed by an ad agency, the campaign is better funded and executed than the lemonade-stand operation it resembles. There’s a violinist and bass player to get attention, a silent partner to hold up a cardboard blowup of the product and another person to hold the logo. All of them stand behind the main poetry reader, a German hipster type who wears the requisite two-day beard and dark, architectural eyewear. He has his poetry-slam-style performance down cold, as he offers an “Ode to Fat” as an opener at the first reading. The line I liked most was, “If I’d been the one who invented salami, I’d rule the land from a feta thrown.” (This is for a product that apparently helps the body digest fat.)

Granted, I only saw the little video clip that Scholz created to enter the show, but based on that, the crowd didn’t seem all that wildly receptive. They mostly whispered with each other and got red in the face-especially after the poem “Amorous Amnesia.” (“Oh, my darling, I can’t seem to remember your name.”) Another product from Doppelherz helps with that.

After each poem, the blonde woman sitting beside the poet dude keeps a deadpan gaze and voice as she announces, “Doesn’t rhyme — helps, though.”

That’s some genuinely funny stuff, but it took several poems, and specifically the one about incontinence called “Papa Needs to Pee,” for the embarrassed laughs to break out. And even then, it was mostly because the reader was talking about pissing into the wind off the Eiffel Tower. (The company offers pumpkin seeds for bladder control. Who knew?)

Certainly, the Doppelherz poetry campaign is breakthrough in terms of combining performance art and clever targeting. I appreciate that the poems are wry and intelligent (and perhaps some stellar nuggets were lost in translation). Still, I quibble with giving it the Grand CLIO. I don’t see it as a brilliant media move, because while it’s unusual, it’s also fundamentally interruptive, particularly for this audience, in a much more pronounced and annoying way than television, where commercials come with the territory.

After all, the aim of new and social media is to be invited by the user (who comes to you) to start a conversation or a dialogue. This is pretty much the opposite, introducing an irritant into an old-fashioned, high-minded gathering — the kind of social event that brought people together before radio and television existed. I imagine this crowd is there to escape mass media and commercialism and, to be frank, to also avoid obsessing about the particulars of how aging human bodies decline.

The work gets points for finding its target audience, yes, but demerits for embarrassing them to death. Imagine being in a big hall with strangers and out of nowhere a commercial for Viagra pops up, along with a mention of that unfortunate possibility of a four-hour erection. Perhaps part of the strategy is that talking about these medical issues in such a public way helps to remove some of the stigma. That’s fair enough, but most of the people in this particular audience seemed like they’d prefer to peruse the products, and ads for them, in private.

“Literary commercial break” is not necessarily an oxymoron, nor is “German sense of humor.” This is done with a wink, and done well. But still, getting a course on bladder performance when you thought you were going to listen to Rilke seems like mixing art with some unnecessarily tough medicine.