Converse Stays True

Either reports of the death of television are exaggerated, or the ancient medium is indeed so over that it’s already enjoying a renaissance: Last week, I wrote about Starbucks running its first TV ad campaign for its stores, and now Converse, the deeply hipster sneaker, has launched its latest effort.

By way of explanation from its agency, Anomaly, Converse seeks to “positively disrupt” the flow of mindless pablum emitted from the proverbial wasteland and “jar people a bit.”

Um, isn’t that exactly what every other commercial that’s ever appeared on TV since the beginning of time has aimed to do?

That aside, these spots are so authentic, low budget and low-tech that they positively reverberate with appropriately old-school brand emotion. They suggest a pre-YouTube time when garage bands played in semi-obscurity and the Ramones were—how to put it?—alive.

Three new Converse spots are running (with three more to come), but one of them, “Me/We,” is not like the others in tone or look. If there is a simpler spot than “Me/We,” I’d like to see it. It has two elements, a two-letter graphic in which the M of me slowly turns into a W for we, and Bob Marley singing “One Love” in the background. I love the song and its ethos, but on TV it’s long been used by the Jamaican Tourist Board. Might the spot have been more “positively disruptive” sans music?

As for the medium being the message, Marshall McLuhan would be so proud: It will play during political programming on Comedy Central, and wherever there is a debate going on (sports, music, on Fox) and also online on blogs like The Huffington Post. The graphic part probably cost about $100 to make, but by changing “me” to “we” the brand taps into all the latest talk about social media and connectivity, community and the future of the planet.

There is a fine line here, I admit, between genius and the emperor’s new clothes, particularly for a phrase like “positive disruption,” but like Rorschach tests, the spots lend themselves to repeated viewing, and suggest a level of depth that is more than meets the eye.

The two other spots are music performance based, and in that way effortlessly hit the brand’s demographic sweet spots: artists who played in bands during or after college, and now, for better or worse, work for the man, and tweens (with no self-esteem problems at all!) who have worn Ramones T-shirts ever since they were toddlers and share their arty parents’ love of vague rebellion and punk rock. (I’m not being snide here. To be honest, this particular, if annoying, profile fits my kid and me.)

“Unsigned Band” features music, as the spot tells us, “recorded in a bedroom on a Tuesday night in Gainesville, Fla.,” and a really crappy, blurry color photo of a power pop band performing in a crowded dive bar in the early 2000s. The copy that scrolls over the still photo reads like something from an updated Jack Kerouac novel, “The band Mightaswell never became famous. In fact, they never got paid. They did, however, tour the Southeast in a 1994 teal green van with a busted speedometer.” I enjoyed all that until the last line, “And they couldn’t have been happier.”

Those last words didn’t quite ring true, as I’m sure they would have been happier if they had gotten paid. Ever. And I got confirmation of that, as the campaign’s creative, Ross Aboud, was a band member while a student at the University of Florida.

As with any good story, the irony here is that by resurrecting Mightaswell’s music in this commercial, the band’s MySpace page (where you can also sign up for a free CD) has already gotten thousands of hits. With its newfound fame and popularity—TV is the big time, after all—the band might just get back together, and maybe even get paid this time.

“Three Chords” is the spot that talks to tweens, and is the most happening and powerful of the three. It features Sophie Kasakove, 11, a cute girl in plaid pants who sings and plays guitar. She’s actually a member of Brooklyn’s ironically named kid band Care Bears on Fire.

Sophie personifies the girl-who-doesn’t-buy-into-the Barbie-thing, and if the spot runs during MTV’s The Hills, with its cookie-cutter, post-plastic surgery “real people” characters, it will be disruptive. Her lyrics, which she wrote, are pretty characteristic of poetic 11-year-olds: “Don’t tell me what to do, what to wear, what to say,” and “I don’t want to be like everyone else.” But there’s a real charm to the presentation. She sings, and then the subtitles open up a whole world: “Learn three chords. Play 10,000 songs.” That refers to the C, F, and G chords (in the scale of C) that back almost all country, blues and rock songs.

Anyway, the spot shows a kid who shines, an authentic original, who positively embodies the brand. Take that, you fakers on American Idol! Here’s the rub: Will appearing in this commercial, which is also popular on YouTube and is being sent around the world virally, turn our Sophie into a Care Bear from Hell?

After all, she still has to get up in the morning and put on her Chuck Taylors one pink shoe at a time. But the whole scenario, complete with the turning into a monster outcome, couldn’t be more of the moment. Perhaps the final irony here is that running the spots on—eeww—television constitutes the nearly 100-year-old brand’s ultimate act of rebellion.