For advertisers, parody is a risky landscape, dotted with potholes that can stop a brand message cold. Amazon.com, though, heads into the gift-giving season undeterred, packaging holiday cheer as sing-alongs, à la 1960s variety television.
Five new TV spots from Foote, Cone & Belding, San Francisco, broke last month on national network and cable TV, supported by an estimated $50 million. They show groups of grinning, wide-eyed men wearing identical-colored V-neck sweaters and perched on risers to sing Amazon's praises.
The idea, says Adam Cameron, who co-directed the ads, was to wrap the brand in the wholesome vibe of old Burbank Studios programs—such as The Mitch Miller Show and The Lawrence Welk Show—without poking too much fun at them.
"A lot of dot-com advertising is edgy, but in a shocking way," says Amazon representative Paul Capelli. "We wanted ours to be inviting, and to say, 'This is a place for you.' "
Cameron, brought in partly because he's English and could view old variety shows with a fresh eye, said the first task was to "try to figure out what it was about those shows that made us laugh." Mainly, he says, it was the fact of "middle-aged men, many of them on the wrong side of 40, miming pretty badly." It edged toward campiness, he says, but was actually genuine and warm.
"There's this wholesome, sincere commitment to the singing. We wanted to retain that naive charm, and not have our technique swamp the humor," Cameron notes.
That meant jumping in feet first–re-creating the feel of the shows as closely as possible and keeping ironic detachment to a minimum. Cameron and Simon Cole, the other half of directing outfit Joe Public, chose to use a '60s-era camera and shoot the spots on tape, instead of washing the images out later.
"When we looked at the ads on the Avid , they were almost there," Cameron says. The camera movements were also carefully mapped out, including bad framing shots and amateurish, low-tech editing. "We really wanted that feeling of a live edit," he says. "We even went so far as to imitate the bumpy crane moves."
All of which set the proper backdrop for the songs. FCB spent a considerable amount of time on casting—"There are a lot of humorous faces in there," says Cameron—and kept refining the lyrics, which appear on the bottom of the screen in the ads.
The finished jingles, with music by the Wojahn Brothers, Santa Monica, Calif., are oddly, even maniacally good-natured—praising Amazon for its extensive selection ("No one's got a lot of a lot of things/ Like Amazon's got a lot of books and DVDs/ Like Harvard's got a lot of Ph.Ds…") and for helping customers get their gift shopping done early ("Nothing else to do today/ But worry about Y2K/ Soaking in a bubble bath/ With 15 days to go…").
The strength of the spots, Capelli says, is they can "bring viewers back to a time when the holidays were simpler." And, he adds, the tunes are pretty catchy. "It's a busy time, but even if you've got your head stuck in the fridge, you'll hopefully hear the ads when they come on."
In the end, Cameron says, what carried the project creatively was the degree of affection the team had for the source material. "It didn't feel kitschy. It felt genuinely funny," says Cameron of the finished work. "Interesting material is always like a breath of fresh air."
Agency: Foote, Cone & Belding San Francisco
Deputy Executive Creative Director: Steve Neely
Group Creative: Director/Copywriter Tom O'Keefe
Creative Director/Art Director: Matt Reinhard
Production Company: Headquarters
Director: Joe Public
Music: Wojahn Brothers