Critique: AOL is Halfway There

Anyone who has endured years of AOL commercials knows they have tended to be cheap-looking, numbed-out affairs featuring an array of smiley, zomboid converts at their keyboards, spouting lines stiffer than the ubiquitous sign-up discs. The tagline was, “So easy to use, no wonder it’s No. 1!” Obviously, to survive, the old and stodgy-seeming service desperately needs to raise its hipness quotient-and its advertising production budget-fast. And obviously, the future is not in easy-to-use, poky old dial-up service but in faster-connecting broadband.

Two commercials for AOL Broadband broke on the Academy Awards, and they speak to all those issues. The spots are both surprising, memorable and big budget. “Six Million Dollar Man,” a parody of the then-edgy graphic opening of the Lee Majors oevre, is smart and funny, and gets the idea of “better, stronger, faster” across in a cool and knowing way. The other spot, featuring glam movie star and Mensa member Sharon Stone emoting up a storm, is so preposterously off-the-rails that it’s hard to imagine how it got on the air.

Stone rolls her body over on a pillow in that combination of wired, out of breath and sated that often spells soft porn and says, “That was the most amazing experience I ever had.” She turns to an unseen someone in the room and asks, “Can you stay or do you have to run?” The lover in question is digital: AOL’s running-man icon that BBDO knows is the new symbol for the client’s broadband service, but we don’t yet. So when we see the two-dimensional man cut out of the room and she turns to the camera and says “Icons!” it’s hard to get the joke.

Is it supposed to be a Sex and the City-style bit? It comes off more as a 1950s Playboy cartoon, about a plumber or a TV repairman coming in, using his tool to work on the lady of the house and then disappearing. For AOL, going straight from promoting parental controls to showing Stone’s head rolling in post-orgasmic bliss is not only schizophrenic, it’s downright embarrassing, even if it’s supposed to be a parody of a bimbo image.

To paraphrase the best-known fake-orgasm scene onscreen: I don’t want what she’s having.

Also mystifying is the spot’s look. I appreciate that there’s no gratuitous nudity-Stone is in a silky slip dress of a thing, like Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But it’s also shot predominantly from the neck up, so Stone mostly has to use her head as her instrument, as if her body were in an iron lung, and that’s tough. The result, with her short blond hair sticking up from her head on the pillow, framed just to show her spaghetti-strapped shoulders, is like seeing Martha Stewart tucking herself into bed, one strap coyly dangling off her shoulder, as she did indeed appear in a white sale commercial for Kmart. Horrors! Moreover, with the focus on pillow talk, it’s also like something out of a Doris Day movie, although Doris, mercifully, spared us the need to share her climaxes. (There’s nothing wrong with the music, a version of Carmen that’s muted and intriguing, although it echoes the new Beyonce Pepsi commercial that debuted on the Oscars, too.)

And what is the take-away here? That if you sign up for AOL Broadband, like Sharon, you’ll get screwed? And unlike what you seek from an ISP, why would you want a lover who is superfast?

On the other hand, the Six Million Dollar Man parody is apt. The opening of the original show was all about the wonders of technology, and the line in the voiceover, “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him better than he was before!” clearly applies to the new AOL service. The graphics are charming, and seeing the icon run on a treadmill is hilarious. Now we know it’s here and it’s speedy. It’s for the next crop of spots, I guess, to explain why AOL Broadband service is better than any other. But for now, “Six Million Dollar Man” does make the service seem cool and contemporary.

Which is more than can be said for the new tagline, “Welcome to the World Wide Wow.” Has anyone actually uttered the words World, Wide and Web together since, like, 1999? People do say “wow,” but committing it to an ad is kind of a throwback oversell. (The Stone spot ends with her head on the pillow, her eyes rolled back, and her saying, “Wow.”)

And, of course, the timing on this could not be helped, but the launching of the phrase “worldwide wow” in the midst of “shock and awe” bombing does seem unfortunate. AOL, you’re halfway there, but you’ve got travail.