When we first met the ethereal, porcelain-skinned star of the Palm Pre campaign from Modernista! in late May, she was climbing up a boulder in bare feet and a champagne silk dress, controlling a legion of orange-clad dancers with the movements of her fingers on her smart phone. As the dancers created a giant sphere around her, she explained that her phone helps her unite her different lives. “Isn’t it beautiful when life simply flows together?” she asked.
The next time we see her she’s talking about past lives, juggling and déjà vu. In another spot she tells viewers that she feels her phone can read her mind. She relates the story of how a man once asked her, “Does it know you’re crazy?” “Well of course it does, sir,” she says she responded. “It’s mine.”
The actress, Tamara Hope, is an eccentric presence in an otherworldly campaign, which is why some are wondering if the decision to introduce the highly anticipated Pre with such unusual creative is as crazy as the character she plays.
Criticism has ranged from the unsettling nature of Hope’s placid delivery to the fact that the 60-second introductory commercial (all spots were directed by Tarsem) said little about the Pre’s features. The most common word used to describe Hope — in everything from press articles and blogs to YouTube spoofs that give her delivery a demonic edge — is “creepy.”
“I certainly don’t enjoy watching them,” says Robert Birge, CMO of Kayak and the former managing director of TBWA\Chiat\Day in New York, where he ran the Nextel and then Sprint accounts. “And the messaging is questionable.” The real problem, he adds, is that the ads seem to build brand awareness not for the Pre, but for PDA devices in general.
Michelle Farrell Emerson, vp of marketing at Assessment Technologies Institute and former vp of brand marketing, media and digital marketing at Sprint, says, “The first spot nicely combined a strategic thought with visual wow and breakthrough potential.” But the subsequent ads? Not so much. “They lost me,” she says. “I’m not a believer that you have to show people the functionality of the phone for 30 seconds, but the masses are buying the iPhone. You need to show [why the Pre’s] great.”
For a product designed to challenge Apple’s popular smart phone, the advertising is surprisingly gentle in its messaging, say some advertising execs who have worked in the category. The strong visual look pays homage to the design, says one agency cd, but overall the campaign “feels a little tone-deaf and self-indulgent.” Metaphors, says another, may not have been the best way to go, and do little to help it stand out in a market that will only intensify.
For Birge, the Sprint ad that features the Pre in its “Now” campaign (Sprint is Palm’s exclusive carrier) does a better job explaining the Pre’s benefits. Created by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, it shows a man with the phone while a voiceover explains he’s “running multiple applications at the same time,” a potent operating system advantage that the Pre has over the current iPhone. As for the Palm ads, “they almost tell me nothing,” he says.
Both Palm and Modernista! declined to discuss the work. A Sprint rep says the company is “pleased with the response from our customers … and we continue to see strong sales.”
Analyst Ken Dulaney, vp of mobile computing at Gartner, says Pre sales are “about on track” to do approximately 400,000 units per quarter. But the real test, he adds, will be when it comes up against all the smart phones coming out in the next quarter. And going up against such a heavy advertiser as Apple makes the job all that more difficult. “Every day you see an ad for Apple talking about their apps,” he says. “There’s no way that Palm can match that starting from scratch.”
Not all feedback has been negative. A study conducted by MediaCurves.com found that the ads evoke “inspiration” and “happiness” in viewers. And some consumers have come to the campaign’s defense online. “I find the ads rather soothing,” wrote one, commenting on an article in The Washington Post. “It shows that using a Palm Pre can be calming. I’m a woman who is highly organized and really appreciate the serenity of the ad.” Another, commenting on CrunchGear, says he was fast-forwarding through programming using his TiVo and “saw something intriguing” enough to get him to rewind and watch. “I feel I have a better idea about the Pre than ever before,” he wrote.
Roger Entner, svp, communications sector at Nielsen IAG, says, “Advertising is largely a repetition game” and both the Pre and Sprint ads are faring below average in recall studies. Pre spreading out its product messages over several spots , he notes, doesn’t help: “You’re better off running one commercial more often rather than five with different messages.”
Gartner’s Dulaney also notes the importance of repetition. “What you saw with Apple was a very repetitive type of advertising,” he says. “I don’t think [the Pre] campaign has gotten enough exposure. You’re not getting the crystal clear message that you have with Apple in the early days of the iPhone, where you saw that image over and over again.”
Rich Silverstein, co-chairman and cd of Goodby, says the Pre “is the most modern phone to come out since the iPhone [and there’s] always room for another player.” But Palm, he says, “is relaunching a whole company,” and the challenge extends beyond the selling of a single product.”