Guest Critic

Being asked to act as a guest critic is a very flattering thing. It must mean that somewhere, someone thinks your opinion might matter. So, without much thought, I agreed to comment on this month’s spots. Then I remembered that I’m not really a big fan of criticizing other people’s work. It’s just too easy, while actually making a great commercial is very hard. A great idea is a fragile thing, and shepherding it through an endless process full of forces ready to chip away at it is an art unto itself.

Many times, the end product might not be all you hoped for, leaving you to wonder where along the journey you might have made one too many compromises. Even if everything worked out exactly as one hoped, sometimes for unknown reasons the magic just doesn’t happen. And that’s what is really frustrating—yet also extremely exciting—about making commercials: no matter how much certain people want it to be a science, it’s not. If there were a formula, all spots would be engaging, emotionally resonant, funny or moving.

When I put in Adweek’s DVD, I really hoped there would be one example where all things came together, including that little bit of magic. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. There actually were a lot that very plainly communicated their strategy in a very obvious way without adding any creative spin. Most of them didn’t stick in the mind for more than their running time. There were a few, however, that I remembered the next day for one reason or another.

I remember I saw some plumbers dancing, but wasn’t sure for which particular reason. I, personally, want my plumber to get the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible, not pirouette around my house. Then I recall watching a choir, which can be challenging enough even if they are presenting the best of Mr. Bach himself, but unfortunately, all this choir was singing about was some cell-phone promotion. I could go on, but I remember what both my mother and John Hegarty always told me: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

A Kleenex spot started promisingly, but it ended differently. Bummer. But you’ve got to applaud the effort to do something unusual in this kind of category. Then there was the Snickers spot, which is very well-produced, has some nice acting and is arguably quite funny. But the overall thought behind it escapes me. It just seems a bit too easy and reminds me how rewarding it is to see an amusing spot that pays off perfectly with a smart insightful line. “Not going anywhere for a while?” was just that, and still is the standard this product set for itself a while ago. So one cannot help but feel slightly dissatisfied with this new spot.

On the other hand, there was the eBay holiday spot. Here the whole campaign is based on a very smart and solid idea, and even though this particular commercial doesn’t necessarily blow me away, I like that it is based in reality and human truth. But I have a feeling that this is the kind of campaign that, once established, has its best executions yet to come.

The Virgin Mobile spots certainly stand out, but they also demonstrate vividly that good comedy involves a lot more than just putting the most absurd cast in a more absurd environment with even more absurd props and hope that it will generate laughs. These spots just try way too hard. Sorry, John. Sorry, Mom.

Now, how could you not remember a spot where Bowie is stealing from Snoop? So, in a way I did enjoy watching the XM spot. But somehow I’m not sure if it really lives up to its potential—it seems you could have had more fun with this. Plus, it reminds me of something I’ve seen before, but I can’t quite figure out what.

The one-take “Jump Rope” for Xbox 360 is without doubt a nice break from the noisy, choppy messages aimed at today’s youth. It has confidence in its simplicity, is very well choreographed and is shot while using an interesting track. So I can easily forgive the familiarity of a tag like “Jump in” and its somewhat vague link to the product. The bigger problem it faces is that it is done in a category that has delivered some of the best ads in recent years. So one automatically expects absolute greatness, which this unfortunately just falls short of.

Finally, what else is there to say about the ESPN work? It is one of the best campaigns of the last decade, single-handedly spawning an entire genre of mockumentary ads. These two new ones are solid and enjoyable, but don’t measure up to the highlights of that classic campaign. But at least I finally figured out what that XM spot reminded me of.

As I said in the beginning, a lot of stars have to align to truly make a magic ad. And in a year that has not yet been blessed with much genius, November surely will not stand out as the month that changed that.