Kodak Goes Negative

This new Kodak campaign from Deutsch starts out strong, with a tone of righteous indignation that seems fitting for our times. “The world’s most expensive liquid isn’t found in the Middle East,” an announcer — probably the same guy who did the Swift Boat ads — says with trademark graveness in one of the political-attack-style spots. “It’s found in your printer.”

“Dripping,” the most graphically sophisticated ad of the bunch, shows spots of black liquid hitting a white surface, like an abstract painting. “Drip by drip,” scary announcer guy says, “your wallet is being drained.” The visual is as dramatic as the voice, as we really get the feeling of drowning, or being buried alive, or at least standing idly by while mud is thrown, until the black sludge covers a map of the U.S.

Touché. This is a legitimate point of attack. The people who jumped at the chance to get a very cheap (or even free) printer with a computer purchase realize by now that there’s no free anything, and that the companies make money on the replacement ink cartridges. It’s an old marketing ploy going back to razors and it does seem like a rip-off.

Indeed, these Kodak ads succeed in providing yet another outlet for our outrage. Now, along with Big Oil and Big Banks and Big Insurance and Big Auto, we have a new villain: Big Ink! Those dirty bastards! How much did they get in bailout money? Give it back! Clip their bonuses!

Wait a minute. Who? Bernie Epson, Merrill Canon and HP Goldman?

If only the newspapers could become a powerful cabal and call themselves Big Ink. There’s a weirdly old-fashioned, tea party-ish aspect to muckraking about ink cartridges. The fact that this roguish “raid” mentality is coming from Kodak, a brand known for smiles and happiness, only adds to the cognitive dissonance. And while I give the campaign props for cleverness, and acknowledge that in its simplicity and aggressiveness it certainly gets attention, on closer inspection there’s something upsetting and disingenuous about the way it takes advantage of today’s throw-out-the-bums hysteria. Though the creators worked mightily at making an artful segue to the sell part, the two halves of the ads can’t — and don’t — match.

In both the print and TV (which use the same attack-ad-style headlines), the problem of overpriced ink, spelled out in black and white, is followed awkwardly in muted yellow by the solution: “Switch to a Kodak ESP all-in-one printer and stop overpaying for ink.” That line appears over the quiet, lowercase, unassuming Kodak logo, which floats in red above a black box radiating yellow sunbeams, under which the words “Print & Prosper” fan out.

Still bright and yellow, the ads close with the line, “Find out how much you overpay for ink at printandprosper.com.” The Web site is fun and easy to navigate. Turns out I “waste” about $100 a year.

So far, so good. But now tell me about that Kodak box — the black thing that looks like a Betamax out of the 1970s. Hello? Has Kodak hired an industrial designer since the dawn of the personal computer?

Further research shows that while I might save up to 50 percent on the ink, I have to pay about $200 for the printer, which is ugly and looks like it weighs a ton. OK, you might make the argument that it really will pay off if you keep it for years. But phooooot is the sound of the air going out of all that mighty self-righteousness about cost. The real choice is: pay more now, or pay more later. Given the economy, and the look of the thing, why would now be a good time to buy a new printer? And if it is indeed a good time to lay down some cash, and you’re really looking to be financially prudent, why not bite the bullet and move up to a laser printer? They’re also coming down in price (though they’re still expensive) and, while you still have to replace the ink, at least you get higher-quality imaging.

Like most political attack ads, this message about “fairly priced ink” turns out to be only half true. We just got out of a long and wearying election season in which negative ads only added to the chaos and bullying. As a culture, we’re up against endlessly depressing news. We don’t need headlines like, “There’s a
$5 billion stain on the U.S. economy and it’s coming from your printer.”

Call me an old softie, but I really don’t like feeling beat up by Kodak, a brand that (despite itself) still resonates with goodness and unbounded vitality. It altered the cultural landscape of America — and democratized the visual one — by introducing a new way to capture family memories and important times with the snapshot.

Despite the new technology that replaced the Brownie and Instamatic cameras and accompanying film, the “Kodak moment” will not be forgotten. How can they just drop all that equity by selling ink at half price?

Hey Kodak, let the sunshine in for real.