back in the '80s, when the culture suddenly started treating CEOs like rock stars (albeit older, balding, un graceful rock stars). Chrysler's Lee Iacocca led the way in this new cult of business personality—in the press he was regarded like Moses as he parted the sea of red ink at Chrysler, starred in TV commercials and wrote a best-selling book. By the mid-'90s, abject worship of CEOs had given way to intense reverence for founders of Internet startups, who, the mythology usually had it, left grad school to start a business with three guys in a garage and now, a mere 18 months later, were worth more than General Motors and Sears combined.
We all know how that ended. Lately in advertising we seem to be once again flooded with CEOs—some of whom are real and some fictional—but this time they poke fun at themselves and are received without the reverence.
Does this rash of boardroom scenes express an unconscious craving for order and the rules of hierarchy? Or maybe it's the opposite—just a way to make fun of the boss. That's certainly the case in a recent FedEx spot, funny enough in its quiet way. It has a CEO asking for ways to save money and an employee suggests using FedEx.com. Then, of course, the CEO steals the idea, but he changes a hand gesture in the delivery—everyone agrees that the hand gesture makes the idea the top guy's.
Then there's the shockeroo of seeing Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, featured in a spot for Taco Bell's "hot new hand-held." Heading a meeting at an employee-filled conference table, he asks for a demo. A woman takes a bite of the new chicken quesadilla, making orgasmic sounds. The group is impressed. The spot delivers its astounding dumbness with such gusto that you just have to laugh. The same goes for the tagline: "Think outside the bun."
PC maker Gateway, meanwhile, has countered a year-and-a-half dip in profits and stock by bringing back its own hero, Ted Waitt. Waitt, who started the business in an Iowa farmhouse in 1985 (hence the black-and-white Holstein-pattern boxes), stepped down as CEO in late 1999 but returned this past January.
The Steve Jobs-like comeback of the bald-but-ponytailed, jeans- and boots-wearing, charismatic founder injects some personality back into Gateway, and these unexpected commercials do too. Previous spots showed people incredibly excited to be at the opening of a Gateway store. These are a whole lot more imaginative.
Open on a Mission Impossible-like presentation of "Gateway head quarters." In his office, an informally dressed Waitt takes a call. "Hey, Teddy boy, how you doin'?" a voice says conspiratorially. The voice offers "some more ideas to make you look good," and sets up a meeting for 11 that night at "his place." In the last frame, a bit of the caller is revealed—we see a tip of a cow's snout and mouth speaking into the receiver. (At first, I thought it was the return of the Pets.com sock puppet.) Then we get a "to be continued."
This is a great teaser for many reasons. First, it makes sense for Gateway to draw on its most distinctive visual branding element, the cow pattern. Like Apple, it's something familiar and organic, not hard and techie cold. And as the popularity of Gary Larson shows, Americans love cows: They represent the possibility of the frontier, and are big and earnest, and as life-giving as milk itself.
In the second spot, which broke last week (a third will start soon), Teddy boy is shown at the evening meeting—sitting on a hay bale in a barn, receiving wisdom from the bovine Mr. Big—and he does his part well. "You know how I told you to build all those stores and staff 'em with computer experts?" the cow says. "Right," says Ted. "Well, now is when we look like geniuses. ... There's a revolutionary new operating system coming out, and where's the best place for people to learn how to use it? Bingo!" Then we get a title card announcing that "Windows XP-loaded computers are now at your local Gateway store."
It's The Sopranos meets Mr. Ed. I like this Tao of the cow