Wasn't it just a few years ago, after BMW Films, that David Lubars told agencies that if they didn't get with the new-media program, they'd find their work "flushed down the 21st-century toilet"?
Of course, for the past year, the former Fallon president has been chief creative officer at BBDO, an agency known for its Neolithic (or at least 1978-ish) predilection for blockbuster TV commercials that, get this, run on network television, using (hee-hee) busloads of celebrities. Paging Bob Dole! Since Lubars' move, the BBDO team has won about a billion dollars of new business (Lowe's, Levitra, Bank of America, Mitsubishi). Those new assignments include the introduction of Motorola's Rokr, the first cell phone (also camera- and Web-enabled) to have access to Apple's iTunes service.
So, what sort of groundbreaking, toilet-avoiding piece of communications has the agency cooked up to reach the hipster target? A 30-second TV commercial filled with celebrities! (There will also be a 60-second for cinemas.) Even more mystifying, the spot seems to revel in its aggressively backward-looking touchstones: Where Motorola's previous four-letter phone, the Razr, used futuristic imagery in its ads, this spot features hordes of people stuffing themselves into a Clark Kent-era phone booth, à la 1950s frat boys.
What's more, to say it's a (painful) celebrity pile-on is an understatement. Talk about overload: There's everyone from a shirtless Iggy (Pop) to a back-from-the-dead Biggie (Smalls). The only one missing is Miss Piggy. Some actually arrive in an old Volkswagen bus.
So why is it good?
For one thing, it's beautifully executed. There is no doubt a sea of spots on the way promoting groundbreaking music phones (albeit not with iTunes). So, a pay phone placed, miragelike, in the middle of a vast, rocky, uninhabited landscape is a cool visual image and strategically clever. It's also a literal branding metaphor, a hit-you-over-the-head kind of demo to show that you can cram all this music, straight from the source, into your phone. It's like a Surreal Life with A-list musicians making fun of themselves.
The spot is filled with surprises. It opens with some sort of hip-hop desert teen in the booth, fighting over the phone with his girlfriend. (In the subtitled translation, he calls her "Boo." Maybe he's seen the Afghan-dubbed version of that Eugene Levy/Queen Latifah movie.) Then we get a visit from God, or in this case, Madonna. Here, she's a one-armed Esther—the ad was shot shortly after she fell off a horse. She camouflages her predicament by wearing a black sling and wrist brace over a black military-style coat. The coat is a bit stormtrooperish, but I like it. And given her accident, she's a trooper for just showing up (or maybe it was the £6 million she was reportedly paid).
Just as an aside, Madonna starred in a BMW film directed by her husband, Guy Ritchie, in which she played an out-of-control celebrity bitch, the only dramatic role she's ever undertaken for which she got glowing reviews. But BBDO has had trouble with the Material Girl: In the '80s, there was that Pepsi spot with her singing "Like a Prayer" that was pulled after it aired once. It turned out that her simultaneously released video for the same song showed her oozing stigmata next to burning crosses, which some people found upsetting. Even Phil Dusenberry, in his entertaining new book, Then We Set His Hair on Fire, calls the experience a "catastrophe." (Speaking of celebs, he only disses one—Don Johnson.)
But back to the phone booth. Madonna rudely hangs up, and the caravan o' stars materializes. The only joke I thought didn't work was including Beethoven, complete with bad wig and knee britches. But the way he's identified is pretty funny—Bootsy Collins, carrying his guitar and wearing a trademark shiny red suit and top hat, tells him, "Move away, Beethoven." Alanis Morissette shows up, as do Michelle Branch and Maya. (Throughout the spot, Madonna's song "Hang Up," from her new album, is thrumming, and works well.)
Through the magic of CGI (and the editing is great), it's getting crowded in the booth, and Little Richard's makeup starts to melt as he tries to create order by yelling, "Shut up!" Ahmir Thompson, co-founder of the Roots, who goes by the punctuationally breakthrough name ?uestlove, is the guy with his face pressed to the glass. It actually reminded me of the Pepsi spot showing the kid getting sucked into the bottle, but it's slightly less creepy.
The button, as they like to say, is that from behind we see a Ruben Studdard-size guy in a pinstriped suit approaching the Babel of a booth. "You gotta be kidding!" Madonna squeals. "Biggie, no!" Like that, Notorious B.I.G. has gone from murder victim to punch line. I hope he's smiling.
The voiceover (by the ever-fabulous Collins) announces, "100 tunes in your phone, baby!"
Another spot from the agency, for Rokr distributor Cingular, alludes to the iPod silhouette ads and is also effective. This one, however, is the most literal convergence of phone and music around. And there are great details to find through numerous viewings. That is, if you're not taking a bathroom break.
Executive creative director, copywriter
Associate creative directors
R. Vann Graves,
Chief creative officer
Jesse Dylan, Form