In these days of ad-skipping, how do you make a spot seem bigger, more important and significant? One definite trend is to load it up with celebrities. The cavalcade-of-stars approach perhaps conveys the Hollywood version of gravitas-celebritas.
But handled correctly, it's the opposite of old-fashioned: The idea of "selling out" has been moot since about 1980, so even cool celebs are more than willing to appear, especially if the copywriters make them seem cleverer than they actually are. They get to make fun of themselves (without screwing up on The Daily Show or Letterman), and when they do show up in multiples and interact as weird alternative families, the result usually humanizes both them and whatever they're selling.
The problem, though, is that just as the technologies are converging, so too do these celeb-filled commercials tend to meld into one. And then it's doubly hard to know what to buy from whom. Is Seal sitting in someone's lap to sell a phone or an MP3 player? (Intel Centrino, actually, and that goes for Lucy Liu, too, even though you'd think she'd be selling DVD delivery.) Similarly, Iggy Pop, Bootsy Collins, Madonna and Maya (among others) were shown squished into a phone booth recently—a nice device for ... a carrier? No, the Motorola Rokr, an iTunes-enabled cell phone. (The more you know about each artist in that spot, though, the funnier it is. For example, Iggy Pop stage-diving into the booth.)
This new spot from Mullen for XM Satellite Radio also boasts a roster of stars interacting in a knowing, cartoony way to showcase a great range of offerings and options. Mr. Snoop Dogg is in the house. He's got a face (and 8-year-old-girl braids) that the camera loves, even if it is an ongoing irony that the one-time pimp and drug dealer is advertising's favorite mascot these days.
On the surface, there's nothing remotely edgy or breakthrough about the spot, but it's well done and fun to watch. It all takes place at happy XM headquarters, where Snoop's in his studio (he has a show on the service) and realizes he's lost his bling. (It's a 500-watt necklace that spells out his name.) He calls his good friend Derek Jeter, a few glass cubes away, who hasn't seen it. So he makes the rounds of the neighboring studios (just another day at the office) and looks in on Ellen DeGeneres in mid-sentence. Her cadences alone are funny. She stops the show to gesture through the glass: "Have I shaved today? You want a ... beard? You want to be Amish?" (The Amish are the one remaining special-interest group in America who can't flood your fax, Web site or phone lines with complaints. And even though you'd think Amish jokes would be a bit done, with Ellen's delivery it's funny. And this is a bit confusing, but XM offers satellite-radio replays of her TV show, not a separate radio show.)
The undeterred Snoop pokes his head into where Martina McBride is singing. No dice. Then he comes upon David Bowie, looking good in a gray cashmere hoodie and excellent highlights. He's the one musical artist who's had perhaps as many incarnations at Madonna, and his song "I Am the DJ" plays at the end of the spot, just before the announcer says, "Listen large." Even though he doesn't have any exclusive relationship with XM, the sly, elegant Bowie appeared in the company's first spot (from TBWA\Chiat\ Day), in which he was shown falling to earth (clever, for the man who appeared in The Man Who Fell to Earth). The White Duke tells Snoop he hasn't seen the jewelry. Snoop gives him the peace sign, and the former Ziggy Stardust gives Snoop something like a black-power sign. (Now there's a reversal.)
Once Dogg's gone, Bowie opens his jacket to reveal he's wearing Snoop's bling. Just a dumb joke, or a reverse passing of the torch, from rap back to gender-bending glam rock? Aside from endorsing the act of stealing stuff (a mystery), the spot is very cleverly about inclusivity, acknowledging each other's differences and showing all of us Americans with a wide variety of beliefs and tastes that we can just get along, like all those crazy kids in their music studios. Isn't it beautiful, if a bit confusing?
All the funny business actually sets up an important strategic difference between XM and its big (really, its only) competitor, Sirius. XM wants to show itself as more well-rounded, with a greater range of content, all brought to us by human beings, as opposed to the programming on Sirius.
Sirius, of course, has taken the opposite approach and bet $500 million on a single radiohead, Howard Stern, whose show moves there in January. Indeed, there is already a spot, created by Euro RSCG, to appeal to his followers: It opens on a starry sky, underscored by the solemn music from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Suddenly, a constellation lights up. Andromeda? Ursa Major? The Flying Fish? Well, it's a big dipper of sorts—perhaps you'd want to call it Priapus, as it appears to be a penis, which then, um, explodes. It's anti-climactic at this point to say it's in bad taste, because that's what Howard's show is all about.
So, XM manages to show a range of tastes, while the Sirius spot is indeed a single shot. At this point, XM is way ahead in terms of subscribers. But the real issue for both is how many new subscribers will be willing to pony up $12.95 each and every month.
And that's a whole new level of celebritainment.
Chief creative officer
Michael Ancevic, Mike Shaugnessy
Baker Smith, Harvest Films