Like flying cars, robot maids and three-course meal-replacement capsules, personal video phones are one of those Jetsonian basics we assumed would be routine by now. Seeing the person at the other end of the line was demonstrated 40 years ago, for God's sake, at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, and it wasn't even new then.
A version does exist, in the office, where video conferencing is increasingly commonplace. But unless you're connecting with a loved one you haven't seen in a while, watching a Webcam-quality head emoting on screen is far more boring than studying even a speakerphone; and if the fuzzy image can in turn see a jerky version of you, it severely impedes the important personal grooming, doodling or face-making moments so vital to staying conscious while conferencing.
That's why these commercials for Sprint's PCS Video Phone got my attention. They change the paradigm: Let the promise of the sweetly antique-y technology of the Jetsons fade away, they suggest, and instead use the thing to start releasing your inner Spielberg. That's right—forget the talking-on-the-phone-via-a-bad-camera-in-Alaska thing and use the phone to shoot and send mini-movies, making it all about you, you auteur-in-training!
And just as the strategy subverts the idea of a phone, the campaign redefines the nature of an ad. Publicis & Hal Riney bypassed the usual process—no casting directors, production companies, directors, etc.—and just put the phone in the hands of creatives and a range of others, including Vera Wang, Elliott Erwitt and Spike Lee.
But the agency didn't really need any stars on the roster, because the spots' setup—a black-and-white title card followed by the film, framed like a masterpiece within a massive black border—pretty much makes anything that moves looks interesting.
Take the first spot, "Sharing," which had a short run leading up to Mother's Day. Creative director and writer Mark Sweeney demonstrates his gratitude to his mom for enduring his painful birth by putting his hand on a burner in his art director's kitchen. Then he shrieks convincingly at the top of his lungs, attaining Jamie Lee Curtis-in-Halloween levels. Later, after another black-and-white title card (the spots are all beautifully paced), he presents his blisters and third-degree burns (not) to the camera.
This is pretty basic stuff, but it was shocking and amusing when it aired, and it certainly got my attention.
So did the title card that presents a 15-second film by photographer Erwitt. He's a master of simple human observation; many of his images have gone on to become iconic, like the French guy on a bicycle with his kid in a beret and his loaf of bread. Not atypically, Erwitt avoids going for techno-wonder here and transmits the most ordinary of human experiences: a kid playing in a park with an elderly man.
The playground, on New York's Upper West Side, has climbable hippos, and in "Where's Holly?" we see only the guy's awkward torso and legs (it's a friend of Erwitt's); his head is inside the hippo's head. We hear him complaining, from the echo chamber of the animal's interior, that she's been in there long enough, he's losing his patience, and they gotta go.
This is a scene no doubt enacted by grouchy parents and caregivers hundreds of times a day in this park, but framed and presented this way by Erwitt, it's hilarious. Then we get the title card and voiceover, and a few more seconds: Holly (Erwitt's granddaughter) emerges, an adorable little girl with blond pigtails, and the man says, "There you go!"
On the other hand, Lee's film is a surprise in that he also went the '50s-Dad-with-the-Bell & Howell-route. There's nothing more elemental than filming your son waking up, and here we get a very tight shot of the kid's sleepy head in bed as Spike goes into the lament of every parent: "Time to get up. Can't be late for school. I told you go to bed last night, but you didn't want to listen." The next card tells us the film is for Spike's wife, Tonya. It ends with him running his finger around the sleeping kid's lips, exposing his new front teeth.
I'm a major fan of Spike's oeuvre, both in film and advertising, and his son is certainly cute, but while I appreciate the naturalism, the spot is duller than I would have expected. It seems to have lost the narrative thread, as Scorsese put it in his AmEx commercial.
My least favorite of all is "The Fitting" with Vera Wang, because she uses her 15 seconds to sell herself. We see a model wearing one of her wedding dresses as Wang goes on. "The extraordinary thing about designing clothing for women ..." she says, and it's so much blah, blah, blah. The only slightly amusing moment comes after the title card, when she looks into the camera—and since it's too close up, she sort of looks like an alien—and explains, "People say I'm fanatical, and I guess I am."
Whereas "Gluttony," the spot made by another goofy creative guy—Nik Daum, who pretends to swallow brushes, staplers and other odd items—is unexpected and funny. A junior art director just a year out of art school, he also made a very simple but visually inventive subgroup of upcoming spots that focus tightly on something that looks sort of like cat fur.
We're on the cusp of something here—it's how kinetoscopes must have seemed 100-plus years ago. This is a new visual way to communicate, and while it comes from the phone, it has nothing to do with conversation as we know it.
The worry for the industry, of course, is not that we don't have flying cars yet but rather what happens when 12-year-olds start making better, funnier, more creative ads on their cell phones than you can ever sell to the client.
publicis & hal riney,
Executive creative director
Group creative directors
Erin Alvo, Mark Sweeney
Erin Alvo, Mark Sweeney