AOL’s Upgrade

The nine spots in BBDO’s second round are all good fun

When last we covered AOL advertising, the online giant had dropped its usual homespun, low-budget, Wal-Mart-without-the-warmth approach and abruptly gone Hollywood/Vegas: A jaw-dropping spot that broke on the Oscars showed a post-orgasmic Sharon Stone alone in bed, complaining about the company’s slam-bam running-man icon, who, ha ha, had serviced her and left at lightning speed. Ba-bum.

As AOL’s huge new body of work shows, Ms. Stone was merely being used (again!) as a place holder for the brand (the way, say, Einstein and Picasso served Apple a few years back) until there was an actual product to sell—in this case, AOL’s 9.0 Optimized. And cool product benefits always make for interesting ads and compelling storytelling.

These nine ads don’t change the fact that most of the features are only for high-speed dial-up (a new oxymoron) and that AOL costs more than other service providers. But while other ISPs already provide some of this stuff, these spots suggest that no other service offers the breadth and depth of these new 9.0 features. Trademark BBDO, the commercials are entertaining in a jokey, celeb-filled way. And since it’s selling special features, the campaign—which debuted in September and continues to roll out this month—is full of skillfully produced bells and whistles.

The ads are quite disparate, but each delivers the idea that AOL is a big entertainment brand. The most timely featured Jesse Ventura—we see the back of his rather scary, enormous head as he uses AOL’s search engine, powered by Google, to research a list of the candidates on California’s gubernatorial recall ballot. “They’ll let anyone be governor of California!” he says. The spot is off the air, of course, but seems even more dead-on now.

The big surprise in the bunch promotes the Talk Phone add-on for instant messages. We see a hardcore-looking dude IMing another bulky, studded type. “I’m madly in love with you,” the first types; “I’m madly in lust with you,” responds the second. This is an advertising shocker: starry-eyed beefy men professing their love—not over beers but on the Internet. We start getting the picture when the first types back, “I’m madly in anger with you,” then picks up the phone and plays a dazzling guitar riff. They are James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich of Metallica; the song, “St. Anger,” is off their latest album. The spot is honest and funny, with a dazzling build.

Speaking of synergy and cross-pollination, Sting touts Video IM in another spot. He’s pulling a Bob Dole: making fun of his holy-of-holies rep and his Jaguar commercial by being shown in the back of a car, reduced to sending IMs to promote his latest song. I like that he’s self-deprecating—he’s usually so earnest. But while selling this cool new device, the spot inadvertently sends the message that any stranger can get a video message onto your screen. Even if it comes from Sting, it’s still kind of off-putting.

Two other spots also offer cute twists: “Elle” opens on a crying baby and a non-cookie- cutter handsome dad trying to calm him. Dad takes the kid Web surfing, through cartoons and songs, but nothing helps until they end up at Elle McPherson’s swimsuit page, and the baby smiles. In terms of suggesting cybersex and porn sites, this would seem to be a disaster—even more clueless than the Sharon Stone spot! But it’s actually the anti-Sharon approach: Mom comes home, and it’s Elle herself. I like it more than BBDO’s GE spot showing the marriage of the supermodel (beauty) and the nerdy scientist (brains) as a metaphor for appliances. At least the husband is not as fake seeming (although this isn’t her husband or kid).

And there are more kids: Cropped from the neck down, a couple stand over their broken computer, wondering who can fix it: a cousin, the kid across the street, and so on. “Didn’t you get Computers for Morons?” she asks. “I didn’t understand it,” he says. Meanwhile, their hyperactive toddler, with a crazed hairdo like the kid in Jerry Maguire, bangs away with a plastic hammer. He somehow navigates to AOL’s new Computer Checkup, and it’s fixed. The spot is quirky and cute, an effortless demo. If only I had a plastic hammer.

Another spot takes off on Leave It to Beaver, with appeal for boomers and their kids who watch Nick at Nite. The Beav himself, Jerry Mathers, appears, looking far better than in the Jenny Craig ad (which is not saying much). Now he’s sort of a cross between the Beav, Frankenstein and Tom Bosley. The kid cast as a latter-day Eddie Haskell is a find, and it’s a felicitous way of selling parental controls without getting too paranoid.

Gone is the previous tag, the Sharon Stone-era “Welcome to the World Wide Wow,” a total bowzer of a dated expression. In its place is a nice device that ties all the spots together. The announcer says, “Life needs” and the running man appears, holding a cue card relevant to each spot: “less clutter,” “parenting,” “quick thinking,” etc. Not only does it reinforce the benefit, it gives the running man a legitimate role. And this time, in each case, he hangs around till the bitter end.