Barbara Lippert’s Critique

Microsoft’s Ultimate TV is a time-shifting device that allows the viewer to be in two places at once. It also lets you record two different shows from its tuners while playing back a third from its hard disk.

Perhaps the client took its mission statement too literally when it broke up with one agency (FCB San Francisco) while flirting with another (Rodgers Townsend in St. Louis.) Although RT was supposed to be doing “strategic work,” the client and side agency got to know each other sufficiently to conceive “Quads,” a $50 million TV campaign that will run through the summer. Except that last month, with “Quads” released and thriving, Ultimate TV unexpectedly tied the knot with a third agency, Venables/Bell & Partners in San Francisco, which wasn’t even born when Microsoft danced with FCB and Rodgers Townsend.

It happens. Like Mormon wives, all the players profess to be very happy. Even more complicated and soap opera-like, Venables/Bell was formed by two creatives from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the San Francisco shop that created the campaign for TiVo, a competitor of Ultimate TV. With its dark humor and implicit TV-and-commercial bashing, the TiVo campaign is everything Ultimate TV says it didn’t want to be.

What it did want was a boring product demo—and with good reason. The personal video recorder category is underperforming; viewers are slow to buy into something that seems too complicated. And the biggest problem in advertising PVRs like TiVo, Replay TV and Ultimate TV is it’s almost impossible to show how it works in 30 seconds.

Thus, the quads (a grid with four different pictures) are a pretty elegant solution. After all, the horizontal/vertical pattern is an established, familiar one. Why not use it to add graphic punch to the boob tube?

Spare and inviting, these spots are an eavesdropper’s dream; they give you the feeling of looking through four windows, but are shot, edited and scored in a way that allows the eye and ear to follow the action easily. Divided into four squares, reminiscent of Mike Figgis’ film Time Code, the screen presents a modern architectural feeling, a contemporary spareness that informs most of the houses and furnishings shown.

I particularly like the George Nelson slat bench/coffee table that holds the remote in the first spot, which shows a couple getting ready to go out. While the woman powders her face, the man paces. He secretly sneaks over to another square to record Friends. Meantime, the woman slips over to the TV to record her own indulgence: Survivor.

There’s something about the stillness of some squares juxtaposed with the throb of the quiet action in others that’s compelling. In reality, the only action is the characters putting on makeup, walking and clicking on a program guide.

In the everyday department, another spot shows a young dad watching a basketball game when he hears his baby cry. No problemo. With the pause-live-TV feature, he runs up to the crib, helps the kid and returns without missing a jump shot.

I liked the “Soap” ad least. No enticing visuals, but it explains how the gizmo works best. A woman is watching a soap opera in her frumpy living room, while someone outside is mowing the lawn. As she gets to the good parts, the lawn-mower guy blasts by, drowning out the dialogue.

“I have something to tell you,” the man on the screen says. “I’m having an affair.” The half-destroyed woman (maybe this accounts for her acting), asks, “With who?” We get a new, ear-shattering blast of the lawn mower. The woman rewinds live TV. “With your sister, Crystal,” he says. Slap. The joke is he keeps getting rewound and slapped.

Like Ultimate TV, this campaign proves you can be in two places—make that two shops—at once. It’s a convincing defense for the client/ agency plural marriage idea.