Barbara Lippert’s Critique

In honor of the ad festival in Cannes, this week Critique goes intercontinental, to use the term our president did when he thought a reporter was getting all snooty and pretentious by asking a question in French. Except we’re off to the British Isles. And when it comes to humor in advertising, any quick survey proves that no matter how nasty, out there, or attitudinal our baddest American work gets, our former rulers can out-dark and out-snark us just about any day of the week.

They’re particularly good on the subject of the futility of existence, the black void of meaninglessness stuff. Of course, no one beats the French at existential ponderings, but the Brits make it funny. This Xbox ad, part of a major intro campaign for Microsoft’s gaming console now running in Europe, is more Monty Python than Camus or Sartre. But it sure pushes some psychological hot buttons nonetheless.

Ironically, while it offers none of the usual straight-out violence of videogame content—explosions, car crashes, savage kung fu, what have you—the spot received 165 complaints to TV stations in the U.K., and was recently taken off the air there. (The yanking will not affect prize eligibility; it had been running since March.)

But back to psychological nightmares: The spot opens with a woman giving birth—to the demon seed of Satan, perhaps. She gasps for breath and issues a blood-curdling scream as a baby blasts out of her body and goes hurtling through the window, umbilical cord flapping. (Fetus has left the building.)

Now baby is aloft, racing across the sky, naked and alone and howling. He is a scary-looking, putty-like thing, in contrast to the flying man in the Windows XP ads, who was a fully dressed, overgrown, awkward dweeb who hovered on his stomach and looked like he couldn’t wait to get back to his motherboard. This kid is rushing into the stratosphere on his back, completely unprotected. To make things even eerier, he ages on his journey. He gets longer and larger, the range of his constant bawling gets deeper, hair grows on his chest (and he covers his privates with his hands), his skin sags, his hair thins, his teeth rot. Finally he plunges to earth, dropping with a thud into an open grave in a loamy cemetery.

Showing the cycle of life, and the happy, shiny amenities consumed along the way, is nothing new in advertising. What’s shocking here is that the view is so raw, fast and bleak. I thought it was visually fantastic, a real knockout, and funny until the grave part. I imagine that’s what got the Brits going, too: We’re all aware of how fragile life is, thank you very much. It’s a clunk in the head to see the rotting geezer fall into his grave.

It’s all explained by the tagline: “Life’s short. Play more,” with the sound of a pounding heart in the background. (Another spot in the campaign, a long, beautifully shot parable about mosquitoes ruining Eden once they start their blood-sucking work, uses the line “Life’s short. Work less.” Neither line is a breakthrough: In the early ’90s, Reebok used the equally staccato, “Life’s short. Play hard.”)

Yet there’s a huge contradiction here, in that the visual is as entertaining and sophisticated as it gets, but the underlying message is reductive and simplistic. For those who’ve been raised on videogames, it does not begin to convey why you should plunk down good money for this Micro soft gizmo instead of sticking with PlayStation or Dreamcast or, for that matter, Atari’s Pong.

The target is young men, gamers or not, so the appeal to gaming virgins sort of explains the reinvention-of-the-wheel feeling.

I can see how the image of a vulnerable body moving through space would work in a videogame itself. But much as I love the profundity, and the musings on life, death and the idea of control and individuality being an illusion, there’s an obvious problem with the concept as a selling proposition for the category: If life is indeed one horrific journey that’s over in a wink, isn’t it even sadder to spend it alone in some dark room, manipulating a plastic knob?