Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Damage Control

What is it lately with Fallon and balls? Or should I say balls and the hills of San Francisco?

Last year, Fallon London created a commercial for Sony Bravia showing 250,000 wildly colored balls bouncing everywhere, pooling and forming abstract patterns in San Francisco gutters. Oddly quiet, it was a contemplative ad about color that was a big winner at awards shows.

Now, Fallon in the homeland (Minneapolis) has launched the third in a cinematic series of spots for Travelers Insurance. Called “Snowball,” it also begins on high ground. But in sharp contrast to the Bravia spot, this is not at all bouncy. It shows one guy going downhill in San Francisco fast and taking the city with him, creating a snowball effect that explodes (with all unharmed) when it crashes into a building at the bottom.

The downward tumble is so intricately executed that it took three months to produce. In these days of relying less on traditional commercials and more on new media, making a spot with a huge production budget seems counterintuitive. (It was directed by Dante Ariola, with killer effects created by Weta Digital, Peter Jackson’s New Zealand facility that also did Lord of the Rings and the jungle scenes in King Kong.) Indeed, there’s something really retro about the spirit of the spots. Maybe that’s part of the plan—to think of Travelers along with times that seemed, in retrospect, more stable, as with the big commercials of the Reagan early ’80s. Even in these scary ’00 times, with its dark humor, pathos and fabulist storytelling the spots do break through the clutter, especially for the insurance biz, and set Travelers apart.

When I first saw the spot, though, I found it to be a disturbing metaphor on so many levels. Give me just one person covered in dust and rubble and I think 9/11. Then throw in your bride and groom and all the other innocents swept up in something out of their control, and it suggests earthquakes and tsunamis.

This is the reality of our world, and all reasons to have major insurance, but probably not the intent of the spot, as well as not the happiest things to think about in between stretches of Larry King obsessing about Anna Nicole’s baby’s father.

Amazingly, however, the creators have managed to make the spot, if not quite upbeat, at least charming and rueful. It’s about the human comedy (dramedy?) and the human cartoon—how we can read anything we want into this big ball o’ distress, and still get up and dust ourselves off in the end.

The first spot in the campaign, “Birdie,” with its setting in an ancient town in the Czech Republic, seems to come from a European company. (Or at least a European agency.) A twist on the story of Icarus, a man tries to fly by jumping off a bridge while wearing an attached set of wings that look right out of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbook. He actually takes off gracefully and soars, and the locals are all spellbound, except for one who says, “He can’t swim.” Talk about hope dropping like a stone—not to mention the need to assess risk properly.

The second, “Boxer” (both spots beautifully directed by Noam Murro), is also set in the Czech Republic. It focuses on the old kitchens, stone streets and Mr. Magoo-like cars to such an extent that I thought perhaps it might be an Ali G-related attack on Kazakhstan—that we’ll see a sweaty pub goer swilling horse urine. Actually, it’s about a boxer who prepares mightily for a match, only to get KO’ed by the ring announcer’s microphone that suddenly drops into the ring.

“Snowball” has an entirely different feel from the other two—so much so that you can’t guess what it’s for—Starbucks? Jeep Cherokee? (A Jeep, in fact, makes it through the disaster entirely intact.) In addition to the meticulously perfect effects, the genius part is the simple keyboard sound, which is very light, modest and delicate, but incredibly engaging.

We find out the point of all that downward damage only with the voiceover at the very end: “When you have insurance that stays in synch, you can roll with anything.” The simple pun as payoff seems disappointing, and the “in synch” phrase (boy band, anyone?) seems kind of confusing. Also, piling-on through artful CG is not the most original idea (Adidas’ “Carry” and PlayStation’s “Mountain” come to mind). The commercial is so well executed, however, that it’s a pleasure to watch—over and over.

The print is also great, with the “in synch” phrase working much better (for instance, one ad features a photo of synchronized swimmers). There’s also an expertly crafted Web part created by Fallon Interactive called “In Synch Challenge,” voted “most influential Flash Website of 2006.” It shows a 3-D world—a starter home, a family home and a small business—and provides info about managing risks in those settings. With its sweet simulated environments and actors shot against a green screen and then composited in, its fun factor is right up there with The Sims.

As for that snowball, it resonates. Maybe it’s because the idea has been used in a million cartoons, but I suspend belief every time I see the image of a small ball rolling downhill and picking up speed and size and everything else along the way. All in all, it’s a sticky commercial, even if it’s not how you choose to roll.