Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Hook, Lines & Sinker

The new XM Satellite Radio campaign comes from Lowe, the third agency in five years to have a shot at selling the extraterrestrial service.

It’s not as if the past work has been bad. The birth announcement (from TBWA\Chiat\Day) featured a giant, celebrity-based production number filled with men falling to earth—most notably, David Bowie.

Once the 21st-century communications’ spawn was up and running, we got a peek (courtesy of Mullen) inside a fictional studio featuring a beehive of stars, such as chatterer Ellen DeGeneres, everyone’s favorite degenerate rapper/comedian, Snoop Dogg, songbird Martina McBride and yes, Mr. Bowie, who, while surviving another day at the office, gets involved in some sort of petty heist of Snoop’s bling.

This latest XM campaign, however, is as star-free and the opposite of big as it gets. In a reverse move that seems to be happening more and more lately, the idea started as an Internet concept and was reformatted for broadcast. Done in Flash animation, the work is based on a charming, uncomplicated graphic device: three animated yellow lines bracketing each side of the XM logo. The genius is in the use of this open, blank, yet flexible graphic—it offers infinite possibilities and applications.

That’s good, because once the little-yellow-brackets–that-could won Lowe the business, the agency then had three weeks to get something on the air.

“Switch,” the opening commercial, clearly illustrates the tagline “170 channels to find what turns you on. Are you on?” Against a black background we see the kind of primitive, white outline of the male upper body that advertising used to use with a straight face to signal sinuses clogging and unclogging, and “tiny time pills” at work.

But here the empty head and torso have a much more joyous (and ingenious) function: to show that the switch on ‘ole Mr. X’s heart is coming alive (“somewhere along the way maybe that switch got turned off,” the graphic says). The yellow lines bracketing the logo move from symbolizing the man’s heart into a turntable on which a needle drops. Meanwhile, the song “Better,” by emerging artist Regina Spektor, starts low, builds and gets more energetic with each squiggle.

The second spot, “Hair,” is my fave. This time the whimsicality of the dashed-off line drawing (an egg with a nose and shoulders) reminded me of John Lennon’s doodles. The “smart” Beatle’s signature self-portrait consisted only of long hair and little round glasses, but was unmistakable. The spot opens with a punk song from the Circle Jerks, and the waves of the logo give the egg man a Mohawk. This is followed by the sound of a stock ticker (bald guy with wings of hair over his ears), Flock of Seagulls music from the ’80s (the three lines from a long front bang and the guy becomes a headbanger), followed by a bit of Beethoven’s Fifth (the lines morph into a 17th-century man’s ponytail wig) and so on. There’s a comedy clip illustrated with the front-parted, slicked-down hair of either Moe, Larry, or Curly (I could never get them straight). The logo waves then become a moustache (opera), a soul patch (blues) and women’s hair (Madonna). It’s the kind of thing you never get tired of seeing, as each viewing allows for more graphic and aural discovery. The last piece of animation is unexpected: the three yellow lines turn into a grill (gold tooth) twinkling from an open mouth as we hear a snippet of hip-hop from Snoop Dogg.

The third spot airs during the baseball playoffs. (As part of its sports package, XM covers the Major League Baseball season and also provides broadcasts of the All-Star festivities.) Randy Newman’s “The Natural,” a sentimental favorite for most baseball fans, soars as the waves connect with a bat and, just as in the Robert Redford movie, the “ball” then starts hitting and breaking all the lights in the stadium. It’s amazing how much narrative and emotion three little abstract lines can conjure up.

That said, although I got the pun of turning the radio on, at first I found the “turns you on” in the tagline kind of creepy. It’s one of those phrases from the ’60s that people use, like “blow your mind” that has embarrassing drug and sex connotations, especially when spoken by a graying ponytail who lived to tell the tale. But I like the separate question, “Are you on?” as in turned on to life, but also on the XM system.

There are also Internet, print, and wild postings that are equally compelling. For example, an ad for the talk component (from conservative to progressive) shows two shoes: a wing tip (with the yellow waves in the tip) and a flip- flop (with the waves forming the thong). Another for Bloomberg and other financial radio channels shows the white outline of a bull and a bear; the yellow waves form the roaring sounds coming out of the animals’ mouths as they face off. Perhaps I’m getting too carried away, but the bull actually looks like a Picasso drawing.

I’m not sure the campaign will do anything to address the brand’s biggest problems, churn and customer service. But in terms of showing range, possibility and suggesting the idea of sheer simplicity, it can’t be beat. It’s amazing how much narrative and emotion three little lines can conjure up.