Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Mullen’s Latest Nextel Work is a Parting Gift

Artful, funny spots set client apart from other telecoms

So how does Nextel make those walkie-talkies work from Santa Monica clear to Amagansett, anyway?

It has something to do with hubs, routers and signal efficiency. That and some kind of incredibly complicated software enhancement, so you begin to see why this campaign from Mullen is so delightful: It never actually gets into the arcane explanation of the breakthrough technology.

Rather, each of three spots offers a different preposterous scenario, with the tone straight out of the “Century of Progress” theme of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, where so many gee-whiz devices were unveiled. So artful and faux-authentic is the documentary-film style that the explanations are almost plausible for a second or two, until you feel like a total dumb ass for being so gullible. (The spots come clean at the end.)

The first shows the erection of a 400,000-foot transmitting tower (an “angel” of engineering) that can be seen from space; the second features a specially trained fleet of transmission pigeons, tracked by their electronic leg bands from rooftop laboratories, that fly from coast to coast, like Jet Blue; the third follows a herd of “antennalope,” which make their home on the plains, where seldom is heard a discouraging word, except for the radio signals they were bred to relay through their distinctive switched-on antlers.

In mocking the whole product-demo genre, especially one involving a secret, patented scientific advance, nothing comes close to the genius of the antennalope spot. In what looks and sounds like a Richard Attenborough nature documentary, we see the herd of electronically enabled mammals grazing, frolicking and even mating with antennae built into their headware. Using stock footage of antelope and the magic of digital antler enhancement, the film is so convincing that I momentarily thought I had missed out on an entire species by not paying attention in science.

The antennalope is “man’s unwitting accomplice,” we hear in a voiceover that perfectly simulates the calm, staccato cadences and the dryly amusing content of a first-class nature-film soundtrack. “The herd is constantly migrating, driven by instinct to where the signal is weakest,” the narrator tells us, “across the vast reaches of North America.”

In the interest of pacing and further clarification, there’s also a range map, showing herd traffic patterns, transcontinental walkie-talkie coverage and dead spots. Even better is the da Vinci-style etching of the animal, featuring an almost medical illustration of the development of the antennae just to make the explanation perfectly clear.

The weakest of the three, although still funny, is the pigeon spot. It opens on a John Cleese type Brit in a flak jacket explaining the setup: The joke is that although these birds live on a mucked-up urban rooftop in cages with chicken wire, there’s a room inside that looks straight out of a James Bond film, with hundreds of people using state-of-the-coop technology to track the critters. The shot of the high-tech monitoring equipment, however, is too brief to track, and certainly we all know pigeons can be trained to fly incredible distances. You can’t miss, however, with a close-up of a little pigeon foot with its “leg-band transmitter” nestled on an ankle—hilarious.

“Tower” is also a gem. It reminds me of a documentary I once saw about the construction of the Empire State Building—that, too, was called a miracle of futuristic engineering (at one point, plans called for a docking station for dirigibles on its roof). This film, made to look like it’s a few transfers away from the original footage, shows the antenna attracting an astronaut and a proud engineer tearing up at the thought of such a modern miracle.

The Swedish team Traktor directed (the Scandinavian boy band of the directorial set), and their humor and obsessions work perfectly here. All were apparently heavily influenced by the socialist industrial/educational films they were forced to watch in middle school, and it shows.

In this walkie-talkie breakthrough, Nextel has made a significant accomplishment: a defining difference between it and the other telecoms. And Mullen has knocked it out of the park with a campaign that’s smart and entertaining and memorable. (Sure beats watching James Earl Jones waterskiing.) On a bittersweet note, the spots will run through the summer, when the account moves to TBWA\Chiat\Day.

At the same time the agency was creating and producing this round of work, Nextel, a Mullen client for six years, held an agency review. Mullen took part, and that’s like being Cinderella on The Bachelor: While he frolics in the hot tub with all the other “ladies,” you are upstairs doing scullery work on the bikinis.

This is about as graceful an exit as Mullen could possibly make; as George Costanza liked to say, there’s nothing like leaving on a high note.