Barbara Lippert’s Critique: The Whole Package

Spoken with a proper British accent or not, the phrase “It never loses suction” never ceases to crack me up.

So when I heard it spoken out of context by a deadpan announcer in this teaser eBay spot, along with other slogans, like, “It was designed by German engineers and developed in Sweden by renowned Japanese scientists,” as a gray-jacketed man stood next to a plain podium holding the brightly colored letters “i” and “t,” I was, er, sucked in by the cleverness.

Was the spot a parody of advertising? Or was it using satire to puncture skepticism in the face of the usual advertising promises—the modern corollaries of “Wait, there’s more!”—to sell the same old same old? Or could it actually, possibly, perhaps be introducing a product or benefit that could indeed revolutionize the world?

Then I recalled how, way back in 2002, I fell for the idea that “Project Ginger,” as inventor Dean Kamen was then calling it, would change the way we viewed roads, buildings, cities, even civilization itself. When the 1950’s-like lawnmower-pogo-stick now known as the Segway was finally revealed, to great fanfare, it seemed as comically depressing as the prospect of helmeted, geriatric boomers riding the “human transporter” in the wheelchair lanes of 2030.

So back to “it.” There is definitely something emperor’s-new-clothes-ish here—and that goes for the wild postings in the first part of the teaser campaign, too. As with the Chauncey Gardiner character in Being There, we project onto it what we want to see. It’s big and blank enough, yet small and reminiscent-of-familiar-things enough to suggest incredible genius or simplistic nothingness. After all, can’t pretty much every product in the world call itself “it” (and especially any IT-related service)? What is really breakthrough, however, is the way “it” trades on, and brands itself, with newness.

Still, I was genuinely surprised that “it” turned out to be eBay: Generally, 10-year-old companies with huge profits (up 44 percent in the third quarter, to $280 million) and big brand-name equity don’t give themselves extreme, top-to-bottom image makeovers.

A little background: I was quite mystified by the firing of the previous agency, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. I’ve got to say I liked their work a lot—the big Broadway-musical takeoff stuff (there was also a faux Sinatra one, with “I did it eBay”) was unexpected and goofy, like going inside some weird collector’s brain. Then, changing the campaign to stress the humanity of the eBay community could have gotten all preachy and cultlike. (I couldn’t see myself happy in that crowd of clock collectors.) But a spot last Christmas, “Toy Boat”—about a kid losing his boat in the 1960s, then getting it back (or finding one just like it) on eBay—resonated exquisitely. I have a friend whose perfectionist mother threw away her (“dirty”) stuffed animal when she was 7, and 40 years later, she did the same thing.

But apparently, eBay now considers itself in need of a change in strategic thinking. It’s a dogfight out there in cyberspace (now there’s an antique word), with search engines like Google (currently devouring the world) and retailers like Amazon.com all melding and competing for each other’s revenue streams. So, yes, eBay wants to wipe the slate clean.

Among other things, “it” would seem to be a purification ritual: You might think eBay is just a repository of the world’s crap. (Not crap in the sense of what Neil French so tenderly called women creative directors’ output. No, I mean literally old tag-sale items, usually found piled all over picnic tables, in plastic bins and in big black plastic bags.) Now, it is literally reinventing itself. In print ads that use various “it”-erations of the two-letter word, eBay is selling itself as a search engine—the letters in pink fuzz, for example, lead to dog sweaters, or fiberglass insulation, or cell-phone covers. So eBay seems more like the Internet itself, which as a medium is more like the human brain than TV is. On the Web, you make connections that lead to other connections, unlike changing the channel and getting everything pre-baked.

Once the tease is revealed, two newer spots, both very cleverly designed, show that “it” can be anything you want to shop for, from a hamster trail to a dodgeball. (The “it” ball keeps hitting an overweight kid, which is funny the first time, but gets kind of cruel.)

The campaign also includes a microsite with online commercials that can be customized or e-mailed to friends—again, a microcosm of what you do on the site itself.

So all that crap now has a new patina. The campaign is smart and engaging, and the genius of it is that you can’t criticize it, because it makes fun of itself. It’s got itself, not to mention eBay, covered from every angle. To paraphrase another inspired ad slogan, it’s anywhere (and anything) you want it to be.



ebay

Agency

BBDO, New York

Chief creative officer

David Lubars

Executive creative director

Greg Hahn

Senior creative

director

Kara Goodrich

Associate creative directors

Tom Christmann, Scott Kaplan, James Clunie

Art directors

James Clunie, Scott Kaplan

Copywriters

Kara Goodrich, Tom Christmann

Executive producer

Monica Victor

Director

Fredrik Bond, MJZ

Director of

photography

Carl Nilsson

Editing house

Final Cut