Guest Critic

God bless you, Mr. TiVo. Forty years ago, David Ogilvy observed that “you can’t bore people into buying your product, you can only interest them.” Yet it took the invention of the slick TiVo box to force advertisers to finally confront the question creative people have faced for years: Will anybody actually watch?

This month, even tedious categories like cars, packaged goods and retail are messing around with conventions in an attempt to be more interesting.

First, there is a fabulous ad for Honda’s Fit, with cars gobbling each other up on a futuristic road. How often do you come across a car ad and say, “I’ve never seen that before”? Nice work. Then, there is a superb series for the Toyota Yaris. Witty and clever animation, beautifully executed; plus a live-action spot that’s very funny. (Hard to believe the ungodly pretentious Camry ads came out of the same brand—”at what point does a car become more than glass, rubber and steel?” Oh, please. It’s a Camry, not world peace.)

Crispin is the agence du jour, but you’ve got to hand it to them, the VW “Safe Happens” spots are really good. You can imagine all the reasons clients wouldn’t do this—but they did. On point with extreme prejudice.

I always got the impression that the rigid testing procedures of packaged-goods brands were there to dissuade young clients from even thinking about colluding with their creative teams to deviate from time-tested formulas. But Mr. TiVo seems to have succeeded where decades of going to the bathroom and channel-zapping had failed. That is, convincing the lords of packaged goods that holding an audience with engaging work is a good idea.This week’s proof: An odd but intriguing spot for Purex odor neutralizer has Bob the office worker who is actually a fish, though his co-workers can’t tell by sniffing him; and a Tylenol PM ad, in which all the people are sleeping—and the people watching it aren’t. They’re not great, but they’re not boring either.

Retail, once a vast desert of the inane and unwatchable, is showing signs of life. Sprint continues its funny campaign. The deal is front and center, but you look forward to each new punch line. Sears is trying hard with an animated “Bring your yard to life” spot. And even those I consider flops fail in the interest of doing something that stands out rather than blends in.

My other likes: JetBlue’s fresh take on letters from customers; a very powerful and classy spot for Carefirst that features cancer survivors (not many serious spots here—but it’s a really good one). And even though I’m not a dog person, I like Pedigree’s campaign. If I were a dog person, I think I would like it a lot. As a TiVo person, I like its odds as first in pod.

Of course, there are many funny and entertaining spots from brands with a history of being funny and entertaining. The one thing in short supply is big motivating ideas—it’s good to be entertaining, but I’m old-fashioned in liking a compelling point.

A few years ago, I was in a meeting in which a researcher from a highly regarded testing firm revealed the results of a thorough and presumably expensive project. They had begun measuring entertainment value, among other things, because their research had revealed that “commercials that have a high score for entertainment value tend to be watched more than those that do not.” Everybody took notes.

Mr. TiVo, you weren’t in the room. But I felt your presence.

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