Lippert Critiques Today’s Fireside Chats

Talking about the recession recently, Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, said, “We are living through history, and I don’t mean that in a positive sense.” Alrighty, then.

Indeed, when it comes to the economy, consumers pick up on reactive, panicky messages (and I don’t mean that in a positive sense). Since they’re already feeling anxious, they don’t need to see their fears mirrored in advertising. On the other hand, the idea of jubilance seems clueless. An intelligent, bracing tone always works. “This is America,” the announcer declares in one upbeat spot from Bank of America. “No matter how, no matter where, no matter what, we keep moving forward.” And that message would seem deeply heartening if it weren’t from BofA.

What’s an advertiser to do?

Well, perhaps stopping with the stimulus puns and starting with some transparency would help. By that, I don’t mean having the CEO read from a teleprompter for the cameras. (The CEO of Domino’s, poor guy, was recently trotted out in response to an awful PR mess — the homemade video, which got a Susan Boyle-level of views on YouTube, showing franchise staffers doing disgusting things to the food. Alas, no tightly constructed corporate message could erase the image of that young man preparing what I like to call his special “nose tenders.”)

In general, people are scared and angry, and while a CEO can put a human face on things, even the nicest guy in the world can seem to personify bonus rage and layoffs, obscuring any pleasant connection that consumers might have with a brand.

Some of the best advertising around now is the current post-CEO period of Sprint’s “Now Network” campaign from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. It’s information packed in ways that seem fascinating and real (although obviously it’s masterminded to have a funny payoff). It tells us about the actual data moving around the Sprint network: “Right now, 23 million cell phone calls are being made … 29 people just left their phones in cabs,” and so on. The writing is delightful, and it proves there’s power in numbers.

And it’s such an improvement over the TV spots with the newish CEO Dan Hesse roaming the cobblestone streets of Manhattan in black and white. I could never figure out why, as head of a Kansas-based firm, he was pictured in gritty New York City. (De Niro-Pacino factor?) But the streets aren’t exactly mean, and in one spot, he’s pictured in a diner. Was he supposed to be the “quicker-picker-upper?” Or was his slightly apologetic mien meant to suggest that we “wake up and smell the mea culpas?”

Interpreting data as fun factoids, though, seems to capture the action in real time, so we feel like we are part of the progress.

Another successful contemporary spot that acknowledges reality is BBDO’s work for AT&T. It features an animated blue line. We watch as the line delicately traces U.S. history, showing men waiting on bread lines in the Depression and soldiers marching in World War II. It’s an artful and subtle way of showing, as the announcer says, “with every downturn there’s an upturn.”

Fidelity Investments has a new campaign from Arnold featuring a green line. Full disclosure: I have a 401(k) account with Fidelity, and despite that, I still like the brand. I hate gimmicky advertising, however, and this “Guide to Personal Savings” campaign and the new tagline, “Turn here,” seem, well, fake.

In fairness, I get that they’re trying to introduce a big idea, and that this particular idea actually came from the client — they wanted to make the analogy that being guided by Fidelity is like following the green line of a GPS system. But no one watching TV will pick up on anything close to the idea that this is a GPS for your financial system.