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.

James Mangold, whose feature credits (like 3:10 to Yuma) could not be more visually impressive, directed the TV commercials. Yet these spots come off as majorly hokey. To me, it looks like a red carpet (that happened to be green) suddenly appeared in front of the actors playing Fidelity customers, or the green line turned into a magic carpet or the yellow brick road. It seems as forced as the old ads from the ’60s that showed a dove in your kitchen. Everyone’s taken their lumps, everyone’s worried about money, and being told to “stay on track” with this fake green line comes off as infantilizing and patronizing. (The campaign works much better online, where it can be personalized.)

When Hyundai’s “Assurance Plus” campaign broke on the Super Bowl, I thought it was a smart marketing move. I actually reassessed all that with a spectacular Saturn commercial now running featuring Jim Smith, a Saturn dealer since 2001. Saturn dealers have been walking the walk since the car was introduced, and represent the car’s populist roots, as opposed to the much-reviled executives at General Motors. This guy, a former pro football player, is an incredible presence who positively pops off the screen. He speaks from the heart, unscripted, and says, “I saw this ad on television. It says if you lose your job, they take your car back. That sounds like the worst day ever! ‘Honey, I’m home. Lost my job. Don’t have a car. What’s for dinner?'”

He goes on to explain Saturn’s “Total Confidence” package. (It’s a little bit of an overpromise on the name, but it means Saturn will make the car payments for nine months if you lose your job.)

Unfortunately, GM ditched Pontiac just yesterday, and has already announced, bizarrely and schizophrenically, that Saturn will be chopped by 2011. But this advertising, from Deutsch/LA, somehow captures the calming, emotional connection that was communicated so well in the early Hal Riney spots that introduced “a different kind of car” from “a different kind of company.” You want to believe that Saturn will live, and that Jim Smith and his fellow dealers will soldier through until there’s an upturn, even if history proves otherwise.

And I don’t mean that in a positive sense.

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