The Thrill of the Chase

These new, elaborately produced eBay commercials are cute and funny, but initially seem so old school that I thought they came out of the Wayback Machine, circa 1999.

First, there’s the obvious irony of a $7 billion digital titan promoting itself through warm and fuzzy television spots that will run heavily through the Christmas season.

Speaking of way back, in the late ’90s eBay appealed to its “early adopters” by showing, as these spots also do, literal groups of collectors hanging out en masse, forming new, magically Net-enabled human communities (“The Power of Us”).

Since then, of course, eBay has seemingly created and/or gobbled up half of the global digital landscape, leaving the rest to frenemy Google. OK, that’s not exactly true. But in the last few years, eBay has expanded exponentially, acquiring 25 percent of Craigslist, and buying Skype, StubHub and StumbleUpon, among others.

More recently, eBay CEO Meg Whitman has also promised lots of improvements for users, including redesigning the home page, working aggressively on combating fraud (a major source of complaints), and improving the work of search engines.

So I figured that the new ads would fix on some of these latest flourishes.

Instead, with its latest, slightly tongue-in-cheek tagline, “Shop victoriously!” the campaign goes back to the very core of the business: the adrenalin rush a buyer gets from winning a bid.

That’s a powerful emotion to stir up. (The chemical process was dubbed “windorphins” in a teaser campaign that I actually thought had something to do with combining Microsoft Windows and German pharmaceuticals.)

It’s also a smart way to attract people from outside the core user group while reinvigorating new buyers and sellers.

All the spots are cleverly art directed, and I love the meticulous attention to detail. My favorite, “Awards,” features a TV stage as hideously overdone as the strange, shot-blocking setup on the recent Emmy telecast. There’s even some kind of giant Art Deco tulip sculpture on stage, which seems perfect. And, naturally, there’s a cheesy host, who is a bit Shatnerian, but still more bearable than Ryan Seacrest.

It opens on a shot of the audience, then goes to a split screen of the four anxious contenders as the winner is announced. The award, a telescope, goes to “Stargazer 434,” who, in her oddball, schoolgirlish charm, is a great casting find. One of the non-winners shoots her a venomous look as Stargazer makes her way to the stage, where she gushingly thanks her parents and her science teacher as she’s hustled off into the wings. (There’s a cruise commercial that uses a similar acceptance-speech device. But that woman is in a gown, whereas this arrangement makes clear that it’s a more diverse, eBay kind of crowd.)

Deftly strategic, the campaign is great at conveying the feeling that users form a kind of family, that the objects they pursue are often neither expensive nor rare but have great personal meaning, and that everyone has equal access to the hunt.

For that reason, I also like “Foxhunt.” It uses all the trappings of an upper-class sport—complete with horns, hounds and horses—an experience not many regular Americans can buy into. The eBay hunters gallop competitively while the fleeing Evel Knievel lunchbox flaps hilariously through mud, water and grass. It surrounds the pursuit of a humble piece of collector kitsch with Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

Given that all-access spirit, “Dog Race” is my least favorite. While the concept of replacing the canines on a dog track with people, who chase a fire-engine-red vintage radio (that sort of resembles an old car bumper) is funny, it also comes off as uglier and more meanspirited than the others. These people are fat and out of shape—and we don’t want to think we look like that, even if we are fat and out of shape. You can just imagine all the heart attacks and pulled hamstrings involved in running like a greyhound after a radio.

After all, in a dog-eat-dog world, as the rest of the campaign wisely conveys, it’s the little victories that sustain us.