You Talking to Me?

Traditionally seen as “the Super Bowl for women,” the Academy Awards took a step toward gender neutrality in its advertiser lineup this year.

Absent Revlon and L’Oreal, the broadcast featured the expected retailers (JC Penney, etc.), but also a car company (Hyundai) and a tech company (Intel). And had ABC not objected, it would have included a Web site that skews heavily to cheating men.

OK, perhaps that last one falls under the category of “Be careful what you wish for.” But it also fits into a growing trend. What’s a marquee TV event these days without a cooked-up controversy about a rejected ad?

Extramarital-dating site expressed outrage last week that its spot was turned down by ABC, and suggested that the network, home of Desperate Housewives and this year’s “infidelity Oscars” (with Up in the Air and Nine among the nominated films with cheating characters), was being more than a little hypocritical.

If this ploy sounds familiar, that’s because AshleyMadison’s parent company, Avid Life Media, also owns, which had its gay-dating ad turned down by CBS for the Super Bowl. (GoDaddy, of course, is the granddaddy of manufacturing network rejections, having started the whole thing.)

The AshleyMadison spot, created in-house and currently running on cable, is a terrible (and slightly racist) attempt at comedy, and also tries ludicrously for a movie connection by giving two of the three black actors an Avatar-like blue tinge.

In the interest of getting it accepted, the company ditched the tagline, “Life is short. Have an affair” — to no avail. (The ad apparently will run during the Oscars in Australia.)

Something bigger is going on here, a trend that turns the expected formula about media convergence on its head. As offline brands try to figure out digital, purely online companies are increasingly using the most traditional, expensive network-TV events to make a play for credibility. Google was on the Super Bowl, after all.

But if these raunchy bit players (Google obviously excepted) really are serious about spending millions on network-TV spots, they need to stop doing their ads in-house and give their business to actual old-school ad agencies in order to get them on the air. How backwards is that?

In this case, however, it’s a triple-win: Avid Life received publicity (sorry about that), the audience got to avoid suffering through the actual spot, and ABC got to look like it has some standards.

Speaking of standards, who knew the Academy had an arcane rule about not letting an actor who is an Oscars presenter or nominee also appear in an ad? What? Could it lead to some sort of over-commercialism or overexposure? The horror!

Jeff Bridges, who was up for best actor for Crazy Heart, is the longtime announcer for Hyundai. The car company was a major presence on the Super Bowl, and also bought seven Oscar spots (plus one during the pre-show), which had to be revoiced.

In the long run, this odd (and, for Hollywood, bizarrely prim) turn of events probably helped Hyundai, since guessing the new celebrity voices adds to the fun. But talk about hypocrisy. This is the same Academy that willy-nilly changed the rules and returned to the old days of the 1930s and ’40s of having 10 Best Picture contenders instead of five.

As with Hyundai, Intel also bought time on the Super Bowl and the Oscars. (Kudos to both for the gender enlightenment!) This was the first time on the Academy Awards for the “sponsors of tomorrow,” with a spot called “Generations” from Venables Bell & Partners. (It actually aired on the Super Bowl post-game show but had not aired on TV since.)

It opens in 1982, with two nerdy dudes (nudes?) on a basement couch, geeking out over a Space Invaders-type video game. Cut to 1993, and the same two guys, now older, are blown away by e-lectronic mail! Add in 2003, when one guy says to the other: “No wires. I’m still surfing!” Then fast-forward to the present, and the guys are Intel engineers rendered speechless by how smart and fast the new Intel Core processors are. “It’s boosting performance automatically!” one of them says.

I love the campaign (now 10-months-old), especially the sonic sign-off with the chorus of Intel employees singing the five notes. But while re-creating the great ages of geekdom is amusing and the period details are great, this spot seems derivative and doesn’t really have a payoff. What is so revolutionary about what the present-day engineers are looking at? Isn’t there a less abstract explanation than “boosting performance automatically”?

It generally fits into the “Our rock stars aren’t your rock stars” strategy. But while this particular focus on stereotypical geeks might be historically accurate, the lack of women (they’re seen only peripherally) was perhaps not the greatest choice for the Oscars telecast.

Still, Intel and all other “sponsors of tomorrow” are more than welcome at the Oscar party — as long as they’re committed to the relationship.

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