Words With Friends Is More Than Just a Game in Heat’s Ads for a Sequel App

Zynga tries a loftier look at language

Zynga wants you to know Words With Friends 2 isn’t just an online knockoff of Scrabble. It’s a bonafide system for capturing the true meaning of life.

“Power of Words,” a minute-long ad for the casual gaming company by San Francisco agency Heat, features a montage in the style of “found footage,” with single-word captions—spelled out in the game’s letter tiles—superimposed over home video of emotionally significant moments.

“Words are powerful,” begins the voiceover, as a pair of teenage girls giggle at an inside joke. “Some can hurt,” it continues, as one scowls and sighs over her phone by the lockers, after an apparent falling out. “Others bring sheer joy,” says the voiceover, as an elderly woman blows out the candles on her birthday cake, with her grandchildren perched on her lap. “And some you just make up along the way,” it adds.

Cue the product demo. A father and his toddler son dance in matching outfits, as the word “Twinning” flashes across the screen in beige tiles. A slightly older boy shaving his head is best summarized as “YOLO.” A soldier returning home beams as his daughters greet him in the backyard, and “Finally” appears underneath them.

The voiceover resumes. “In the end, words bring us together,” it says, as more vignettes—lighthearted, pregnant (both figuratively and literally), and larger than life—crescendo to the birth of a newborn; a teenager and his parents reacting as they find out he’s been accepted to college; and an older man tearing up as he learns he’s going to be a granddad (and the word conveniently covers what appears to be a Chicago Cubs logo on his jacket, either because Zynga didn’t have the rights to use it, or whatever it is, it was simply cluttering the shot).

“So when the time comes … use your words,” concludes the voiceover, as a smartphone featuring the app dances into the final promo shot.

It’s an ambitious approach—the game maker is casting itself not just as an arbiter of language, but as a vehicle for all of life’s important milestones. There’s some truth in it, insofar as some players have historically used the original, popular Words with Friends app—launched in 2009, with some 250 million downloads since—not just to create word puzzles with one another but to connect with old friends over its chat function, and meet new people, and share intimate thoughts about pretty much anything imaginable—even the death of a loved one. Some people use it to carry on affairs, others to lock down a fiancé.

“Elevating such a well-known game to stand for something greater was a rare opportunity,” says Elaine Cox, group creative director at Heat. “And it was all inspired by the people who play the game. We heard countless stories. Some used the game to make friends, start years-long rivalries, keep in touch with family, several even proposed marriage. From the epic power one word can have in changing someone’s life to the story of two people connecting over a funny word, we’re highlighting something we’ve known all along—words, whether they’re spoken, written, or played in little yellow tiles, are central to creating lasting connections with others.”

Unfortunately, the effort falls short. Maybe because it suffers from too much telling, in addition to showing. Maybe because grandiose and yet painfully obvious philosophizing makes the takeaway feel generic, and disingenuous, like Words With Friends 2 is claiming something that doesn’t belong to it—something bigger, more unwieldy, and frankly ineffable—and then wrapping it up in an activity with a core function that, while clever, and fun, and enriching, is ultimately frivolous—a leisure activity.

The spirit of the campaign works much better in a :30 titled “Gramps.”

An old man sits in a nursing home, staring off into space. Soft classical piano music plays in the background. A cat rubs against his leg, and purrs, but he remains statuesque—until he starts to mumble something—a word at first not quite discernible. Purring? He repeats himself, still lost in a thousand-yard stare. Suddenly, he snaps to life, beaming as he whips up his smartphone and plugs in the letters. Elsewhere, “Pudding” appears on his granddaughter’s screen as, she sighs exasperatedly—it turns out he’s not losing it; he’s a wizard, and was just lost in thought.

That sweet, little, focused vignette—a delightful and humorous take on aging, one of life’s great indignities—with an illustration of how the game might actually provide its players with some joy, and bring them together across distances geographical and generational, is worth a thousand vapid manifestos on the importance of words, and a much better sales pitch.

Brand: Zynga
Campaign: Words With Friends 2

Spots / Creative:
Power of Words :60 & :30
Gramps :30 & :15

Client: Zynga
Doug Scott, Chief Marketing Officer
Kathleen Townsend, Director of Product Marketing
Sarah Burns, Product Marketing Manager

Agency: Heat
Group Creative Director – Elaine Cox
Associate Creative Director – Phil Van Buren
Associate Creative Director – Austin O’Connor
Senior Producer – Andy Rosenthal
Senior Producer – Arielle Davis
Production Coordinator – Aimee Bosley
Head of Integrated Production – Joyce Chen
Group Account Director – Isaac Clemens
Senior Account Executive – Jackie Russel

Production Co.: Arts & Sciences
Director: Adam & Dave
Executive Producer(s): Mal Ward
Editorial: Rock Paper Scissors
Editor: Christjan Jordan
Assistant Editor: Pieter Vilijoen
Post Producer: Dani DuHadway

Music Track (Power of Words): Odesza, “Across the Room”
Mix Sound Company: Beacon Street Studios
Mixer: Rommel Molina
Mix Producer: Kate Vadnais

VFX: The Mill LA
VFX Lead: Tim Robbins
Producer: Andrew Gilson
Colorist: Gregory Reese
Color Producer: Diane Valera