Monday, February 05, 2007

Monday morning quarterbacking

You've all seen it by now, the ad selected as the winner of the Chevy Super Bowl College Ad Challenge. It was Katie Crabb's spot called "Car Wash." (If you haven't seen it, it's available online just about everywhere, including on YouTube.)

Bob Garfield, the advertising critic at Advertising Age magazine, slammed it. I'm sure the people at Chevrolet and at their agency, Campbell-Ewald, are not happy about that, but does that mean they made the wrong choice? Not necessarily. Just because Garfield didn't like it, and just because I happen to agree with him, does not make us "right" and Chevrolet "wrong." Business decisions are made every day; some bring more success than others, but business continues to roll along. And make no mistake about it: advertising is big business.

What struck me about the finished version of "Car Wash" was how much it changed from the concept Katie presented in Detroit. In her original concept the action was set at a car wash — providing plausible reason for the men to take off their shirts and want to touch the car. Critical to her creative strategy was that the men should be fat, old, hairy, or otherwise unattractive. This was central to the humor of the ad; the reversal of sexual sterotypes of gorgeous women draping themselves over cars.

What I saw during the Super Bowl was a bunch of buff guys stripping on the street in New York City for no comprehensible, story-driven reason. A 30-second television commercial has to play out like a very short movie: the story needs to make sense. Car Wash, the final version, made no sense — at least, not to me, and not to Bob Garfield.

I was disappointed with the "reality show" that CBS aired on their website, and that culminated in the prime-time special "Greatest Ads of the Super Bowl" which aired last Friday night. Some of my students commented to me that the way it was edited, our students seemed to be unprepared — which, I assure you, was not the case. It also didn't make their creative concept clear to the audience.

So, since the gag order is now lifted, and you've seen all the coverage of the competition, let me tell you the creative strategy behind each of the five finalists' ads. Then you be the judge.

Team Elon, "Chasing Cars." A Chevy Cobalt drives along a suburban street. Men who have been watering their lawns, playing football, etc. drop what they're doing, drop to their hands and feet, and begin chasing after the car — moving like dogs. Tagline: GO GET IT.

Team Savannah, "Popup Book." The Chevrolet logo opens up into a two-dimensional pop-up book, showcasing the car and portraying the lifestyle associated with it. No doubt they had the most impressive visuals to accompany their presentation; you could really visualize what the finished ad might have looked like.

Team Washington, "The Wave." The Chevy drives along the road, and the concrete begins to buckle and crack, transforming into a gigantic wave, and the car rides it like a surfer. This was the spot that Joe Godard at Campbell-Ewald said, "It'd cost a gajillion dollars to produce."

Team SJSU, "Ugly Betty." A man gets out of his Corvette and rings the bell of a house. A homely girl answers — his blind date. He walks her to the car, opens the door and she gets in. As he walks around to his side of the car he quickly makes a call. We hear him say something like, "You're going to owe me for this!" Inside the car, as soon as Betty sits down the seat's lumbar support kicks in, improving her posture and thrusting out her chest. The seatbelt moves around her, pulling down her zipper to show cleavage. The mirror tilts so that the sunlight makes her face glow. And the air conditioning comes on full blast, blowing her hair Farrah-Fawcett style. The music builds to the chorus of Tom Jones's "She's a Lady" just as the man opens the driver side door and sees now-beautiful Betty. He clicks shut his cell phone. Tagline: CHEVY'S GOT YOUR BACK.

Our students, Anna, LouLou, and Kelly, were repeatedly praised by the senior creatives at C-E because their idea was campaignable (their word). In other words, there are many possible executions under the same creative theme, all communicating the same message, that a Chevy is more than a car; it's its owner's best friend. The students outlined several other executions, one about the car taking revenge on another car owner who bumps the Chevy while parking; another about a dog sitting in the car. They brainstormed several ideas along this theme before deciding that "Ugly Betty" would be the one they'd present.

If you watched Episode 7 of the reality show you heard me offer two criticisms of the Car Wash spot. First, that it's a "one trick pony." What I meant was, it's a single joke; a standalone ad. There's nothing wrong with that, if that's what the client wants, and clearly, they did. Chevy had a spectaculary successful Super Bowl spot called "Soap" in 2004. They may have been hoping to recreate that effect. The other thing I said was, no one will remember the brand name of the car, they'll just remember naked fat guys at the car wash. Bob Garfield said much the same thing, that it was hard to tell what the car was. The message communicated by the spot is unclear, and it has nothing to do with Chevy in particular. It could have just as easily been an ad for Ford or Toyota.

Am I biased because LouLou, Kelly, and Anna were SJSU students? OF COURSE! However, I can also make an argument for why their ad concept was the best of the five. I believe that, for the purposes of the Super Bowl, humor is an absolute must, therefore "The Wave" and "Popup Book" are out of the running. "Chasing Cars," while very funny, has the feeling of having been done before. And "Car Wash" — the way Katie originally explained it, not the way it finally turned out — was absolutely funny, but I thought it had a vulgar sort of humor that would not play well with the Super Bowl audience, since a large percentage of them would look like the men she described. People don't like to be the butt of jokes, especially not advertising jokes for consumer products that they might purchase.

"Ugly Betty," properly executed, would have been funny, clever, smart, and memorable. I envisioned the action switching to slow motion as the man walks around the car, and the beautification of Betty to be played out in an exaggerated way so that Beautiful Betty might even be played by a different actress. The humor lay in the exaggeration, as it so often does in clever ads, but the message about Chevy would have been crystal clear: This is no ordinary car.

Of course, all of this is just my opinion. I'm interested in hearing yours. Feel free to comment below, but keep in mind that anonymous comments will be deleted.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Watch Anna, Kelly, and LouLou on and CBS

Between now and February 5 (the day after the Super Bowl) you can watch video episodes of the story of the Chevy Super Bowl College Ad Challenge and SJSU students Kelly Sherman, LouLou Quintela, and Anna Pogosova right here on

The first episode aired January 22. The last episode will air February 5.

While you're on the site, don't forget to VOTE FOR TEAM SJSU!

Watch CBS on Friday, February 2 for a special broadcast of "Greatest Ads of the Super Bowl," in which the winner of the competition will be revealed.

Monday, January 22, 2007

SJSU students and the Chevy Super Bowl College Ad Challenge

There wasn't anything to tell over the Christmas holidays, but now that we're only a couple of weeks away from Super Bowl Sunday it's time to update you on what's happening with the Chevy Super Bowl College Ad Challenge, and our students' participation in it.

First, a recap. Click on the links for more detail:

  • Last October a press conference was held at San Jose State University to announce that three SJSU students, Anna Pogosova, Kelly Sherman, and LouLou Quintela, had been named as finalists in a national competition organized by Chevrolet. The local San Jose CBS and NBC television stations sent their reporters to cover the event. The footage that aired on CBS News that night can be viewed here.

  • Five teams of students were selected from hundreds of entries, and invited to spend a weekend in Detroit, at General Motors' headquarters. This was no vacation: the students were given a jam-packed schedule that began before daybreak on the Friday. I went with them as their faculty advisor, to lend support, buy them coffee, and take pictures.

  • CBS, the network that will air the Super Bowl, sent a production crew to film us all weekend. You'll be seeing that footage in a special that will air on CBS on Super Bowl Sunday. More about that in a minute. First, here's a sample of what went on: The students spent all day Saturday at the offices of Campbell-Ewald, the advertising agency that handles the Chevrolet account. On Sunday, the student teams were each assigned a "war room" and worked on refining their ad concepts. They also toured GM World in the Detroit Renaissance Center.

  • On the Monday, all five student teams presented their polished ad concepts to a panel of the top executives from Campbell-Ewald and Chevrolet. Then we all got on a plane and flew home to San Jose, where Kelly, LouLou, and Anna were greeted by a small but enthusiastic welcoming committee. That's when the questions began, but all we were allowed to tell you was, on Super Bowl Sunday everyone in America will know the name San Jose State University. For the 11 students who were finalists in this competition, it's like being a finalist in American Idol.

  • All weekend in Detroit, all the students and their faculty advisors were being filmed by CBS. Here's what that was like. And now it's time to tell you where you can see that footage.

GO TO to watch the reality show about the competition. Episode 1 airs TODAY, January 22. Don't forget to VOTE FOR TEAM SJSU while you're on the CBS website!