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.