Nike’s “Write the Future” ad reminded me of something the vivacious magazine publisher Felix Dennis said in the mid-nineties about the then ad-bloated issues of the revenue-producing beast InStyle magazine. He called it the last roar of the T-Rex before the dinosaurs became extinct.
I’m not saying that either magazines or video ads are going to die, partly because that’s simply not the case and partly because it’s the wrong argument to make. But with so few strong brand-building commercials to watch these days, it is easy to imagine that this expansive and expensive commercial from Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam and director Alejandro Iñarritu is an endangered species. Name me one other ad of its quality since Google trotted out its simple, but beautiful little Parisian love story during the Super Bowl back in February?
Fear of taking risks, the recession, creativity-stifling marketing-department bureaucracies and ROI-measurement tools that heavily emphasize the last click or supposed ‘moment of truth’ before purchase have suffocated the brand ad. Even car commercials increasingly scan like promotions, with little to differentiate one marque from the next for the casual viewer (which also tells a sorry story about car design, but that’s another post). Ads that drive consideration, prime the pump by pushing people into the purchase funnel, create a category, or simply tell a story that reminds the consumer what a brand stands for, still seem to be getting short shrift even as we emerge from the funk of last year’s woeful economy.
When the industry does see one of its own daring to create a brand without any obvious sales patter it tends to tear the perpetrator down, and even this Nike powerplay found a few detractors among Ad Age commenters, perhaps because they fear that these $2 million beasts reinforce the ultimately damaging notion that advertising is a cost not an investment, an ego-play not a business deal. And certainly these kind of commercials don’t yield the instantly gratifying sales data that a lot of direct and digital work can boast, even if they can often later be linked to powerful sales results through econometric modeling and simple observation of the timing of revenue spikes.
Others criticize these big budget brand commercials because they feel antithetical to the digital, consumer-as-co-creator culture that we live. Indeed my friend Ana Andjelic had just such a beef with ‘Write the Future:’
“The problem is, we are today dealing with a completely different sort of culture. Yes, World Cup is a big and awesome event, but how it’s going to play out in the lives of soccer fans next month is part of the emerging digital culture, and not some symbolic inspirational culture that Nike – and other brands – are so desperate to penetrate.”
I am a fascinated student of digital culture and community, and I tend to agree with Ana more often than not, but in this case she’s wrong.
Firstly, a really inspiring ad like this in an environment starved of talk-worthy brand commercials becomes has a shot at being a social networking node in itself (with or without ‘like’ buttons and share tools). How else can you explain the best part of 9 million Youtube views in a week, the thousands of Facebook postings of the spot, the fact that Ana and I are among dozens and dozens of people to blog about the ad, and the fact that several of my closest, and usually very skeptical friends, have wanted to discuss the ad; how Nike’s slowly but surely taking over football from rivals who once considered this the one big fortress they could defend; and how it further fueled their excitement for the World Cup.
Secondly, the World Cup isn’t going to play out in digital culture. It’s going to play out in bars and living rooms packed with friends and booze and shouting and joy and heartache in every corner of every country all over the world — that’s what makes it so beautiful, it’s the truly global shared experience. (I am looking forward to the New York taxi cab banter almost as much as the games themselves.) Our digital tools will allow us to text dad, even if we’re 5,000 miles away, catch up with that clip from the clash between Korea and Greece on our own timeframe, or banter with the Paraguayans on a message board, but it enhances the way we experience it, it doesn’t replace it.
But the real point here is that the scarcity of good brand commercials has created an opportunity for anyone brave enough to try to make one. It might be a better bet when it comes to building brand attributes like engagement and consideration than simply becoming the latest brand to stumble around the social media sphere bringing little in the way of understanding or consumer utility but a whole lot of dollars and desperation.
Oh, and one more thing: Come on England!