All Hail the Citizen Ad Critic!

Last night I spent about five hours live blogging for the Wall St. Journal as part of an “expert” panel on advertising. The combined crowd of global creative directors, a sports blogger, comedy writer/actress and this women’s marketer were recruited to weigh in on the good, bad and ugly of the SuperBowl.

With the spots hammering me at the pace of four spots about every three minutes, I felt less like I was judging commercials and more like if I was taking the SAT verbal test in public. While I banged away at the keyboard under fire, guests came and went from my apartment, one of the football teams won and a lot of artichoke dip vanished. But when the last game point and commercial were scored, I sat back and thought, Where is this all going?

Because while our panel was bringing years of experience to assess the ads, we were dwarfed by a running commentary on the WSJ site, as well as on Facebook, #brandbowl on Twitter and thousands of other homegrown communities. There was clearly a national divide. “Experts” balked at the patriotic spots. Citizens loved them. Baby’s head smashed against plate glass?—Experts groaned but a big LOL from the peanut gallery. Guys acting gay over cheesy fingers? Hahahahahah. Animals, violence, gratuituous sex, YEAH!

Is the day of the ‘expert’ way over? Snarky anonymous tweets are creating comic geniuses (or not) who are unimpressed by anything big brands can serve up. Anyone who’s posted a burping baby or a dog tangled in a Venetian blind cord sees themselves as way funnier than any zillion dollar commercial from some snotty Mad Men.

I sympathize with the clients and agencies, worrying every detail , while risking millions on the game spots. All that planning. All that time and talent. All that money. And what does it come down to? Pretty much the same platter of slapstick, wise-ass humor, cheap gags and testosterone. I would like to believe that this isn’t the dumb-ification of America as ads cater to an ever-more lowest common denominator master. Maybe John Q. Public can do better (though the Doritos spots belie that idea.) But what if we are at the start of a creative revolution where ‘real people’ will create more stirring, brilliant, entertaining and smart content universe. I hope so.

For now, guess it’s groundhog day at the SuperBowl. Literally.

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GAP Got the Holidays!

Watch GAP’s Holiday Ad

This post comes with a disclaimer.  I am Jewish. I’m not particularly religious but I am culturally observant (and that doesn’t just mean I get to tell the jokes, eat the food and use Yiddish words). The December holiday season has always been a bit of a sore spot for me because I have always felt left out of the big party.  Everything is red and green and decorated so beautifully and the parties and family gatherings are so wonderful but I’ve always been on the outside looking in.  Hanukah is lovely too but it isn’t a big deal on the spectrum of Jewish holidays. I know that there is the whole 8 nights of presents thing but as a kid my parents gave me things like pencils on 6 out of 8 of them.  (I actually went to Michael’s Craft Store this weekend looking for Hanukah decorations to get my kids excited and there was one measly end cap with plastic junk.)

But this holiday GAP’s new advertising made me feel like I was part of Holiday Fever.  I loves the new ads because they shook off some of the recession depression and also because their Cheer campaign actually said the word Hanukah! It was sad to hear that the American Family Association isn’t such a big fan of inclusion and called for a boycott (since put on hold) of GAP because the work didn’t emphasize Christmas enough for their liking.  [They put the boycott on the back burner because there is an Old Navy spot in the pipeline that says Christmas enough.]

“As a gesture of our ‘goodwill to men,’ we have decided to suspend our boycott of Gap and its divisions until we see the content of this new commercial,” said Bryan Fischer, the AFA’s director of issues analysis, in a statement. “We firmly believe that Gap is responding to an enormous amount of pressure from the AFA network. It looks like Gap has finally decided that a recession is a bad time to take a principled stand on secularism and alienate a huge percentage of their customer base. We’re happy that they’re apparently keeping Christ and Christmas in the Christmas season.”

My condolences to Crispin Porter + Bogusky who made some really great and inclusive ads only to be punished for the same reason.

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Right on the Money

The financial services category has good intentions as far as reaching out to women, but often their ads end up filled with pantsuits and portfolios, in other words, boring. But two recent campaigns caught my eye for the way they tapped into women’s Whole Truths about money. (For perspective, Half Truths are the reflex, sort-of-true answers women give in typical research. Whole Truths reveal her deeper fears or desires, beyond the ‘politically correct’ response.)  

The Wealth Management group of USTrust hits on the underlying bag lady fears of even the most flush female investors. While many profess they are financially in control (Half Truth), the Whole Truth is that a frugal girlhood can color a woman’s financial confidence later in life. Many successful women harbor worries that at any moment, she’ll be pushing her possessions in a shopping cart.   

The USTrust spot describes a woman who (paraphrased) “owns a villa in St. Barths, a condo in Sun Valley…yet a part of her still lives in a cul de sac in  (smalltown) Ohio.” While most viewers won’t pity her, the target of private wealth clients will likely say Bingo! 

Ameritrade is reaching out to the starter investor with a new newspaper ad that features a hip, successful 30 something: “They said I only had $100,000 in my account and passed me off to some junior guy. Since when is $100,000 preceded by ‘only?’” Good question. But the truth is, to many firms, $100,000 in investible assets is pocket change and it shows. Not so fast, buster.  

Rather than luring young women with a jokey Half Truth, “I would rather spend it on shoes now and worry later,” Ameritrade recognizes that anyone who’s managed to save $100,000 early on promises to be a great client over time. Just because she’s young, doesn’t mean she’s not serious about her bottom line. Now, let’s see how they play that out in service.

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Let the Little Girl Sing


Global news outlets are spreading the story of the singing switcheroo at the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, where pretty Lin Miaoke lip-synched the performance of cute and more musically talented Yang Peiyi.  While both little girls claim to be cool about it, (they’re seven!) bloggers are raising the flag of why beauty trumped talent, especially at a competition which is all about, well…talent.

My own thoughts flew straight back to my high school. My submission for the commencement salutatory address won the senior competition, no small feat since I graduated in a class of 1100 plus from Philly’s Cardinal Dougherty High School. But I flunked the chance to deliver it since my voice cracked with emotion, so the onstage role went to Peggy White, who’s resonant and more statesman-like voice seemed better suited to the occasion. I admit that I missed the spotlight, but at least I was acknowledged as the author. But come to think of it, what’s wrong with a little emotion at a graduation ceremony? Why do we prefer the perfection of ‘the show’ to the power of what’s real?

Doesn’t most advertising to women engage in this sideshow every day in the name of aspiration? Beautiful models pretending to be captains of industry sit at fake desks in financial services ads, while the women who really are, pony up their hard-earned dollars into the sponsor’s investment products. Skinny girls get not-so-skinny girls to buy into Bally and young flawless models bewitch their lined, older sisters to get Botox. Despite exceptions like Wachovia, Special K and Olay, agencies and marketers brave enough to cast women who look a little more like the customer, are rare.

But we are all in on this duplicity. Smart consumers choose to buy into the ‘the show’ with our eyes wide open. Unfortunately, the little girls in China didn’t get a vote.

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June 14, 2024
by Mary Lou Quinlan

A look at an early production of WORK


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The God Box Goes Global!

“The God Box” has grown to include an app, audio book, philanthropic venture and solo show performed by Mary Lou across the US. Now The God Box Project goes global to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Go There

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