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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Since When Are Sports Feminizing?

Long-touted as the epitome of masculinity with an undertone of “dumb jock,” big-name American sports such as baseball and football have traditionally been considered a boys’ club. (And yes, we know better than anyone that 44% of the NFL’s rabid fan base is female, but that’s a stat for another time.)

But the ultimate boy’s club, ESPN network, is “so masculine it’s almost feminine,” according to author Tom Shales, who was quoted in a New York Times piece documenting the shift. Readers who don’t tune into SportsCenter get the impression that the channel is a veritable hub of body-envy and sartorial innovation. The piece focuses on what message of masculinity is being expressed by the third highest-rated network on cable, but our interest was caught by a slightly different question: What message of femininity does this article transmit?

The author writes—as do others—that this fixation on appearance and the new prominence of topics that should perhaps be sidelined (Troy Polamalu’s heavily-insured locks, for example) are edging closer to center stage, and injecting an element of femininity into the network. Since when is caring how you look feminine? Isn’t it just… human? Much like the term “athletic” has ceased to imply “masculine,” there’s no reason why beyond-basic hygiene should still be considered a purely feminine realm. But comments like that of an enthusiastic ESPN female co-host, “When athletes come in to do interviews, it’s almost like a fashion show,” don’t exactly convey that women are capable of enjoying sports as more than pedestals for kitted-out footballers.

This is the mindset that is so often damaging to companies when turning their attention to female consumers. There’s an inherent belief that to catch female attention, all one must do is add the word “shoes!” and dye the product or service pink. Appealing to women isn’t about discussing hair or taking a (what you believe is) feminine approach. It’s about recognizing that female consumers are consumers before females. They enjoy and benefit from the same entertainment, products, and services as their male counterparts. We firmly believe that creating a woman-friendly company begins with being a company that’s friendly to women—note that ESPN is still a magnet for harassment lawsuits and sexual scandals. Despite the interpretive tie-tying and value of hair products, ESPN is not feminine. What “feminine” truly is… well, that’s up to you.

See you at the Super Bowl.

(Image from The Faster Times, via AP. Worth checking out.)

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Superbowl XLlV: When Causes Collide

That huge thud you’ll be hearing on Superbowl Sunday won’t just be a running back slamming onto the field. The heavy hitting may be thrown between the plays when CBS runs its various “advocacy spots“. “Advocacy ads are a good way to get a point across” is a Half Truth. The Whole Truth is that they’re “good” when it’s your POV they’re espousing.

The first salvo came with the Focus on the Family group’s entry in support of the pro-life movement featuring Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow and his mom. Once the word got out that they had bought time, women’s groups pounced and pro-life folks defended. CBS, which has barred advocacy spots in the past, decided to take a pass and allow opposing or alternative advocacy spots to pay up and buy their own spots.

So perhaps over the coming two weeks, when we ought to be raising money for Haiti or just saving money to pay our healthcare bills, we’ll be tapped to pony up to pay for Superbowl spots for one side vs the other, fueling a cause against cause free for all in a living room near you.

What worries me about this is two things: 1. that while abortion affects all of us, it’s largely a women’s issue. In recent years, the NFL has crowed about their growth in female viewers and advertisers have been going for it ever since. But now a “women’s” issue will plop onto the coffee table, next to the nachos and beer and somehow I feel that women will be the losers who ruined the fun of watching the game or caused fistfights over issues instead of touchdowns.

And I also worry that maybe there are some parts of our hectic and pressured lives that deserve to be left alone. There are only a handful of programs that gather as many people together for a good time. The Superbowl. The Oscars. The finales of American Idol, Dancing with the Stars and 24. Throwing this important and inflammatory issue into the center of what should be a small oasis of family and friend time, seems like ambush marketing in its worst form. And the marketers who paid their few and hard earned dollars to place a spot about Clydesdales or Doritos in a game that’s just been scrubbed after its own tussle with a wardrobe malfunction—should speak up about the damage to the brand that spills onto their messages. The Superbowl brand isn’t the same if it’s turning the playing field into a political bloodbath. Thud.

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October 1, 2020
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.
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