Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Advertising Critique - Speechless

As a student of advertising and professional advertising copywriter, I find myself mocking many of the ads I see on television, the internet, and in print. My wife will gladly tell you just how often this happens; when I see a commercial on TV that I find to be stupid, I can't help but call it out and pick it apart. Instead of just going on about this to her, I thought I'd try to express my feelings about a recent commercial to you, the entire internet-accessible world.

NO MORE - Admirable Goal, Stupid Commercial

I expect to get a bit of flak for this one, but let me plead my case.

As stated on their website,
"NO MORE is a public awareness and engagement campaign focused on ending domestic violence and sexual assault. Using its signature blue symbol to increase visibility and foster greater dialogue, NO MORE seeks to break social stigma, normalize the conversation around domestic violence and sexual assault, and increase resources to address these urgent issues. NO MORE is aligned with hundreds of organizations working at the local, state and national levels on prevention, advocacy, and services for survivors."
As you can see, NO MORE is at the forefront of ending domestic violence and sexual assault. I very much encourage you to check out their website, specifically the section called "take action" where you can learn about what you can do to help end domestic violence and sexual assault.

In 2013, NO MORE started a three-year PSA campaign (created by Joyful Heart Foundation) including a series of television commercials which aim to increase awareness for domestic violence and sexual assault and direct you to their website where you can learn more about the issues and what you can do about them. The campaign features over 50 celebrities and public figures speaking out against domestic violence and sexual assault.

Because the commercials are meant to create awareness, they are a bit lacking on content and useful information. The first few are attempting to reach out not only to the general public but also directly to the victims of domestic violence and sexual assault by featuring celebrities taking turns stating common excuses by victims and their friends such as "he was drunk," "boys will be boys," "she was asking for it," or "he said he was sorry."
These ads are great at getting the point across. The celebrities set against the blank background are frank and eye-catching, the dialog pulls no punches, and at the end you're left reminded that there are people out there living your nightmare; or if you're living the nightmare, that it's not alright, people are working to help you, and that there is a way out. Once these commercials run for a while and enforce the idea that something is wrong, I expect future iterations to start including more information on how you can help.

Where They Lost Me

More recently, I've noticed a new series of commercials airing on television that feature the same cast of celebrities from the original series staring at the camera, pausing, gathering their thoughts, psyching themselves up, or otherwise being moved to speechlessness. Here's an example:
No doubt this is sending a powerful message, right?
Wrong. Especially without the proper context.

Firstly, this commercial is breaking one of my biggest pet peeves about commercials; it's too damn quiet. "But isn't that the point?" I can hear you asking me, and while it is the point of this particular advertisement, you should ask yourself: what is the purpose of any advertisement, whether it be printed, on the radio, or as a video?

The simple answer is: to use any and all available resources to get your point across. The (paraphrased) point of this particular series of commercials is "domestic violence and sexual assault are bad, and you can help us end it by going to our website." Now I want you to play the above video again, but this time close your eyes and tell me what it's about.

Do you see my point? You've just experienced the commercial as thousands of others have; whether blind, in another room, looking away, or half-asleep, many commercials, believe it or not, do not get watched the way that the advertisers would like them to be. Television is a fantastic medium because it offers the ability to use animated visuals combined with complex audio to get a point across. In this ad, NO MORE is essentially throwing out half of the resources available to them; it might as well be an animated gif.

Secondly, the message this particular commercial is conveying is a poor one.
"Domestic violence and sexual assault are hard subjects for everyone to talk about. Help us start the conversation."
No. Just no. One of the fundamental rules of advertising is that nothing can ever be hard to talk about. Why? Because YOU, advertiser, are the one who has the resources to say whatever you want to millions of people. If you can't, with all your fortune, spend 30 seconds talking about how bad sexual assault and domestic violence is, then who will? It's the very purpose of NO MORE to tell us about how our world is affected by these issues, and they're wasting 30 seconds of my life and an unknown amount of cash and resources by instead showing us that "awe, these celebrities have emotions just like the rest of us!" which is just about the most pointless way to convey their message possible, especially since it won't work because none of us, try as hard as we may, will ever be able to comprehend these celebrities as real, tangible people with complex lives and issues. And on that note, good luck getting us to care about these faceless victims, who likely are living in absolute fear every day, by showing us just how sad these millionaires feel.

Zombieland copyright Sony Pictures

Now in all fairness, I did some research on the ad and found out that none of the performances were scripted, and the commercial itself was never planned to be created, as stated on the NO MORE website:
"“Speechless” was not planned. It was an unexpected byproduct when emotions ran high while shooting other scripts previously aired. The spots are stark, spare visually and use only ambient sound. “Speechless” was designed to shed light on how difficult it is to talk about these taboo, hidden and painful subjects. The spots reveal the depth to which we are all affected by these previously unspeakable issues. They urge viewers to start a conversation about domestic and sexual violence with friends and loved ones."
So apparently the celebrities really did get choked up thinking about the terrible things going on in the world. That knowledge makes the commercial so much more meaningful (though still poorly crafted). How were we supposed to know that just by watching it? I don't even believe "real testimonials" on television anymore because I know they're all actors, so how was I supposed to know that these were authentic reactions? That would be a great point to make in the commercial, wouldn't it? Perhaps with a voice over for those who can't see it?

The Takeaway

  • Silence is an ineffective tool unless your entire audience is watching.
  • Instead of telling us it's hard to talk about tough subjects, be the voice that talks about them.
  • Give as much context as is needed.


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