Please remain calm, we’re trying to entertain you.

Originally published on Monster’s Blog.
spokesmonster blog header

Every once in a while I’ll get an email from my father drawing my attention to some online advertising campaign that he thinks I’ll find interesting. I imagine it’s his way of encouraging me: “Hey, son, it’s not only your crazy company trying to promote itself on YouTube – real businesses are doing it too!”

Thus was I recently directed to FedEx’s new YouTube campaign starring Fred Willard (whom you know from movies like Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show, and of course as the CEO of Buy N Large). Willard stars in a series of mock infomercials (directed by Bob Odenkirk, of Mr. Show fame) called 1-2-3 Succeed! They’re pretty funny.

Despite being covered in the business section of the New York Times, the campaign hasn’t exactly caught fire. As of Tuesday evening, none of the videos has been viewed more than 10,000 times. These are Spokesmonster-like numbers; it’s nice to know I’m competing on the same plane (if not quite at the same salary) as Odenkirk and Willard. But despite the slow start, I hope the ads are a success. Not for FedEx’s sake, but for the sake of the advertising biz.

I’m not saying the future of the advertising industry rests on the success or failure of this one campaign. I just think they’re good ads, and I’d like to see more like them. But take a look at some of the comments on FedEx’s YouTube page:

[T]his type of humor is low-brow and incompatible with the sophistication that consumers expect from FedEx.

Throw it away and start over. Not funny or informative. Worst FedEx ad campaign ever….

This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen. The marketing group at FedEx that put this out should be on the chopping block. Dumb, stupid, boring, and won’t bring any customers to FedEx so is therefore a waste of money. I think I threw up a bit in my mouth these are so bad.

…Not that it’s hard to find YouTube commenters to say mean things about your video. But the early response reminds me of other innocuous ad campaigns that backfired – like those Microsoft ads with Jerry Seinfeld that everyone hated so much. Or this reviled Motrin ad from last year. Why is it that when advertisers try to be a little inventive, they often enrage as many customers as they amuse? Meanwhile, there’s no penalty for being dull and predictable. We don’t even notice the boring ads – they pass through our buzzing brains like busboys through a fashionable restaurant, eyes down, trying not to draw attention to themselves. Every once in a while one of the busboys dares to give us a smile, and we respond by lashing him with our walking sticks.

I can understand why people dislike Microsoft, and I can therefore understand how those people might dislike the Seinfeld Microsoft ads. What’s strange to me is that those same people seemed to dislike the Seinfeld ads much more intensely than they did all of the far more banal ads that came before and after it. You’d think Microsoft would have gotten some credit for trying something different, but it seems that people resented the attempt much more than they resented the ad itself.

“How dare you try to entertain us,” they said. “Go on about your unseemly business, just don’t make us look at you.”

We citizens of the mass-consumer age have a fraught relationship with the advertising industry. It surrounds us – we swim in it like the ocean – and maybe these ads frustrate us not because we really think they’re that bad, but simply because we notice them at all – and for a few seconds they remind us how far we are from dry land.

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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

Michael isn't on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter and won't be on whatever comes along next. If you need to reach him here's his contact info.

Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker