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Last October, Sprint Chairman Masayoshi Son paid a trip to the States to express his displeasure. The CEO of Softbank, the Japanese parent company of the No. 3 wireless carrier in the U.S., reportedly slammed his fists on a table and demanded that the company's ad agencies be fired.
Blaming Sprint's third-place status on its advertising or its agencies is ludicrous. As a Sprint user from the start of my cellular career, I can attest that its coverage is usually inferior to Verizon and AT&T.
Besides, by the end of the year, Sprint and former agency Leo Burnett, Chicago, could proudly lay claim to one of the best advertising campaigns of 2013 with "The Important Things You Do" effort featuring James Earl Jones and Malcolm McDowell reading texts and social-media status updates.
Still, Leo Burnett's lead position was given to agency Figliulo & Partners.
The first product is an ad campaign that may please Masayashi Son, but will likely do nothing for Sprint.
The "Frobinson Family" effort is basically a retread of a Softbank campaign that's had some success in Japan. I've watched the Japanese spots and found those funny. But I also don't understand a word of Japanese. So I can laugh at the sight of a talking dog as patriarch of a human family without getting tripped up by the absurdity of the sales pitch.
And the sales pitch from Sprint is completely absurd. It boils down to this: "If you convince a number of your friends to extract themselves from their current contracts and sign up to our third-place network as part of your 'framily,' we'll knock a few bucks off your bill."
Maybe the talking hamster and the kid from "Deliverance" are meant to distract us from the pitch.
But they don't. And it's not only because the initial spot, "Meet the Framily," is as unfunny as it is weird. It's because the characters in the spot are arguing over the non-word "framily," which may be meta or an attempt to head off criticism, but in reality simply reminds us how stupid a non-word it is.
According to a story by Ad Age reporter Mark Bergen, Sprint wanted to hook viewers with a narrative, to give them a story that they'd want to follow.
"It will be a family that will live on for a long time to come," said CMO Jeff Hallock.
Want to bet?
The first spot doesn't establish anything worth following. It establishes only confusion and leaves out the most interesting characters, Grandpa and Gor-don. Meet these two and read about the others -- like Heidi, the blonde girl who translates Mötley Crüe songs into French -- on Sprint's Frobinsons website. If you can find it.
There are hints at humor there -- and in a separate "Framily Portraits" spot. But likely not enough to overcome the weakness of the introductory ad -- and certainly not enough to persuade a consumer to round up some friends and change cellular providers.