It Takes a True Ad Critic to See Where Aflac Spot Went Wrong

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Everybody's an ad critic.

No, really, everybody. One or two people may be skilled professionals -- enjoying the accompanying vast remuneration, adulation and blandishments of the opposite sex -- but everyone, inside the business and out, fancies himself an expert on TV commercials. It's adorable, really. God bless 'em.

For instance, this was plucked from the AdReview mailbag:

Please eviscerate the airwaves-polluting new Aflac ad, which looks exactly like the cherished "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" special but uses that emotional connection for cheap jokes to sell insurance. A major misstep for the brand -- my wife and I just looked at each other when it ended and said, "That was terrible!" Who do they think is going to respond to that? Certainly not parents.

Well, sir, we respect your passion. But what a lovely opportunity to demonstrate why some of us belong in the lucrative Finding Fault With Others industry and almost everybody else does not.

True enough, just in time for Christmas, Aflac is on the air with a spot that precisely mimics the crude doll animation we all know from the annual Rudolph holiday special. And, yes, in the past 42 years, that cartoon has found its way into our hearts -- albeit not due to any actual merit.

It is, and always has been, utter trash. Indeed, if you're sensitive about the desecration of pop-cultural landmarks, you need look no further than the Rudolph special itself, which takes Johnny Marks' charming 1939 ditty and introduces Hermey the Misfit Elf; a perverse Bizarro World called Misfit Island; Clarice, Rudolph's doe-eyed love interest; a greedy prospector named Yukon Cornelius; and the Abominable Snowman.

Ah, tradition.

What, Santa and his reindeer aren't sufficiently magical for CBS? You could argue that Rudolph himself was gilding the Santa-myth lily, but Misfit Island is just plain obnoxious. So let's just say if any holiday-season fixture is just begging for parody, not to mention disrespect, this would seem to be it.

As things turn out, the Aflac scenario cleaves closer to tradition than the cartoon it is sending up. It's Christmas Eve, and Rudolph is down with a cold so severe his nose is all red.

"Aa-choo!" he sneezes. "I hope I don't miss work this Christmas."

"Yeah," says Clarice. "How will you pay for things like food, electricity ... ?" And toys? On this point, Santa weighs in: "Ho ho ho. That's why we have Aflac!"

"So I'll have cash to help pay bills!" Rudolph says.

There's more, but let's now get to the question of target audience: Of course it will resonate with Mom and Dad. The idea of facing the holidays with reduced wages is one of the top parental nightmares. And because every single nonimmigrant American worker or employer with school-age kids has lived with the Rudolph cartoon for a lifetime, it is, on the face of it, an ideal vehicle for getting attention.

But this is where, to the trained eye, the spot begins to come apart. Next we see Rudolph imagining what will happen if he doesn't recover in time. The answer: Santa's reindeer team will be led, in slapstick fashion, by the Aflac duck. Luckily, our hero recovers to save the day.

Unluckily, that isn't funny. In fact, apart from the mischievous premise, none of the spot is funny. There are lots of copy points shoved in, but they come so fast and furious they don't really penetrate. And ultimately there is no actual parody because the Kaplan Thaler Group misses every opportunity for satire. It's just a lame reference to a lame cultural icon.

So finally, my dear would-be-ad-critic correspondent, it's not a cheap joke. It's scarcely any joke at all.

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