That the submissions mainly lacked technical sophistication was no surprise. What was striking was the utter vacuum of underlying ideas. For lovers of the status quo, this is encouraging, because even the bottom tier of agency-produced ads worldwide usually have a point to them. It's often a stupid one, but it's there. In the V-CAM contest, it apparently never occurred to a single entrant that the video was supposed to make the viewer more favorably disposed to the product.
The thought came back to me last week when I got the following email from a friend, who was not contacting me as an ad critic but as one of the 2 trillion people on her contact list:
Hello to everyone I've ever known!
Long story short, there is a Heinz Ketchup commercial contest going on and my children are in one of the entries. It is up on youtube today and it is very funny. The filmakers are young, energetic and very creative. If you have a second, here is the link. Take a peek at it and if you are so inclined you can rate it and make a comment. The top fifteen chosen by Heinz will be voted on by you the public and narrowed down to five. Those five fo on national TV and are voted on again, by you, the public. The top commercial gets 57,000 smackers. Anyway, it was a fun project to be a part of and I want to do all I can to support these guys. Thanks for watching!!!!!
So I watched. Here's the commercial.
The scene is a kid's birthday party, with three dorky folksters singing the kids half to sleep in the back yard till "Ketchup Man" -- a man-size squirt bottle -- crashes through the fence and saves the day. He turns the nerdy trio into rockers, he exchanges the little girls in the wading pool for post-pubescent girls (to the delight of the pre-pubescent little boy between them), and transforms Dad at the grill into a red-faced devil in his own image.
So, yeah, "Heinz ketchup turns a dull party into fun." You can't miss the selling message -- although that isn't, you know, true.
You've got to hand it to these "energetic" film makers that they even bothered to assert a selling premise. The slight problem, from a branding point of view, is the particulars: the fun comes courtesy of Satan. Ketchup Man has a red face and diabolical eyes. He accomplishes his magic by means of bitch-slapping his adversaries with a Spiderman-like stream of condiment. And once the party is over, presumably Dad continues to be Lucifer.
Can we agree that, were this to be part of the company's ad campaign, there could be some pushback? There are a lot of people in this country who believe literally in the devil, and my guess is they consume a disproportionate amount of ketchup. They don't even let their kids dress up for Halloween, because they think it's satanic. How long do you suppose they'd wait to begin the Heinz boycott?
(I won't even go into what the clown was doing before Ketchup Man arrived, except that it involved a balloon being inflated from the area of his groin. Let's just say that it wasn't "family friendly.")
Once again, as I wrote way back when, there's plenty of that in the agency world, too. Whole books have been written on the subject. (And Now a Few Words From Me by Bob Garfield, McGraw-Hill 2003) But take my word for it – and I know this is damning Madison Avenue with faint praise -- professional vacuousness is better than amateur vacuousness any day.