Easy to Assemble, but Not so Easy to Do Funny

Media Reviews for Media People: Web Video Series From Ikea and Topps

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I count Ikea and Topps among the brands I like. There's no more rewarding way to pass a lazy summer weekend than by gorging on Swedish meatballs and attempting to assemble an Ikea Kerftpnügen armoire using only a pinky-sized allen wrench and the chain's famously minimalist directions. Similarly, I can lose myself for hours in the stacks of Topps baseball cards stashed at my folks' place, inputting crucial new information into the mental databank that pushes out trivialities such as birthdays and anniversaries.
With the adorably snide Illeana Douglas (left) as a headliner and fine comedians such as Justine Bateman (right) for support, 'Easy to Assemble' oughta work, but instead, it veers into lazy Hollywood satire.
With the adorably snide Illeana Douglas (left) as a headliner and fine comedians such as Justine Bateman (right) for support, 'Easy to Assemble' oughta work, but instead, it veers into lazy Hollywood satire.

So I won't hold Ikea's "Easy to Assemble" or Topps' "Back on Topps" against either company. I will continue to tout the virtues of their product offerings and core brand characteristics (value, niceness, rainbows). I will pretend that these two aggressively unfunny web video series never happened.

It appears we've entered a new phase in the evolution of web video, one in which marketers look at the sponsor-iffic "In the Motherhood" and think, "Hey, that can't be too hard!" The inevitable aftershocks are just starting to be felt, as company after company lines up a fading celebrity and drops him/her into a "funny," brand-simpatico setting. As hard as it is to imagine after viewing "Easy to Assemble" and "Back on Topps," the worst probably still lies ahead. There are cadres of "Flavor of Love" finalists, for instance, who haven't yet been approached.

In theory, "Easy to Assemble" oughta work. Ikea has long since built quirk into its brand identity, plus an Ikea outlet is no less fertile a setting for silliness than the office of a paper distributor. Throw in the adorably snide Illeana Douglas as a headliner and fine comedians such as Justine Bateman and Kevin Pollak for support, and there should be sturdy workplace-comedy giggles to be had.

Instead, "Easy to Assemble" veers into lazy Hollywood satire, portraying Ikea as the place to be for celebrities who want to get away from the luxe life. There's a massive disconnect between the episodes' sarcastic, insider bent and the traditional Ikea marketing kitsch; having Douglas pull her tube socks high in true hipster fashion doesn't bridge the gap. Just a guess here, but lines like "Stars don't fade away, they just go to Lifetime" (Meredith Baxter Birney, consider yourself zing'd!) probably won't sell $18 Wlärwhoof end tables. That does remain the desired outcome, correct?

What's ironic is that if you subtract the six-minute-long "Easy to Assemble" episodes from the mix, Ikea has actually drummed up a fine little web campaign. The site boasts all sorts of side-dish goodies, from a series of "Swedish Training Films" featuring Tom Arnold and Craig Bierko to the short history of a fictional band, Spärhuson, whose loungey music backstops all things Ikea. These bits alone would've generated the casual (and brand-consistent) buzz that eludes "Easy to Assemble."

"Back on Topps" boasts no such saving grace. Here, dopey ESPN brothers Jason and Randy Sklar portray dopey Topps brothers charged with re-energizing the family business. Another solid setup, right? No. No. Nononononononononono.
Here's a piece of advice to any marketer who feels the need to ape any element of 'Arrested Development': don't.
Here's a piece of advice to any marketer who feels the need to ape any element of 'Arrested Development': don't.

Like most other web-video auteurs, the people behind "Back on Topps" count "Arrested Development" as its creative role model. The problem, of course, is that "Arrested Development" was a once-in-a-half-century marvel and thus not easily replicable. As a result, we're left with sad imitators such as "Back on Topps," which ape the quadruple entendres and no-sell facial reactions of the Bluth Gang. In case that's not enough, it also teems with athlete cameos, drops pop-culture references ("What in the name of Mario Cantone is your brother holding?") and mocks the spewers of corporate-speak ("purchase-heavy quadrant") who essentially mock themselves every time they open their mouth. It's a kitchen-sink approach to comedy, and it's painful to watch.

Here's a piece of advice to any marketer who feels the need to ape any element of "Arrested Development": don't. Instead, drum up a big, broad comedy with a laugh track that ignites every time Jim Belushi floods the kitchen or trips over a rake. You'll sell more crap and avoid embarrassing yourself in the process.

There isn't room for brands besides Ikea and Topps within "Easy to Assemble" or "Back on Topps," which doesn't stop their creators from cramming in a few more. The "Easy" site lacks its own built-in video player, so viewers are shunted off to TV.com (which plugs CBS' "Eleventh Hour") and Metacafe (which clogs its player with a bottom-screen Google Ads crawl touting BestCrystals.com and eBay). "Back on Topps," on the other hand, has managed to enlist Skype as a primary sponsor and hammily works the brand into its dialogue ("I have to Skype with my parole officer"). I can only assume blackmail was somehow involved.

I guess the real question is whether Ikea or Topps have done any lasting harm to their brands with these programs, and the answer is probably no. If you want inexpensive furniture that pushes you to the precipice of madness during assembly, Ikea remains your go-to option. If you like trading cards and the jaw-dislocating sticks of gum that used to accompany them, you will be a Topps devotee until the day you die.

But holy moly -- "Easy to Assemble" and "Back on Topps" paint their respective benefactors as woefully un-attuned to the comic sensibilities of both their customers and web denizens at large. I say it again, with love in my heart and "Cheaper By the Dozen 3: Baker's Dozen!" in my Netflix queue: Funny is hard. If you can't do it well, don't do it at all.
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