Drawing attention with animation

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B-to-b advertising, with its emphasis on reality and hard sell, would seem an odd venue for animation, with its flair for drama and its ability to emotionally connect with an audience. But we've encountered several show-stopping animated b-to-b TV spots in recent months that were more than merely entertaining, which is often good enough for consumer advertising but not necessarily for b-to-b, where professional reputations and big money can be on the line.

United Airlines counters the threat that telecommunications poses to its lucrative business travel segment in an animated spot with an almost painterly quality. Against the familiar strains of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," a businesswoman attempts to make a business presentation via speakerphone to a strange menagerie on the other side of the country. Her presentation falls on the deaf, if not hostile, ears of the audience, which consists of a wolf, a snake, a shark, an eagle and an owl all clad in business attire. There is clearly a failure to communicate.

The businesswoman's eureka moment arrives when she realizes her presentation might work better in person. She boards a plane, marches into the conference room, pops open her laptop and dazzles the audience, which magically morphs into smiling human forms. The lone holdout is the owl at the head of the table. But he too melts into a smiling executive type, who appears to be buying whatever it is that she's selling.

This scene would look absurd in film or video, but because of the greater creative license of animation, the scene works to artfully underscore the solution to the problem of trying to effectively connect with a tough audience over the phone or by way of the Internet. Not a word is spoken in the spot until actor Robert Redford voices the tagline: "Where you go in life is up to you. There's one airline that can take you there. United. It's time to fly."

In another b-to-b spot for United, animation demonstrates its capacity to forge an emotional connection with an audience-in this case, frequent business travelers. In the spot, titled "Dragon," a businessman en route to a faraway meeting leaves his home in the wee hours only to gaze wistfully at some of his young son's toys in the front yard. He steps back into his son's bedroom and tenderly adjusts the blanket covering the sleeping boy.

At that point, the spot slips into the dream of the boy, who envisions his father riding off to his meeting on the wings of a swan. Once at the site of the meeting, the father dons a suit of armor and joins others at a round table to discuss the matters at hand. Suddenly, fire-breathing dragons appear and the knights of the roundtable take them on. After slaying a dragon, the boy's father is installed on a throne before he returns triumphantly home on the wings of the swan. In the final scene, the father presents his adoring son a cutout version of the dragon. The hero's journey is complete.

The spot lacks the problem-solution scenario of United's meeting commercial, but it does a wonderful job of empathizing with the target audience of world-weary frequent business travelers. In an abstract way, it says: We understand you.

A third animated b-to-b spot that caught our eye is one titled "Stick" that FedEx debuted during this year's Super Bowl. It features a caveman who straps a stick to a reptilian bird that must reach a destination. But the bird is quickly intercepted by a T-rex, which munches the bird while the stick falls back to earth. Distraught, the caveman steps back into a cave and reports to his boss that the package didn't make it.

"Did you use FedEx?" the boss inquires brusquely. "No," our caveman replies. "Then you're fired!" the boss says. The caveman then appeals to his boss' sense of history: "But FedEx doesn't exist yet."

Matters only get worse for the caveman, who kicks a baby dinosaur outside the cave. Retribution is swift as the caveman is then crushed beneath the foot of a full-size dinosaur.

The spot was a flight of fancy enhanced by the magic of animation that helped to underscore the critical message: Better use FedEx or your career-even your life-could be in danger.

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