Giraldi's Advice to Marketers: Stay Away From Faux Emotion

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Bob Giraldi is not a big fan of special effects.

"We live in a world today inundated by effects. Special effects, post effects. You know, it's always been a faux business but it's more so now because so much of what we see and what young people lean and move toward is fake, is computer-generated."

The world-famous director of more than 3,000 TV commercials, not to mention music videos and short films, was talking in his spacious TriBeCa loft a few days before his induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame. He seemed relaxed and comfortable on the other side of the camera for our video interview.

"I'm not one who likes to look back and say it was better in the old days, because quite frankly, it wasn't better in the old days. It's incredible now. But there was something about the emotion, the raw emotion, the storytelling. I was influenced by movies like "On the Waterfront' and "12 Angry Men.' It's movies like "The Hustler' where the relationships grew and they tore apart, and it was just about people and emotion that was more raw than it is today. We still have some of that today but overwhelmed by effects, by loud, crashing, throbbing effects. ...

"It actually was more like theater in the early days of advertising, and today it's really more like the movie business. In the early days, the "Mad Men' days, [the movie business and the advertising business] were always kind of like dancing and jousting. Today they've merged, they fused. They are really almost the same business. ... Brands are involved in the movie business like never before."

Bob Giraldi
Bob Giraldi

The Super Bowl is advertising's biggest stage, and Bob said, "if you look at all that pop, all that noise, all of those people trying to outdo each other's comedy. ... I don't think there were many commercials that you didn't really get what the product was or what the message was. It's that the message is just kind of overwhelmed by its technique. ... I think the clarity of the product was there, it's just that it's pretty intense."

What young people don't want in ads, Bob said as a siren wailed below us, is "faux emotion. They want you to tell them what they're there for and what it is and then entertain them. ... They just don't want you to con them. ... As it is, we're crossing that line of faux emotion: Let me tell you a story which is really very sad, but of course there's an airline or a beer behind it.

"Some giant company is saying "I'm going to make you cry now because it's going to benefit me.' It's a very thin line between what we'll buy into. Young people have a thicker line. Don't cross over that if you're going to give me bullshit. If you're going to bring me crap, don't cross over that line."

Bob's most famous (or infamous) commercial was the one for Pepsi-Cola when Michael Jackson's hair caught on fire. Fans believed it was that incident that caused his drug addiction, and Bob received his share of hate mail because of it.

What happened in the shoot, as Bob explained it, was that Michael Jackson was coming down stairs and the pyro technicians were igniting some sparks behind him "and that was supposed to be the shot: He would appear, a hail of sparks. And that was the effects in those days, all done on the camera. Today that would have been done in post [production]. It never would have happened if it was 10 years later."

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So Michael Jackson dances down the stairs and joins his brothers. Bob did about four or five takes, but Pepsi's agency BBDO "was not happy. They wanted more. Agencies like more. Agencies seem to always want more, and they wanted more. And it could get a little dangerous, but we still were within the safety parameter.

"And I went to the pyrotechnics guy and I said, let's give it a little more, can you? And he said yeah, we can do a little more. And we said OK, Michael, let's try it again, we're going to try and give you more. And that more was an unlucky move. It just caught -- the sparks landed on his head and his head was doused with stuff on his hair."

Bob added that he'll never forget Michael Jackson as he left the stage area. As they carried him out in a stretcher he raised his glove and held his glove in his hand for the audience, who all cheered.

Bob does not see himself as a man who likes to sell, and he thinks that's true of most other creative people. If you took a poll, he says, most creative people would say they don't care all that much about how much product they sell.

"The brand isn't what motivated them. What motivated them was creativity, and I think advertisers, the smart advertisers, like Nike and Volkswagen, get that. And they use creative people in a very unique way. They know that they're a little strange. They know they're different, and they say, "Here, go in a room, come back with these ideas and let us use those ideas,' and kind of help you nurture them to be brand positive. That's unique."

Not bad insight from a guy who went to Pratt Institute on an athletic scholarship, who used to walk around school with a duffle bag that everyone thought was full of his paints and brushes but really contained his jockstrap and shorts and his other basketball and baseball stuff.

"It all worked out," as Bob recalled.

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