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Randomness as originality

HTC’s Robert Downey Jr. ads for the new M9 come from nowhere. Do they stay there?


As attention spans shorten and “going viral” weasels its way into the collective minds of marketing teams, new approaches to advertising have produced more and more weird, random, and seemingly nonsensical content.

Back in college, I saved up my money for a year and flew to Los Angeles for a weekend seminar by Robert McKee, the legendary screenwriting guru. Speaking about Hollywood, he riffed on a popular tactic writers were using. Nobody had many original ideas, so writers were taking vanilla characters and assigning random traits to them. Not long before, Mckee had been approached by a team of writers who were working on a pilot for a new tv show. The lead character was a cop, who also cross-dressed, who also ran a restaurant, who also played the saxophone. Originality by addition he called it.

Watching HTC’s latest ads with Robert Downey Jr., I can’t help but think of McKee’s seminar. There’s a military drill, and there’s pajamas, and there’s a lightbulb, and there’s another lightbulb that’s also a grenade, and that grenade lights up. The ad appears to have taken some cues from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, but beyond that, I don’t know. The phone itself is shown for only two seconds at the end of the video in a still frame and, for all intents and purposes, is not the focus.  

Sometimes I come across work that is so well-produced and obviously expensive, yet so flagrantly stupid that I worry I’ve become stodgy for disliking it. It’s as if the production value precludes the possibility that it is actually just complete nonsense. Instead, I must be out of the loop, not in on the joke, irrelevant, and outside the “target” as they say.

Does randomness work in advertising?

The short answer is, maybe. There is data out there to suggest that ads that are largely unrelated to the product, but then tie the product back in in the last few seconds, aren’t very effective when viewers are asked to recall what product an ad was for. The Super Bowl commercial “Herding Cats” has become a bit of a cautionary tale for advertisers in this way. The commercial itself is regularly listed as one of the top 10 best commercials of all time, yet it ultimately wasn’t very effective. EDS went belly up a couple years later.

Randomness works when it’s true to the identity of the brand, and when the product itself is part of the story being told. Think of Old Spice and all the weird, random stuff they’ve been up to lately. For years, GEICO has created weird, awkward advertising. They somehow manage to tie everything back together, even if it means just overlaying the company name over the video.

Changing of the guard

You can really sense in the advertising world a greater willingness to take risks by both agencies and clients. These risks are usually championed by a younger, brash group of take-no-prisoner creatives that have more and more credibility as youth-generated one-off memes and videos of the day rule the internet. I don’t know what it means for the industry, but it could very likely just be a phase, like the social media boom of several years ago.

By the way, is this what we spend our money on?

In some ways, random ads are a sad comment on our culture. With school teachers making close to minimum wage, our infrastructure crumbling, and social services cut regularly, corporations worldwide are apparently so flush with cash they scan spend millions of dollars to throw an ad on the wall and see if it sticks, knowing they can make ten more with a different concept later. Selling phones is a big business and it’s hard to do, I just know a lot of struggling people who could use that money a little better than HTC.