Friday, July 3, 2009

Dance with the Universe; Nix the Bully Ads

A friend sent me the link to this You-tube video and at first I thought it was, well, "cute." Some guy named Matt in a T-shirt goes on an adventure for 14 months, travels to 42 countries and gets people to dance with him. Cool. But there was something about the strong emotions it invoked while watching it. I was getting goose bumps. I felt strangely--okay, I'll say it--uplifted.

Today I was researching something on the Web and landed at some on-line discussions about synchronicity--and global consciousness--which brought me to an article by Jim Walsh, written a year ago, about this very video. "It's a concrete manifestation of the change that the world's leaders have been preaching at a time when the human race could use a little pick-me-up, a little jig in its step," he says. "This one is a high-definition television commercial for hope."

The song in the video is Rabindranath Tagore's poem "Stream of Life," adapted and sung by Palbasha Siddique, then a 17-year-old native of Bangladesh in high school in Minnesota.


The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day
runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth
in numberless blades of grass
and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth
and of death, in ebb and in flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life.
And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.

-- Rabindranath Tagore

It is another gloomy day: damp air, a chilly breeze, intermittent sprinkles--the FOURTH day in a row that it has rained. Looking at this dancing video--makes me happy for some strange reason.
And ... connected.

And now for that other aspect:

A "commercial for hope", Jim Walsh called it. Funded by Stride Gum, who provided Matt Harding with the funds to sponsore his journey. Nowhere in the video (except at the very end, in the credits) is there mention of Stride Gum. (Matt's not chewing gum as he's dancing, so far as I can tell, nor are the many dancers, so he probably wasn't passing out Stride Gum as part of his touring endeavor.) If it was, indeed, intended as a "commercial," it was remarkably understated and deliberately subtle. Why do you produce commercials? To get people to buy your product. I'm not a gum chewer but it did leave me with a favorable impression of the Stride Gum people and enticed me (out of curiosity) to go to their web site. So if that was their intent, they have succeeded.

Contrast that impression with the not-so-favorable one I experienced when I got there and viewed two of their recent commercials, where they have succumbed to the trend of using bullyism and intimidation to get someone to try their product. In the two of their TV commercials portrayed on their web site, the first one shows a large German-speaking brute accosting a fellow on his way out of a supermarket as he slams him against a soft drink vending machine. The message? "Spit out your Stride gum and chew another piece already--or we'll find you!" In the second one, a pedestrian talking on his cell phone gets slammed in the crotch by a charging ram, falls down on the pavement and as he's getting up, gets "rammed" again, forcing the gum out of his mouth onto the street. "Spit out your Stride gum and chew another piece already--or we'll find you!" A brown van suddenly appears with the logo "Stride" prominantly painted on its side. Two men in suits emerge, scoop up the gum wad from the road, then jump back into the van. "Leave the ram", one of them says, as they speed away. (This is supposed to be funny? Leave the ram to take the blame?) And in another one, which has made its way to You-Tube, a guy in a parking garage is suddenly surrounding by dancing Austrians [?] who suddenly begin punching and kicking him, to--you guessed it--spit out his gum. In their print ads, shown in the advertising section of their web site, Stride Gum encourages us to "spit at the CEO".

Punching, kicking, goring and spitting on people. Cool. THAT'LL show 'em we mean business, eh?. Yep. I don't know, but some people find this amusing, even hilarious. I guess it is that type of customer the ad people are looking to target. And our kids? When they see these ads, are they getting the message that it's okay to hit and spit at people, if it is meant in jest?

"Ah, lighten up!" (I will, I will. Just stop punching me.)

Seriously now, come on, guys (or gals) at Stride Gum. You can do better than that. You've got a good product. One of the reasons I don't chew gum is because it loses its flavor so fast. The other reason is, most of the gum today contains Aspertame. But if I did start again, I might buy your brand. Rethink your marketing. What the heck kind of a message are you really sending here? Video 1: A big German (why a German?) suddenly attacks someone -- because he's chewing his gum too long???!!! Its flavor is too long-lasting. Whose fault is that? You could have made it so the flavor disappears after, say, 10 chews; then he'd have to reach for another stick of Stride gum. But no, you take it out on the consumer, by punishing him for enjoying the long-lasting flavor you pride yourselves on providing. What's WRONG with this picture?!!!!

And the ram-busting commercial: more graphic violence. First your customer is bullied; now he's gored. All for simply enoying your product. This is somehow--his fault? Two men in suits, in a van, come to "rescue" (or abscond with) the wad of gum (like renditioners?), warning you, Don't let this happen again--WE WILL FIND YOU!" Hmmm. What does this remind you of? I think your ad people watch too many TV crime shows. How is this sort of behavior "entertaining"? What kind of message are you sending to children who watch this commercial? Plus you're sending conflicting messages. You're saying your product is so good, one need not continually replace it. (No planned obscellence here, that's good.) But then, oops, people might not be buying your gum often enough. Back to the drawing board. What to do. They already LIKE the gum. They're just chewing it too long. Damn. What'll we do? Hey, I know! Let's, uh, BULLY them.

There you have it, guys. In one fell swoop, I've gone from admiring the Stride Gum people, to lumping them in the yuck bin with all the other advertisers who stoop to anything, no matter how ridiculous or repulsive, to convince people to buy their products. Sorry, Stride Gum. You blew it this time (no pun intended). (No, seriously. That was accidental. )

Alas, after 3 million viewers have seen and are passing around the video of Matt Harding's happy dance, he has become enormously popular--so much so that he's quit his IT job and gone on to other pursuits--like signing on with Visa, who has decided to get in on the action, by making him--or more specifically his dance style--their new on-line ad campaign focus.

"Win attractive prizes when you convince Visa merchants to dance for you," they beckon. "Convince Visa merchants to dance for you." (Good luck with that one, ha ha.)

"Persuade them to dance like Matt or do a jig in their own style with a Visa card or next to a Visa logo." (Musn't forget the logo, folks.)

"If you're a Visa merchant, you can also join in the fun by casting your staff or even your mascot in your dance video." (My Visa merchant has a mascot?)

"The world over ... No card is more happily accepted."

The operative word here... is "happy". We are to accept credit cards--especially this one--"happily." Visa wants you to be happy. Let me think about that for a minute. A major credit card company... wants me to be happy. If I were a credit card holder (which I no longer am, thank goodness), what would really make me happy, would be to not have to pay a 25% interest rate, not be charged $30 for a payment late by a single day, not spend three years trying to pay off the balance after voluntarily cancelling my account and being informed if I ever wanted to have a credit card with them again I must reapply but acceptance is not guaranteed, only to find out when my balance is approaching zero that they've automatically given me $2,000+ more in credit, to entice me back into debt. So Visa is now using images of Matt Harding, and telling merchants to "dance" for me? This is going to put me in a happy, receptive move so they can sell me credit cards? hahahaha. WRONG.

I've responded to a few marketing surveys from time to time and am at a loss sometimes how to answer some of the ridiculous questions. Who writes these things anyway? More and more, companies want to know how you "feel" about a product, and they want you to describe it by choosing one of their pre-selected, target-the-customer adjectives. Does it make you feel "confident" (shampoo), "conservative" (beer), "adventureous" (car), "sexy" (credit card, believe it or not). There is never any option to say "None of the above". So you check off the least ridiculous one because the survey won't let you continue unless you check SOMETHING. This of course results in responses that are not entirely honest. I sometimes think that many surveys are specifically constructed to give the client (who paid for the survey) exactly what they want to hear.

How many times have you seen a cute commercial, that has you singing along, with a tune you can't get out of your head? It's catchy. It's recognizable. You like it. But do you go buy the product because of that? Or a really really well-done commercial (there are some, actually) where you're not assaulted with noise and nonsense, artistically or cinematically creative ones you actually look forward to seeing again. You like the commercial--as entertainment--but does it result in your trying the product? If that's the end goal, they've failed.

All this to say, that the original Stride Gum-sponsored video of Matt Harding doing his Happy Dance with random people all over the world--despite its subsequent knock-offs for commercialization--remains uplifting. Silly, goofy maybe (what the heck kind of a dance IS that, ha ha), but definitely uplifting. They don't look like paid performers, all those crowds of adults and kids jumping in to join him. Compare that footage to the ones in the Visa videos, with paid actors, where the implied purpose is to "have fun" but the REAL purpose is to get you to apply for or keep using your Visa credit card. World of difference.

Which brings me back to the words of Tagore. When I dance, "I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment." He has written, in words, what I "feel" when I dance. This is not something you can tap into by assigning emotional adjectives to a commercial product in the hopes it will resonate with an individual feeling, in order to get someone to buy something. (Ad people, are you listening?).

And the weird thing is, you can recognize it, this feeling, in others. It's what happens when one person starts dancing, and another joins in, and then another, and another. It's the look on their faces, the rhythm in the air. You forget where you are, sometimes even Who you are. You just dance.

And so that is why I liked this little video (of Matt Harding), and am passing it along. Maybe it'll brighten someone's day, if only in evoking a reluctant smile, or an involuntary toe tap or two. They really do seem like they are all having fun, don't they?

The sky is not happy today. This afternoon it will storm (they say).
Ah, Tagore. How can anyone think of rain when there's Tagore!

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