The Spot:A man and woman meet cute on a sidewalk as they find themselves both admiring a Sony Bravia TV in a store window. The scene ends on an ambiguous note (is he about to ask her on a date?) but not before a page of text flashes briefly and illegibly across the screen. Upon closer inspection (inspection that's possible only if you have a DVR that can pause the ad), you see that the text reads, "Would you rather be a rebellious, nonconformist maverick coach … or a shoe lover who gets asked to be a shoe model …?" It then directs you to a Web site. The ad's tagline: "The world's first television for men and women." (To view the Web site, click here, and then click "Choose commercials here" to view the alternate endings, or "Hidden TV message" to see the briefly flashed text.)
A previous ad for the Sony Bravia is one of the most talked-about commercials of the past few years. Featuring 250,000 brightly colored super-balls cascading through the streets of San Francisco, this spot won gold at the 2006 Clio Awards. It's now been watched millions of times on YouTube.
It's clear why the unfortunately titled "Balls" is a hit with the average viewer: It's among the more visually stunning pieces of video you'll ever see. (My favorite moment: A small dog takes shelter in a doorway, totally baffled by the onslaught of bouncing balls.) But why are advertising people—who've seen all sorts of beautiful visuals over the years—equally enamored of the ad? Here's what I wrote from the Clios last year: "The ad folks, predictably, loved this spot, because its execution involved lots of expense and complication. 'Can you imagine how many windows they broke?' murmured a guy in the next row at the awards ceremony. He could not conceal his envious smile. 'What an outrageous shoot!' agreed the guy next to him. 'They're still picking up those balls!' "
Ad-industry folks get bored of making conventionally effective 30-second spots and are always seeking out new, ambitious projects for themselves. This sort of thinking will sometimes lead to an attention-grabbing triumph like "Balls." But more frequently, it results in a convoluted dud like this new Bravia campaign, which is a classic example of ad-exec overthinking.
Everyone in the persuasion business is scared of DVRs, because they allow viewers to skip ads. Thus this Bravia spot attempts a bit of jujitsu, using the DVR as a tool to lure viewers deeper into the campaign. But it's not a new trick, and without proper enticement (KFC at least rewarded us with a free chicken sandwich), I doubt that at this point many people bother pausing these gimmicky DVR-specific ads to scrutinize their hidden messages. It's just not worth the time.
Anyway, the enticement here is particularly weak. The idea is that television viewers will be sent scampering to the Web site—which would allow the ad guys to crow at meetings about "multi-platform storytelling." But the initial ad with the couple on the sidewalk lacks a gripping cliffhanger, so we're not left thirsting for more. And that subliminally flashed text about being a football coach or a shoe model isn't nearly intriguing enough to get us firing up our laptops and surfing over to Sony.com.
The thing that would actually bring people to the Web site is compelling content—clips at the site that we genuinely enjoy watching and want to tell our friends about. Sadly, this content ain't so compelling. If you do make it to the Web site, you find four alternative endings, each a parody of a genre movie. (Sony has begun showing some of these endings on TV, too, but the main goal still seems to be driving traffic to the Web.) Choosing the "endings for men" calls up a hokey sports flick or an anime fight scene. The "endings for women" are a musical about high-heeled shoes or a weepy medical drama. Each bit is competently scripted and filmed—there are even one or two funny moments, and a cameo from Peyton Manning (because apparently no ad campaign can proceed without him)—but nothing in any of these shorts left me saying, "Gosh, I'm glad I took the time to download that."
To make sure I wasn't alone, I checked the stats on YouTube to see if the clips were getting any buzz. They were all there to see, but the football-coach ending had been watched only 683 times. The shoes musical did a little better, at 3,492 viewings. Meanwhile, the "Balls" ad had about 3.7 million views, and even a "making of" clip about it had 73,000 views. Which suggests that rather than spending money and effort on four merely adequate shorts (to bring to life some sort of complicated ad-executive dream about platform agnosticism and rapid technological adaptation, or whatever), they should have funneled their budget and energy into one spectacular ad that people actually want to see.
Luckily, Sony did that, too. "Paint"—the follow-up to "Balls"—features endless gallons of paint exploding in and around a Glasgow apartment complex. It's not as breathtaking as "Balls," but it's still fairly astonishing. Both ads use minimal special effects, so what appears to be happening is really happening. * But more important, both ads center on a simple but powerful sales message (our TV's superior design will capture intense color), and both have been viral successes, viewed endlessly on the Web ("Paint" is up to about 500,000 YouTube views so far). Why does U.S. television get a circuitous, uninspired Bravia campaign, while the rest of the world gets iconic spots like "Paint" and "Balls"? Good question.
Grade: C-. And don't get me started on the dinosaur gender-role assumptions. Women can't like anime? Men can't like stylish shoes? I'm guessing the original basis for the ad's never adequately explained tag line ("The first television for men and women") was the notion that men care more about technical specs, while women care more about what the TV looks like on the wall. But even after searching through all the nooks and crannies on Sony's Web site, I've found only minimal evidence to support this hypothesis. The deeper I go with this campaign, the less it makes sense. And the less I care.