The mesmerizing UPS whiteboard ads.

Advertising deconstructed.
April 16 2007 2:36 PM

Back to the Drawing Board

Those mesmerizing new UPS ads.

The Spot:A man stands in front of a large whiteboard. Using a dry-erase marker, he creates quick, informal sketches that animate the range of shipping services offered by UPS. A sketch of a UPS truck turns into a sketch of a UPS plane; a sketch of a cardboard box turns into a sketch of a laptop computer that can track UPS shipments; and so forth. (Click here to watch all the ads.)

Ad Report Card reader S.B. e-mails: "You've got to do a column about those UPS ads with the guy doodling at the whiteboard. I get sucked in every time one comes on. The doodling is hypnotic."

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

I agree. These ads are mesmerizing. It's partly all that white space. (An old advertising trick. Think of those full-page newspaper ads that luxuriate in acres of blank newsprint. Or recall the seamless, white-background look of Apple's "I'm a Mac/I'm a PC" campaign.) There's also something gripping in observing the skill of this dry-erase wizard who can transform, with a few effortless marker strokes, a small UPS van into a giant 18-wheeler complete with mudflaps. (Apparently, watching people draw is even becoming a minor YouTube trend, judging from these popular clips.)

But more than the eye-catching set design or those killer whiteboard chops, I think it's the power of narrative that holds us entranced. There's something primal in our urge to listen when someone stands before us and tells us a story. This isn't the tensionless narrative of a lame testimonial ad ("My arthritis was acting up, so my friend told me to try blah blah"), where we know precisely how the story will end. There's an element of uncertainty here. We know the initial drawing will turn into something new—but we're not sure what this end product will be, or how the marker guy will pull it off. And (as has often been said about the cooking segments on talk shows), we can't pull ourselves away until we reach a resolution.

These spots were directed by genius documentarian Errol Morris, a frequent dabbler in the world of commercials who's contributed to campaigns for Levis, Citibank, and Nike, among others. The ads exhibit some of the hallmarks of his films: the static camera; the lone subject addressing the lens. Given the continuous-take, single-camera-angle composition these UPS spots all share, it sort of seems like they could have been directed by a tripod. But one assumes Morris was brought in here more for his skill at coaxing compelling performances from nonperformers.

This particular nonperformer—the floppy-haired fellow standing at the whiteboard—is named Andy Azula, and he's actually the creative director on the campaign. Azula conceived of these ads as a refreshing change from typical shipping spots, which show trucks and package handlers and businesspeople meeting deadlines. To give UPS a sense of what he planned, he filmed sample spots with himself as the whiteboard guy and with co-workers from his ad agency behind the camera. He never imagined he'd appear in the final versions, but when UPS tested various other actors (and kept Azula in the mix), focus groups consistently picked him as their favorite. Azula's guess is that while the other actors had more charisma and energy, his low-key, unpolished delivery made him seem less like an annoying pitchman. As an art director who'd made countless storyboards, he also had a knack for fast, fun sketching. (Though a professional illustrator was employed on the set to speed things up by redrawing the whiteboard between takes. "He had to repress his skills to imitate my style," says Azula.)

This isn't the first time someone from an ad agency has managed to wind up in his own commercial. (For instance, "Ted Ferguson, Bud Light Daredevil" was played by a copywriter who helped devise the campaign.) Azula says he had to join the Screen Actors Guild and was paid scale wages. His life hasn't changed much, though he now gets recognized in airports, where people will point at him and then draw things in the air with their fingers.

"It's highly discouraged in general," says Azula, "because there's too much vested interest for creatives to put themselves in campaigns. We sort of broke the rules here, but only after careful consideration and a lot of focus groups."

I think Azula mostly works as a brand spokesman. Possible weakness: I'm not sure his artsy long locks play well with doughnut-eating shipping managers in middle America. Might want to go high and tight for the next round of spots.

Grade: B. You may recognize the background music, which has appeared (in various forms) in countless ads, movies, and TV shows. Azula says he used the track here because it has a vaguely "tech" feel, suggestive of the idea that UPS is on top of all the cutting-edge shipping trends. Which makes sense. But there's a certain irony here, too: The song is by a band named the Postal Service.