The Spot: We see a home video of a mom sitting on her couch with a baby on her lap. The mom blows into a glass, creating a low, hollow sound that launches her infant into a fit of giggles. She blows a few more times. The baby keeps cracking up. Then, on the right-hand side of the screen, a "+8" appears, and a soothing female voice says, "Laughter can add eight years to your life. So live longer, retire stronger. Never outlive your money." The AIG logo floats on-screen. (Click here to watch the clip.)
There is something entrancing about this spot, which presents a quiet moment of serenity and joy—not what advertising is generally known for. But there's also something familiar about it, and no wonder: The footage was not filmed in a studio with a professional actor-tot, but found on YouTube, where watching clips of babies laughing has become a new national pastime.
The AIG campaign is just one of many current advertising efforts to incorporate video found on YouTube—or at least video that looks like it was found on YouTube. At first glance, the YouTube-to-television transition seems to make sense for advertisers. Web crawlers don't go to the site to watch all 12 hours of Roots; the short snippets of video found there are easily spliced into a 30- or 60-second ad. And being able to see the number of YouTube "views" each video gets is useful for creatives desperate to peer into the public psyche and determine what we're actually going out of our way to watch. Plus, home-video footage is subconsciously eye-catching out of context—when we see clips on television that aren't professionally lit, scripted, and edited, we expect something juicy enough to warrant the compromised production values, whether it's Zapruder footage or a snippet of some starlet's sex tape.
But turning found video into good advertising is harder than it looks. The danger of using YouTube footage in a television ad is that if the spot isn't well-executed, viewers feel shortchanged, since they know they can see the same spot online without a corporate logo tacked onto the end of it.
Consider, for example, last winter's BMW ad, which featured the classic YouTube video of two kids waking up on Christmas morning and freaking out as they rip open their new Nintendo 64. Although the pairing was an odd one (shouldn't Nintendo have snagged the clip?), BMW did manage to equate the crazed look in the kids' eyes with the excitement of getting behind the wheel of one of their cars.
At first glimpse, I loved the ad for breaking away from holiday automotive ad tropes (no keys as stocking-stuffers or cars with bows on them here). But it soon created a backlash. The company was late to the game—the original clip had catapulted up YouTube's most-viewed list and appeared on both VH1 and Jay Leno before BMW bought the rights—and after the kids went on Good Morning America and Inside Edition, viewers began complaining about the family selling out. Those who weren't questioning the ad's authenticity were appalled by it: "It sounds like torture victims," one online commenter wrote. But in the end, what undermined the ad was the fact that the clip was already such a prominent brand that the commercial couldn't override it. Despite the marketing team's best efforts, the spot is still most commonly referred to as the "N64 kids commercial," not a BMW ad.
Taking a page from BMW, the current Sears "Don't just give a gift, grant a wish" campaign also features home-video footage of people opening presents. Instead of using YouTube, though, Sears collected its video clips from staff members of Sears and its marketing firm, Y&R. The ads strive for a touching authenticity. But the footage is utterly unremarkable, so the spots are lame. In collecting its clips, Sears failed to absorb the first lesson of YouTube: Amateur videos are usually very, very boring. The mere fact that a clip wasn't professionally shot doesn't make it worth including in a commercial.
In the worst instances, found-video ads don't even bother to sync the footage with the product being sold. In 2005, Vonage ran a series of ads that used videos of a kid smashing a baseball bat through a glass door and a man falling off a treadmill (set to that insanely catchy "Woo Hoo" song). The clips were pulled from America's Funniest Home Videos, not YouTube, but they served to give the ads a homemade vibe. Unfortunately, thanks to the combined effect of that distracting soundtrack (now stuck in my head, again) and the bizarre footage, it was impossible to comprehend what exactly was being sold.
But the laughing-baby ads are different. For one thing, the ad executives behind this campaign co-opted an entire YouTube genre, not a particular, beloved clip, thus minimizing the chances of backlash. More than 35 million viewers have seen "Hahaha," a video that features a baby sitting in a high chair, chuckling like crazy. But click on it and dozens of other laughing-baby clips will appear alongside it, each with several million views.
For another, the ads build on the laughing-baby footage to make a point, instead of just hitching a tagline to a YouTube classic. AIG targeted its "plus campaign" at thirtysomethings who are starting to think about retirement but are inundated with confusing messages about growing older, says Charlie Armstrong, AIG's senior director of advertising. On one hand, people reaching middle age see an endless stream of research showing that activities like drinking red wine, dancing, or petting cats can extend their lives. All well and good, until they begin to worry that living longer means they'll eventually outlive their savings and have to sell off that vintage Bordeaux, cancel the samba lessons, and resort to eating cat food—or worse, their cat—in order to get by.
So, how do the laughing babies factor in? AIG decided it wanted to be the company that was OK with clients living longer—so much so, in fact, that they'd tell them how to go about it. After pulling together research about laughter and longevity, they needed a way to present it. But they struggled to find an interpretation that worked on a visceral level, Armstrong said. That is, until someone on the team saw the laughing-baby videos on YouTube.
"When this idea emerged, it was clear we couldn't re-create those moments," Armstrong says. "Even if we had Ridley Scott in a room behind a camera, it wouldn't have been the same belly laugh and unbridled joy. So YouTube was a good solution for us to source the ads."
I asked Armstrong whether resorting to video found at the top of the YouTube charts wasn't a little, well, easy. "There's plenty of ads out there that use found video to create a moment," he said. "But sometimes advertisers don't do such a good job of bringing it home."
Grade: A-. The spots are engaging and eye-catching. What's more, they provide a reprieve from all the horrid insurance commercials that aim to frighten us into buying the most comprehensive plan possible. (I'm talking to you, Dennis Haysbert, and your creepy Allstate ads.) Plus, the ads bring us one step closer to testing a long-held theory of mine: A 24-hour network that featured only babies—tiny humans, big-eyed pandas, lion cubs—could perhaps bring about world peace.