The Spot: Actor Luke Wilson stands atop a giant map of the United States, reciting a list of cities and towns for which AT&T provides wireless phone coverage. As he mentions each place, he Frisbees a postcard through the air. "If you want coverage, we've got it," says the announcer.
It's tough to predict which celebrity sellouts will raise our hackles. My personal tripwire was sproinged by the sight of will.i.am happily donning a hat that bore a giant red Target logo. The man's evident eagerness to shill—the corporate-friendly smile, the twinkling eyes—provoked intense feelings of despair in the depths of my soul.
For others, disquietude is occasioned less by the nature of the sellout than by the identity of the perpetrator. My editor has always claimed she's not fazed when celebrities hawk products. But then a pair of indie sweethearts showed up in ad campaigns this fall—Ellen Page for Cisco; Zooey Deschanel for Cotton Inc.—and suddenly my editor started wringing her hands. "It's a whole different breed of people selling out," she fretted in an e-mail. "Those on the upward rather than the downward trajectory." She felt vaguely embarrassed for these starlets. And she wondered: What could they have to gain?
Well, money, of course. For not much work. But let's set that aside. Madison Avenue's filthy lucre is always there for the taking. The question is whether these up-and-comers were wise to grab it.
Zooey Deschanel has been fated since birth to do an ad for cotton. The very mention of her name conjures thoughts of gingham sundresses and periwinkle cardigans. And for her, making this ad actually seems pretty sensible. 1) The ad is for a fabric worn by billions of people for thousands of years. Outside of a charity for children, this is pretty much the most anodyne endorsement I can imagine. 2) The connection feels sincere. Who among us could doubt that Zooey Deschanel enjoys "the look, the feel of cotton" and does so in real life? 3) The ad itself fits her vibe. (By contrast, Deschanel's recent high-fashion print ad for Absolut, in which she rocks a chainmail miniskirt, seems like a departure.) When I go on my imaginary dates with Zooey, we're always riding around on vintage bicycles while shopping for banjos—a scenario that's been uncannily re-created here. 4) Above all, she gets to promote her nascent music career. I have to assume this was the true motivating factor. She simply couldn't pass up an opportunity to sing the beloved "Fabric of Our Lives" jingle, making it a showcase for her breezy, reverb-laden crooning.
For Ellen Page, endorsing Cisco's video teleconferencing systems seems less natural. This isn't a product we'd expect her to use in real life. It's hard to imagine she harbors a quirky passion for the Cisco brand. And the bouncy tone of the ads doesn't jibe with Page's on-screen personality (which is, as best I can tell: introspective, resilient, elfin hipster). My guess is that Page is in fact trying to break free from her established persona, hoping to swerve from alt to mainstream by appearing in upbeat ads for a big, bland company. It's akin to showing a different side of herself on a talk show or on Saturday Night Live. (It's an equally curious choice for Cisco. Are the people who buy video teleconferencing equipment likely to be fans of films like Juno and Whip It? Perhaps nerdy young guys in I.T. departments swoon at the sight of the adorably geeky Page. Or maybe Cisco wants to imply that its equipment is easy to use straight out of the box—even for nontechies—and thus centered the ad campaign on a decidedly nontechie celeb.)
Which brings us to Luke Wilson and his multiple AT&T commercials. Observe Wilson's blooming jowls and vaguely boarlike visage. Recoil at the sight of his dorky tweed blazer combos. And ponder: What on earth, beyond the lure of a paycheck, might have convinced him to make these ads?
While Zooey Deschanel is off looking winsome in what amounts to her own music video and Ellen Page plays a good-natured bystander observing a product demo, Wilson's role in these AT&T ads is straight-up spokesman. He talks directly into the camera. He attacks the competitor by name. At one point he actually stands in front of a bulletin board and checks off comparison points. So very un-celeb. As a thought experiment, try to envision Deschanel monologuing earnestly about cotton's superiority to rayon, or Page reciting a laundry list of Cisco's tech specs.
There was a time when Luke Wilson was every bit the indie darling that Page and Deschanel are now. Remember the Bottle Rocket era, when Luke and brother Owen seemed to hail from a far-off universe of lanky, windblown mojo? Lately, Wilson's taken to co-starring in Jessica Simpson vehicles. I might have shed a tear once, long ago, over Wilson's descent into quotidian commerce. But now this celebrity sellout moment just leaves me puzzled—not saddened. Wilson is clearly, to use my editor's phrase, on the "downward trajectory."
Grade: D. So many problems with these AT&T ads. They look cheap and slapped together—like they were shot on the fly in a vacant warehouse, Wilson had no time to lose weight for the camera, and the wardrobe department was forced to scrounge for clothes at a nearby JCPenney. What's more, the ads are horribly misleading. Verizon's original comparison ads boasted about a larger 3G data network. But AT&T's response, in the postcards ad, is to tout the size of its regular voice network. It makes me want to grab Luke Wilson by his tweed lapels and shout, "You're making a straw man argument, you jowly sellout!"