I remember seeing someone leave a movie theater, grousing about what he had just seen, and asking anyone aloud, “Who gave that guy the money to make a __________movie?”
“That guy” was action director Michael Bay, the movie was either Armageddon or the first Transformers, and the mystery enablers were the Dairy Council…and you.
From Wikipedia: “The first Got Milk? commercial airs on TV. Directed by Michael Bay, a guy, obsessed by the history of the duel, hears the voice on the radio asking a $10,000 question, ‘Who shot Alexander Hamilton in that famous duel?’, while making and eating a peanut butter sandwich. The question was transferred to the phone, answers the correct answer ‘Aaron Burr’, but the person on the phone can’t hear it clearly with his mouth full of a peanut butter sandwich before time runs out, and only has a few drops of milk left.”
From there, one of the most famous and effective advertising campaigns was underway and the audience, usually immune to such things, uh…drank it up. Rivaling such longstanding ad campaign benchmarks for memory as “Where’s The Beef,” the Geico Gecko and the Cavemen, and even Mr. Whipple’s “Don’t Squeeze The Charmin,” “Got Milk?” was on it’s way to maddening near-ubiquity. Who has not seen the endless copycats from all over the nation sporting supposedly clever variations on the hook? A ski resort asks, “Got snow?” A butcher shop queries, “Got beef?” A hospital questions, “Got health?” Seriously. And I’ve seen even worse examples.
And the most galling aspect is that even though the campaign is twenty years old now and well past gone, people still use the concept like it was something fresh or new. It got me thinking — if even the world of advertising can’t innovate, what does that say about the culture as a whole? We’re now a couple months into football season and the finale, the Super Bowl, will be scant months away. Don’t worry too much about Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s whipping by. The older you get, the faster they whiz by.
But the Super Bowl, long the debut forum of a company’s ad campaign for the remainder of the year, can already be read from this distance for what their commercials will be. If 2012’s Super Bowl was any indicator, you’ll get more talking babies, dumb white guys dropping all semblance of shame or responsibility for beer, curiously human-like animals, and a hundred bids for catchphrase omnipresence. Been a long time since I Whazzzzup’ed. And I assume this constant backwash of old ideas repurposed-as-new is the white flag that ad agencies wave in the thick of a new media tsunami that has blown the commercial landscape clean.
TiVO did some of that. Internet did more. And honestly, I think most of us have learned to treat ads like the white noise they are. We stare blankly at them on the screen, like we’re surveying the screw holes in the drywall behind the TV rather than the screen itself. The Super Bowl gets attention for the ads only because it has become a part of the show rather than the digressions from it. Only then can we really survey how pedantic and repetitive they really are.
Which brings us back to “Got Milk?” which, in its day, was itself anomalous to the ad world. It was quick and swept through with the energy of a music video, which is what you would expect from Bay who, like him or not, is a master of visual kinetic energy. He likes chaos and knows you like it too. He is the secret dealer of the dirty stuff you refuse in public but horde in private. It helps that he has only a small period of time with which to make his point, just enough so fatigue does not set in. He also has a clever concept to work with, a real cause and effect, and an ending that forces the viewer to participate in the “after-story.” The guy with the peanut butter mouth can’t win the contest without something to wash the gumminess out of his mouth. We imagine what happens next; we don’t have to see it.
The failure of Bay’s movies, by and large, is that with 2+ hours to kill, no inch of the screen is left to negative space. No moment of a story is left to be told by the viewer in their head, so it is all explained away through exposition, through narration, a series of commercials flashing by one after another in quick succession until the watcher is either numb to it and goes along, or is so exhausted by it that even if there is a moment of quiet reflection wedged into the narrative, you’re too busy trying to shake off the shakes to recognize it. Frankly, those moments are few and far between in Bay’s movies, and mostly you cut to the strip club.
So what does it say that the best thing on your work resume is a twenty-year-old commercial which is so much more timeless than any multi-million-dollar film you’ve helmed since?