Reviewing TV commercials
Burger King’s current ad campaign for the Whopper deftly incorporates different rock oldies to potent effect. One spot in particular, the ad featuring the 1970 R&B hit ”Express Yourself,” has accomplished something that’s not supposed to happen when advertising co-opts rock & roll — it makes a forgotten song take on a new, vivid life. Cut by Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, ”Express Yourself” has been yanked from its original context (Black Power self-help anthem) and turned into a consumer message (if you respect yourself, you’ll eat a Whopper). But because the commercial’s visuals are so simple — shots of everyday people at play and in mid-Whopper bite — it lets you concentrate on the music, to appreciate anew (or discover for the first time) its slow-simmering Memphis-by-way-of-L.A. funk.
If Burger King’s spot rescues a fine song from oblivion, computer-chip manufacturer Intel’s current ad campaign — in which a group of foil-suited technicians shimmy shimmeringly to songs like Wild Cherry’s ”Play That Funky Music” and the Bee Gees’ ”Stayin’ Alive” — has a different purpose. These commercials use their songs to poke fun at the nerdiness of both computer geeks and the usually solemn way their products are advertised. If the joke is that geeks will be geeks (tee-hee — these guys think campy disco is cool), the ads’ splashy glitz lodges the identity of Intel Pentium chips in your brain as precisely as a geek programming your office PC.
The Intel ads are brash, loud, and — after the first few times you see them — irritating. Unlike ”Express Yourself,” ”Funky Music” is a song that relies on cheap irony, and its catchiness exhausted itself years ago. But the Intel ads can’t shake the aura of technological coldness that the funky music is supposed to counteract. For heated drama in a techno-context, consider the most striking commercial on TV these days, for the AMD-K6 processor.
Have you seen it? The scene is an office; a crew-cut boss screams into the phone, ”Jones, I mean it! If that presentation is not on my desk in 30 seconds, you’re fired!” Cut to Jones working feverishly — but, hey, something’s happening outside his office window: A big fuel truck is out of control; it’s careening through city streets, leaving bashed taxicabs in its wake. The truck is headed straight for the office, but because Jones is using the new K6 processor, he’s able to complete his assignment and send it super-fast to his livid boss as a message (”New mail!” coos the calm computer voice). Jones smiles, picks up his jacket, and leaves — just as the truck smashes through the window of his still-spluttering boss. We presume this awful man will be killed, and we are glad.
The first time you see this brilliantly edited commercial, its 30 seconds of real-time suspense is almost too much to take in. As written by James Overall of Hill, Holliday Advertising and directed by Sam Bayer of Mars Pictures, it plunges you into its drama. ”We wanted something much darker than your usual happy, smiling computer users,” says Overall. ”We wanted the truck to be inhumanly menacing, like in Steven Spielberg’s [1971 TV movie] Duel. Frankly, we were surprised the client liked it, because we figured people might not get that this fast spot was a way of saying how fast the computer chip is.”
It can take a few viewings to even figure out what exactly is being advertised, but unlike the Pentium spots, which play out to diminishing returns, the AMD ad gets better with subsequent viewings. Watching it, you strain to get your bearings, but it’s pleasurable confusion. As Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band knew, sometimes expressing yourself means going out on a limb. Burger King: B Intel: B- AMD: A
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