Column: Why Can’t Brands Do TV?
March 07, 2013 | Chris Koentges | Comments
Time to elevate 30-second spots to great television
As a simple-minded end user, I don’t always understand why marketers do the things they do. I don’t understand, for instance, why we get the same half dozen commercials from the same half dozen brands played over and over through the NHL season, and then the playoffs—hundreds if not thousands of times.
No twists and variations on those half dozen ads, but the exact same thirty-second story. (To grossly misuse the word “story.”) I don’t know why in the span of, say, a seven-game playoff series that Tim Hortons, Scotiabank, A&W, Molson, and the rest of them can’t develop some compelling narrative arcs.
I don’t mind that we keep meeting the same hosers and nervous mortage applicants, the dim-witted franchisees and kids who go saucer-eyed whenever Sidney Crosby turns up.
I love the immigrants finding their way in a new country through a brand. I think that this is real. But as an audience, please trust me, we’re ready for these characters to come alive and do something. We’re living in the golden age of television, and I guess I don’t understand why your brand can’t make some television.
The saucer-eyed kid eating Snickers and trying on Bauer products at Canadian Tire, the one that worships Crosby, I want to know about his home life. I want to see his Facebook timeline and watch him trade tweets with kids at his school. I want to see what happens when he runs away from home and has some adventures. There’s no reason Canada’s best brands can’t team up and use the kinds of tools that Mark Twain never dreamed of to create a Huck Finn for this time and place.
This must seem like an unfathomably big leap—I know we started off having a conversation about ads during a lousy hockey game—but when I say don’t understand why your brand can’t make some television, I don’t see why your brand can’t make the next The Wire.
Or instead of The Wire, which is now taught in schools like Shakespeare, a better example might be the David Simon show that followed The Wire. In 2010, nobody I know had ever heard of Treme. We didn’t know how to pronounce it. We didn’t know if it was a place or a character’s name or a pretentious French verb.
Treme, we now know, is America’s oldest black neighbourhood. It’s a neighbourhood on the edge of the French Quarter, populated by musicians and people with soul. I know several people, who have spent their vacation time on pilgrimages to Treme. Treme is a brand so vividly rendered by David Simon that it’s changed tourism in New Orleans.
(Not unlike what David Milch’s Luck promised to do for ailing Santa Anita, or T-Bone Burnett’s on-the-margins country music is doing for Nashville.)
Treme is as fine an example of both destination marketing and disaster recovery marketing as you’ll find—it’s the kind of postcard for a brand in recovery that everyone from FEMA to Louisiana Tourism should have been helping to develop the moment Hurricane Katrina broke the levees around New Orleans.
On top of that, Treme happens to be a distribution system for original music. Like Glee and Nashville, it implants songs in our psyche so viscerally that we scramble to buy the tracks after. It’s a road map for smashing that elusive fourth wall between sponsor, TV show and audience.
Reality TV has cracked it wide open in a way that dramas and comedies should. In the way that top chefs spend a season in Vegas and shop at Whole Foods, I guess I don’t understand why Diageo can’t find a promising screenwriter, who is noodling away at the next Cheers. I’d tune in to watch a show that weaves together sincere stories about a guy who owns a bunch of Ford dealerships in Denver, a woman who lives in Windsor and commutes to the Rouge factory, and some Japanese tourists on a road trip in an old Mustang, their narratives intersecting in a way beyond the supernatural crap of that new Kiefer Sutherland show.
The multinational corporations have the budgets to produce this kind of content. Done right, it has the potential to drive a brand deep. For the $45 million Heineken spent undermining what we love about the martini-drinking protagonist of a story our culture knows intimately, they could have created a web series about a new kind of spy. They could have made real content.
Chris Koentges is a writer based in Vancouver. His work has appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve and Reader’s Digest. His “End User” column appears regularly in Marketing.