13 December 2010

Thoughts on a Christmas (viral) Classic

Can a viral video join the lofty, growing list of must-view Christmas films?

If it can be done, the likely candidate is "Doghouse," this brilliant viral video generated in 1988 by Saatchi and Saatchi New York, for JC Penny.

Consider for a moment that this is an ad form that didn't exist 20 years ago.  The closes available medium then was television.  And the very thought of truncating this letter-perfect 4:45 into 30 seconds is akin to reducing Wagner's Ring Cycle to a ringtone.

It wouldn't do.

Doghouse is an incredibly useful lesson in the ingredients necessary to turn an advertiser's message viral:

Doghouse ain't cheap.  Actors. Sets. Effects. Locations.  Very few advertisers who tell their agencies "make us the next 'Doghouse' " are going to be willing to bankroll a film with such high production values.

The story, the script, the actors, the direction, the 'moments'- this film works unbelievably hard to deliver worthwhile touches from start to finish. (Did you notice Donnie is bald.  But in his flashback film, he has hair- which tells you how long he's been in the Doghouse.)

Important, funny little touches like that beget repeat viewing.  This film has dozens of 'em.

Doghouse serves the viewer first.  It entertains.  It spins a great story. It introduces rock-solid characters. It leaves the viewer believing "this is an entertainment."

That flies in the face of 150 years of modern advertising tradition.  Clients tend to treat ads as elevator pitches, frantically cramming boatloads of information about themselves in a confined physical (or chronological) space.  Bad ads- and most, alas, are bad- are written for the advertiser- not the viewer.

Doghouse doesn't mention the advertiser until the very end.   And by then, it's hard not to feel grateful to them for the preceding four minutes and thirty seconds.

Few advertisers are willing to put so much faith in a short film that they're willing to bury the sales message in the last few seconds.  (If you were a major retailer, and your sales performance during the make-or-break Christmas season hung in the balance... would you?)

I suspect this sort of courageous experimentation is easier to come by when a medium- in this case, web video- is so new.  (A notion worth exploring on another day.)

For now, top up that mugga' cocoa, prop your feet (with those wooly socks) by the fire, and enjoy one of the greats.  A viral video that makes you sigh:  "I wish all web videos were this good."