On Thursday, NBC's butterflies-on-pins comedy "30 Rock" was nominated for a record 22 Emmy awards. Or was it 24?
Two of the spots nominated for Outstanding Commercial -- a category since 1997 -- feature Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey shilling for Hulu and American Express, respectively, and in each the actors are madly channeling their "30 Rock" personas. In the Hulu Super Bowl ad (Crispin Porter + Bogusky), "TV star" Alec Baldwin appears in Jack Donaghy drag -- good suit, cupid-bow lips, strangely sibilant, curried like a racehorse -- to reveal an alien plot to soften human brains with free online video. Never in the history of TV has the truth come so close to being uttered.
In the AmEx ad (Ogilvy & Mather), Tina Fey -- as meta-Liz Lemon -- is flagged down at an airport by Martin Scorsese, but she can't follow him into the business lounge until she flashes her platinum AmEx card at the desk. Precisely as on "30 Rock," Fey/Lemon stumbles among grown-ups, always a half-beat ahead or behind, forever emerging from the ladies room with her skirt caught in her undies.
Together, Baldwin and Fey are pomo's Burns and Allen, and these Emmy-nominated spots breathe the same winking, in-on-the-con air as "30 Rock" itself. The show has revolutionized product placement by making a farce of it, by making a virtue of artistic capitulation. GE microwave ovens. iPhones. McFlurries. After praising Verizon phones, Tina Fey turns to the camera and says, "Can we have our money now?" You bet.
Buy the nearest cultural studies professor a latte, and he or she will be happy to explicate the deeper meanings here. For example, celebrity can be viewed as a kind of text; these personas created by Baldwin and Fey are constructions, ironic confections, "implied" celebrities behind which the flesh-and-blood actors can dwell at a safe distance.
Alec Baldwin, playing "TV star" Alec Baldwin, can say and do things the serious-minded and principled political activist could never do. Like sell out.
The other Emmy nominees reflect the agonizing and expensive battle advertisers are waging against TiVo to keep people from fast-forwarding past commercials. The animated Coca-Cola spot "Heist" (Wieden & Kennedy), another Super Bowl debut, is a visually spectacular daydream in which insects band together to steal a bottle of Coke. The commercial is set to Prokofiev's irresistible "Peter and the Wolf." It is sure to cause temporary remote control paralysis.
Music is also a key ingredient in the Budweiser spot, titled "Circus" (DDB Chicago), in which a Clydesdale searches for a lost love, a white circus pony. The soundtrack is Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," a song that I would sit and listen to even if my couch was on fire.
The full Lutz
Bob Lutz, formerly product supremo at GM and now the head of the company's marketing, wasted no time last week stomping on toes, criticizing some of the company's current advertising, which he says "irks" him. Apparently, he despises the Buick spot titled "Photo Shoot" (Gary Topolewski). The spot is a behind-the-scenes with the new LaCrosse and Enclave as subject of an elaborate fashion photography session, featuring a supercilious director and lots of LaLa Land mise-en-scene.
"That Buick commercial tested very well, which is not the same as saying that it's an effective ad," Lutz wrote in an online chat last week. "I think you will very quickly see a drastic change in the tone and content of our advertising."
On Friday, GM Chief Executive Fritz Henderson moved to cover Lutz's flank, saying that Buick's advertising isn't conveying premium positioning for Buick. A review is underway at agency-of-record Leo Burnett.
Left twisting in the wind was Buick-GMC Vice President Susan Docherty, who was quoted by Automotive News (speaking from under the proverbial bus). "I'm very appreciative of Bob's input, and it's great to have a second set of eyes on it," Docherty says. "I'm looking forward to working with Bob and sharing spots two through six with him. We'll take him through the rest of the work."
Here's the thing, though: I like "Photo Shoot." It's funny, memorable and serves up some very nice hero shots of the products, though I concede these looks could be longer and more loving. The tea leaves of this controversy suggest that Lutz and GM want to connect with upscale, affluent West Coasters -- we call them Lexus buyers. These are kind of the people being made fun of in the spot.
A few weeks ago I wrote about a company called Ace Metrix, a Santa Monica shop that has developed a fancy algorithm to process online focus group data for TV commercials. At my request, the Ace Metrix folks compared two beer commercials: one for Heineken and one for Dos Equis, featuring the "Most Interesting Man in the World."
According to the Ace Metrix scale (1 to 1,000) the Heineken ad trounced the Dos Equis ad in a kind of holistic likability known as the ACE score, 565 to 310. In the key demographic, males ages 21 to 35, the Heineken ad scored a stunning 703, compared with Dos Equis at 583.
Except . . . "The Most Interesting Man" campaign has been a huge hit for Dos Equis. Through June, Dos Equis sales have shot up 17%, compared with an overall drop in the import beer segment of 11%. The fictional character, played by actor Jonathan Goldsmith, has 58,000 fans following him on Facebook.
It just goes to show that while there are a million ways to measure ads, sales are the only measure that counts.