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National Geographic Channel has a curious brand of grammar

November 24, 2009|Dan Neil
  • A scene from the National Geographic Channel's "Live Curious" commercial. It's a slick but empty global branding spot with a script of cryptic blank verse.
A scene from the National Geographic Channel's "Live Curious"… (National Geographic )

As Miss Teen South Carolina reminded us so memorably in 2007, "Some people in our nation don't have maps. . . ." So true. But you can't blame the National Geographic Society. For more than a century, the House That Grosvenor Built has been one of the world's most ambitious educational and scientific organizations. These are the people who brought us unforgettable documentary films about Jacques Cousteau and Robert Ballard, Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. The society's flagship publication, National Geographic magazine, remains the platinum standard of glossy-book journalism: lucidly written, beautifully photographed and humanely informed, a study in elegance.

It feels almost sacrilegious to think of National Geographic as something so pecuniary as a brand, yet it certainly is. And to prove it, National Geographic Channel this month unveiled a slick but empty global branding spot that plays like one of those Scientology ads with a script by Rod McKuen. The commercial also debuts the NGC's new, grammatically challenged tagline: "Live Curious."

OK, I'm curious. What is this spot about? The piece consists of a series of quick-cut portraits: A Chinese man practices tai chi; a Jamaican child plays in a junked pickup truck; a Japanese man with yakuza tattoos stares enigmatically into the camera; an Australian man free dives with a whale shark, etc. Over a soft, hammer-style guitar riff, the voice-over is a series of linked couplets, "If you are, you breathe, if you breathe, you talk, if you talk, you ask, if you think, you search, if you search, you experience. . . ." Ay-yi-yi. It's a veritable flea circus of profundity.

The spot -- produced by Mercurio Cinematografica and directed by South African Bryan Little -- sports some powerful visuals, deploying all the tricks of arty videography: high-def slow-mo, vignetting, projector-like flickering, whisper-thin fields of focus. And the sheer diversity of ethnicity on display reinforces a worthy theme: Common humanity transcends skin color. We are all strange, lovely inhabitants of someplace called Earth.

To decode the spot it helps to know that NGC is seen in 166 countries, and this effort heralds the network's big push to create more global programming, and that means de-emphasizing NGC's American provenance. Perhaps they should consider lowercasing the "N" in National.

In any event, I don't have a problem with the visual content -- though I would have liked more dashing cheetahs and tail-dancing dolphins. For a brand famous for chronicling the natural world, the NGC spot seems to give non-human life forms pretty short shrift.

Where I want to say, "Check, please!" is when I try to tune into the open-mic poetry reading that is the script. It's nonsense. To breathe is to talk? To grow is to wish? To doubt is to question? If I may doubt/question, isn't that a tautology?

This long, tortured windup of a script brings us to the central conceit and the final frame: "If you want to know more, you are alive," which is to say, curiosity is vital to a life well lived. Watch NGC. Talk about finally finding the pony.

Yet: Live curious? Am I the only one for whom that phrase thuds like a bowling ball in a dryer? "To live" is not an intransitive verb such as "to be" and "to seem"; it's a special-case transitive verb whose only object can be "life," right? So the formation should take the adverbial. In other words: "Live curiously."

Well, I'm doing my best.

Verdict: This ad and this tagline are distinctly out of step with NGC programming itself, which can be fun and lively, informative and compulsively watchable. Mekong catfish the size of Volkswagens? Samurai submarines? Count me in. Cryptic blank verse? I'll be at the bar, watching the hockey game.

If you need a yardstick by which to measure NGC's arty and self-conscious failure, look at the Discovery Channel's brand spot titled "The World Is Just Awesome." Now just try to get "Boom de yada boom de yada . . ." out of your head. Discovery recently re-cut the original ad (which debuted in March 2008) to include more of its stars: Mike Rowe of "Dirty Jobs," Capt. Sig Hansen of "Deadliest Catch" and Matt Watson of "Man vs. Fish," who actually dives from a helicopter onto an enormous marlin.

Look, I grant you, "The world is just awesome" is not Shakespeare. But at least it's grammatical.

dan.neil@latimes.com

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