Why Is A Watermelon In The Tailpipe?

I don’t often critique specific online ads. Not in a public forum like this one, at least. It just seems like bad karma or something. I know how hard it is to produce great work that makes the client happy, succeeds in making a connection with consumers, and meets objectives. It’s no easy task.

But this one I really have to talk about. The problem with the ad is something we struggle with all the time.

It’s very common to treat most in-page online ad formats almost as if they were billboards. It’s an oversimplification, but here’s what I mean: consumers often glance at banners quickly, so generally you have a very short window of time to either get them hooked to watch the rest of your ad, or to communicate in those few seconds. You pretty much want to have your key message, logo and call-to-action up there all the time, or at the very least, in the final frame of the animation. We wish and hope people will view and pay attention to our ad’s entire animation cycle. But what if they don’t? That last frame must stand on its own.

Here’s the thing. Rich media, broadband, and a growing creative pallet all make us feel empowered. We can tell a story. We can make it funny. Or sad. We can use all the creative tricks in our arsenal to build an emotional connection with the consumer that relies on their undivided attention throughout the course of our stunningly animated little banner ad. We rationalize with ourselves and with our clients that this is better. People we don’t connect with aren’t our audience. But the few who do see it … man, will they be on our side!

It becomes a constant struggle. You know that a richly animated piece that engages the consumer with a compelling (albeit brief) story can be a powerfully persuasive piece of advertising. But you also know you must account for people who may only see the resting frame, or may only glance at the first (or middle) two seconds but not watch the whole thing. Can you create an ad that connects with both types?

Yes, but it ain’t easy.

Let me describe what I saw. I settled at my desk, sipping my coffee and reading email newsletters. I clicked a link to read a story and the phone rang. Turned to check Caller ID and spent maybe five seconds trying to figure out who the number belonged to. When I turned back to the computer, the page had finished loading and there, dead in the middle of my content, was a gorgeous ad. It was well designed. It stood out, even if it wasn’t animating (I assumed it already played its cycle). It was for a product I was actually interested in: a car. Tthis happened to be a new model I’m interested in. I hadn’t even read the copy, but immediately recognized the model and paid attention.

So far, everything sounds kosher, right? Here’s where it gets weird: there was a watermelon at the back of the car. That’s right. A watermelon. It seemed to have been shoved on to the tailpipe.

“Now there’s something you don’t see every day,” I thought.

Intrigued, I read the copy.

“See the brand X model Y.” Followed by the company logo. That’s it.

Nothing to indicate why a watermelon was there. I stared for a moment. I’m in advertising. Surely, I can figure this out. There’s some clever play at work here. Clearly, I missed something. I re-read the copy and scrutinized the imagery. Nothing. Not even a “replay” button so I could watch the undoubtedly fascinating animated story that led to the mysterious watermelon-tailpipe incident.

It occurred to me: they’ve done this on purpose. They’re using that whole thing as a devious way to get me to click on the ad to learn what the heck’s going on. Nice work, whoever you are. You did it. You piqued my curiosity. I clicked, fully expecting the storyline to unveil itself in some kind of custom landing page or microsite. I was ready to be wowed.

Nope. I arrived on the standard car model page of the site. I skimmed it, looking for some reference to the damned watermelon. Nothing. No watermelon picture. No fruity copy. No acknowledgement I’d come from this freak of an image. So, I closed the window and went back to the article I was trying to read when I encountered he ad.

I used a Firefox plugin to download the Flash animation so to figure out what was going on. The animation was kind of funny. A cute way of delivering a message that would have made me more seriously consider the product — had I only seen it. Instead, I suffered my way through a negative brand experience. It’s not like I’ll wipe that car off my consideration list. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I now think less of that company. It’s a disconnect. In every other way, the company comes across as savvy, smart, funny, innovative and focused on quality and good design. In this case, they delivered a confusing experience.

I’d wager I tried harder than any consumer will ever try to figure out the point of this thing. I happened to know how to grab Flash ads (which isn’t as easy as dragging a GIF or JPEG to your desktop for viewing). That’s the only way I was able to figure the thing out.

You could make the argument a consumer who saw the last frame of the ad would remember the image, and that if your buy was good enough, you’d see that person again. Surely that time they’d watch it because they were oh, so curious.

But why take that chance? Why not just make sure the resting frame for your ad can stand on its own? Or if that’s no good, add a replay button. At least make sure there’s something on the landing page that ties it all together. Don’t leave me hanging. There’s a delicate balance to be struck, and we can do better.

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