Dot-Com Minimalism

By now, we’re all familiar with the avalanche of dot-com advertising that buried us last year, boosting the revenues of both Madison Avenue and the TV networks while bringing more than a few Internet companies to the verge of nonexistence (since they burned huge amounts of cash in just a few months). And some of us, at least, are still looking forward to the myriad dot-com ads that will be unveiled at this year’s Super Bowl. But while the story of these ads is mainly one of a desperate grab for market share and brand identity via the familiar techniques of jittery cameras, hyperbolic humor, and some measure of association with that ineffable quality we now call “extreme-ness,” the most interesting new Internet ad campaign offers none of these.

That campaign, which debuted a couple of weeks ago and has yet to attract much notice, is advertising Internet discount retailer And that is pretty much all the campaign advertises. In contrast to the frenetic style of most dot-com ads (which have produced some true gems, including most obviously’s pack of ravenous wolves and flying gerbils, and the E*Trade and Ameritrade campaigns), the TV ad features the company’s name in small, white lower-case letters on a black background. That’s it. No music, no voice-over, no sound. Just 30 seconds of a name and silence. The company is also doing print and outdoor ads following the same motif, but no radio ads. (It seems hard to believe a radio station would accept an ad that consisted of just saying “,” followed by 30 seconds of silence.)

The new campaign is an attempt to cut through all of the noise–visual and sonic–around dot-com advertising, and its visual distinctiveness will undoubtedly make people notice it. The marketing people also suggest that the simplicity of the ads convey an implicit message that offers “convenience, simplicity, and freedom from higher prices.” It’s certainly pretty to think so, but the one-to-one connection there seems a bit overdrawn, unless we’re meant to assume that products at must be cheap since the company isn’t making enough profit to pay for real advertising. If anything, what really conveys those values of convenience and frugality is the company’s name, and in that sense the ads take advantage of one of’s real strengths (“strength” here being entirely a relative term).

For all this, though, you have to stop short of calling the new campaign brilliant, mainly because it’s hard to see what kind of legs it will have, at least on television. Watching the ad the first two or even three times was fascinating, in part because even after having seen it once, I kept expecting something, anything, to happen at the end of the ad. (In fact, the letters just fade out.) And there’s also something compelling about the way the ad makes you aware of how long 30 seconds can be. The problem is that you can only be made aware of that so many times before you get bored. The next time I see this ad, I’m sure I’ll change the channel.

In some sense, the campaign reminds me of a stunt pulled by the shoe-gazer band My Bloody Valentine during its last U.S. tour. At some point during most (perhaps all) of the shows on that tour, the band would, in the middle of a song, begin playing two notes and just continue playing them over and over for close to 20 minutes, with the sound gradually getting louder, until, as a friend of mine put it then, it sounded like you were in an airplane hangar. It may have been longer than 20 minutes, or it may have been shorter. While it was happening, it seemed like an eternity. Listening to this wasn’t enjoyable in any conventional sense, or in any sense for that matter. But there was something incredibly interesting about being in the middle of it, and about the way your reactions to what was happening changed the longer the noise continued. And the way the stunt exposed the conventions of the typical rock show was adept.

This wasn’t anything you needed to listen to more than once (though I knew people who did). Once you got the idea, re-experiencing it seemed beside the point, and in the same way, watching the ads again now seems beside the point. But perhaps this is one campaign that doesn’t depend on repetition, on driving a jingle so deep into your skull that you can’t forget it. Perhaps the idea of the ad is enough to make you remember Of course, if it works we’re going to have a flood of these campaigns, in which case you won’t be able to remember any of them. Here’s one place where the first-mover advantage is actually real.