When all else fails, be irreverent. This may be the most pervasive strategy in American cultural discourse today, and it’s certainly an all-purpose fallback for advertisers. That would be OK, I guess, if irreverence were really the appropriate way to tout every product or service under the sun. Yes, an irreverent image such as a man dancing in his underwear is a sure-fire attention getter. But what if you’re trying to draw attention to something like Contentville.com, an online information clearinghouse? Does irreverence really help? Apparently Contentville thinks so, to judge by a recent television commercial (which you can view here via the Adcritic.com site).
The ad: The spot features an Asian man wearing a suit. “By day,” he tells us, “I’m a computer programmer.” The ad cuts back and forth between images of him driving his convertible and shots of him dancing to techno music in his apartment. “At night, I’m a D.J. It’s a passion of mine.” He tells us that recently he was looking out the window, and the Contentville.com car cruised by. This is a station wagon with Contentville emblazoned on the side and a big bullhorn device strapped to the top. He checked out Contentville. “It can find me every single published piece of information. I can find out about my raves, culture, and my techno and house music.” The man is now shown bouncing around in his boxers, flipping through a publication that he must have bought from Contentville. Why, he even has a tattoo! “I can get magazines, books,” he continues, back in the convertible, pausing to look over at the camera. “Even dissertations.”
What? Sure, sure, rave culture is really all about the dissertations. D.J.s love ‘em! But put this scenario on hold for a second and address Contentville itself. Editorially speaking, the site is actually pretty interesting. (Because it’s the latest project of Steven Brill and I don’t want to go to media jail, I’d better disclose that I was an editor at the American Lawyer for a couple of years in the mid 1990s when Brill was editor in chief.) You can search for books and magazine articles, but also screenplays, speeches, legal documents, transcripts, and (as the ad notes) dissertations, making available at least some material that would otherwise be tough to find. I’ve never actually purchased anything there myself, but just the other day a friend of mine doing some historical research mentioned that he found and bought a couple of useful things through the site. And there’s no question that some of the information to be found here is, if not exactly mission-critical to anyone I can think of, somewhat intriguing. For instance, you may be interested to check out “deconstructions” of the theses of Lynne Cheney (on the poetry of Matthew Arnold), Jim Clark (“3-D Design of Free-Form B-Spline Surfaces”), or Bill Cosby (on Fat Albert! Seriously!). But But I digress.
The Problem. So what Contentville seems good for is obscure information, or possibly deep information. (Let’s leave aside whether there’s enough demand for that information to make for a good business.) Yet the ad seems to want to pass Contentville off as something like a cutting-edge news service. But that’s not its strength at all, and there are much better places on the Web to track down “the latest” information on whatever your passion might be. Out of curiosity, I did Contentville searches for house music, raves, and techno music and got back (in addition to a number of results that were obviously off the mark) listings for a couple of books, some transcripts from sources like the CBS Evening News, and a dissertation on “the religious dimensions of popular music.” Nothing, I suspect, that would be of much interest to Fatboy Slim wannabes.
The Grade. This is not to say either that the ad isn’t amusing or that Contentville isn’t useful. It’s just that the amusingness of the ad has almost nothing to do with the potential usefulness of Contentville. Maybe the thinking was that pushing Contentville as a source of up-to-the-minute data would make it seem more interesting than what it actually is–which is sort of like someone selling milk deciding to promote it with a beer ad on the theory that beer is more exciting. So give the ad a D. If you’re going to sell milk, sell milk.