Ad Report Card: Amazon’s Holiday Irony

Christmas isn’t even here yet, and already the bad news for e-tailers has been piling up like undelivered gifts in a warehouse. The combination of tentative consumer spending and a wave of skepticism about whether shopping online is reliable has made many observers skeptical. This is the third consecutive holiday season to be widely described as make-or-break for online commerce, and with only a handful of shopping days left, this is the Ad Report Card’s last chance to weigh in on the commercial efforts of dot-com merchants. Really there is only one choice for which merchant to evaluate: It must be Specifically, let’s consider the return, this year, for what is apparently their final performance, of the “Sweatermen.” Ads featuring this spoof of a pre-Beatles era men’s chorus can be viewed here and here.

The ads: Thirteen men wearing dark sweaters stand on a bare-bones sound stage decorated with giant snowflakes. Corny, Lawrence Welk-ish music plays. The men sing. As they sing, each hops to face the camera, revealing a letter on his sweater. The letters spell out “emahtskcblvdt,” which the singers pronounce “e-MOT-skee-bluh-VOT.” Their little choral number, punctuated with accordion chirps, explains that each letter stands for an product category–electronics, music, auctions, etc.–and that “only Amazon’s got emahtskcblvdt.”

In another spot the dorky choir, this time in powder-blue sweaters and again in a self-consciously spare setting, stand among gifts that are “wrapped” in such a way as to make it perfectly clear what they are: a scooter, a canoe, a car. With their big, absurd smiles, they sing about various other items for sale at Amazon, the payoff this time being, “You’ll never guess what I got you, at”

Encore? These fellows are the creation of the San Francisco branch of the ad firm FCB Worldwide, and this is actually the second campaign to feature them. The first round of Sweatermen spots appeared during the 1999 holiday season and was apparently received well enough that Amazon figured it would be a good idea to release a new batch this year, including these two. An Amazon brand honcho noted in November that the Sweatermen are “earnest, approachable and welcoming, like, even for the most tentative new online shopper.” There is also, obviously, some attempt at irony and humor built into the spots as well–these old-timey fellows representing the shopping experience of the future and all that. (In another bit of irony perhaps less humorous to those involved, the Sweatermen are apparently headed the way of Welk, since Amazon and FCB parted ways about three weeks after these commercials debuted in late November.)

I was interested in these ads partly because a reader who clearly can’t stand them complained to me about how cheap-looking they are. And it’s true that what might have come across as endearing unpretentiousness a year ago does seem a bit low-rent now. It’s hindsight to say so, but this holiday season is probably one in which an online merchant is better off avoiding production values on a par with local car dealerships. And while I can’t say these ads bothered me all that much, they do strike me as being a little tepid. It’s fine to point out that Amazon’s selection bests that of most online retailers, but then again, so does Wal-Mart’s.

The Grade: On the other hand, the spots certainly stand out, and I sheepishly admit that I find some of the jingles kind of catchy. So in an assessment partly spiked with holiday generosity, I’ll give them a C-plus. The biggest problem, it seems to me, is that the schmaltzy singing is basically a one-note gag that goes nowhere in defining Amazon–and Amazon could actually use some definition now that the mesmerizing-miracle-company free ride of press hype has petered out. E-tailers ought to get over the novelty factor and have a real message by next holiday season–because I’ll bet the experts will declare next holiday season to be make-or-break for online commerce.