Ad Report Card

You’ve Got Commercials!

Bad ones. AOL’s new campaign fails in every way.

Whiny and Orwellian The spot: A youngish mom, toting a baby on her hip, barges into a boardroom at AOL. She hands the kid off to a stunned exec, then climbs up onto the conference table. She makes various demands, describing what she wants from her AOL service. At the close of her rant, an AOL employee responds, “You got it.” In a second spot, a giant mob of AOL subscribers lays siege to the corporate offices. They all have suggestions for making AOL better.

This campaign fails horribly. But each spot fails in its own special way.

First, the conventional failure: The mom ad is bad because it’s cringe-making. She’s whiny and irritating, with a high-pitched bray of a voice. Her haircut is dreadful. Also, she requests Orwellian spy tools to invade her children’s privacy—chat room “monitoring,” and a report card assessing her kid’s behavior on the Web. Meanwhile, she roughly plops said kid in the lap of a complete stranger (so she can deliver this manifesto unencumbered). As a friend indelicately put it: “I wish she were handing that baby to me, so I could throw it through the plate-glass window.”

The second spot is not as annoying. Which is a plus. But it’s still misguided. The ad shows a mob of AOL customers massing in front of the corporate offices, demanding to be heard. There are so many problems with this. 1) Why would I sign up for a service when its users are so intensely dissatisfied that they’re storming corporate headquarters to beg for improvements? Wouldn’t I prefer a service whose users have no pressing complaints and are sitting contentedly at home, perhaps whiling away the hours with a few pleasant games of online Boggle? 2) That shot of the endless mass of AOLers reminds me that this is a gargantuan corporation and as such is pretty damn unlikely to deliver the highly responsive, highly personal service these ads are promising. Make me feel like I’m your only customer. Don’t make me feel like I’m standing in line with 23 million other unhappy schlubs.

Finally, 3) This ad was actually shot on location at the AOL corporate campus in Virginia. Which reminds me—avid business-page reader that I am—that these headquarters will soon suffer a rash of layoffs. AOL is about to fire 700 employees.

Join millions of unhappy subscribers! This is because AOL is screwed. Its subscriber base is slowly but steadily shrinking, as even ill-informed AOLers realize that there are cheaper, better ways to access the Internet. (NetZero costs half as much for dial-up, and broadband providers offer far more bandwidth.) So now AOL faces a no-win conundrum. Option No. 1 is to offer lots of appealing, members-only content—hoping to slow the exodus of subscribers by plying them with exclusive Britney Spears chats (or whatever it is AOL users want). Option No. 2 is to offer lots of appealing free content, to bring in more eyeballs and jack up ad revenue (as MSN and Yahoo have done). Either way, AOL’s future is hazy. (MSN, like Slate, is owned by Microsoft.)

Just look at the whiplash switch in their marketing strategy. Their last campaign, for AOL Top Speed, featured those motorcycle-customizing dudes. It was all about faster downloads. Now they’ve parted ways with that ad agency, dropped that message, and shifted to a campaign about customer service. And from the sound of it, customer service that isn’t all that remarkable: Pop-up blocking, spam control, and virus protection are already available for free all over the place.

The lesson in all this, I think, is that marketing isn’t just about clever ads. (Ignore for a moment the fact that these ads are not clever in any way.) It’s also about creating a brand that can be effectively marketed.

Wieden and Kennedy—the folks behind the Top Speed campaign—look like geniuses when they’re making ads for Nike. That’s because Nike’s a brand that knows what it stands for, knows its own strengths, and knows what it needs to do to be successful. Compelling ad campaigns flow naturally from brands like this. AOL, on the other hand, doesn’t know what it is and doesn’t know where it’s going. Even a brilliant agency can’t make great ads for a brand with an identity crisis and a dubious product.

Grade: C. The other ballyhooed aspect of these ads is that the AOL logo has been redesigned. That familiar triangle is now … sideways! This is just the sort of radical change that AOL needs.