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How bad were those Amazon shorts?

Agent Orange: Amazon’s very bad holiday gift

The Spot: You open up and are confronted with a strange new feature that dominates the home page. It’s labeled “Amazon Theater,” and it’s a series of short films with the central theme of karma—what goes around comes around. In Portrait (with Minnie Driver), a fat chick turns into a skinny chick. In Agent Orange (directed by Tony Scott), a hot chick wears orange … Oh, why bother. These films are dreadful. No amount of snarky synopsis can change that. (Click here to see them, if you insist.)

If you’re like me and did all your holiday shopping last month online, these films stared you right in the eye for several weeks. They’re not up on the front page anymore, but they’re still available on the site. If you haven’t yet taken the time to watch them … you didn’t miss a thing. If you did pause amidst your gift-buying to view one or more of these films, well, let’s commiserate: Didn’t these suck? In myriad ways? The most important being:

1) They aren’t entertaining. At all. Granted, most short films (and short stories, for that matter) are doomed from the start. They’re too brief for satisfying characters and plots, but too long to sustain a mood or a gimmick. So, your choices are an overstretched gimmick (in Do Geese See God, a man is trapped in an endless, repeating goose chase), or mood piece (Agent Orange is nothing but jump cuts and soundtrack cues), or a horrifically trite narrative (in Careful What You Wish For, a guy says he’d like to be a fly on the wall at a certain future event; he gets what he wishes for; ha ha).

Of course there are exceptions to the short-form rule of doom. La Jetée rocks (in a French way), and James Joyce’s “The Dead” is the premier artistic achievement of all humankind. But—and this will not surprise you—these ads for floor lamps and sunglasses are not on par with “The Dead.”

They’re not even on par with previous efforts at commerce-tinged online filmmaking. This year’s American Express webisodes (with Jerry Seinfeld) were actually sort of funny. And the BMW films (released beginning in 2001 and starring Clive Owen) had some nicely constructed action sequences. Meanwhile, this Amazon stuff has absolutely nothing going for it, beyond good production values and the white-hot celebrity wattage of Chris Noth. (Sorry, Noth-heads. And by the way, of the featured celebs, only Minnie Driver does any real acting—and not much at that. Daryl Hannah’s got a walk-on part like the kind you’d win in a charity raffle.)

Watching these films is time wasted. I did it so you don’t have to. I urge any future producers of advertainment to heed this advice: If the content is not as compelling as a Dharma & Greg rerun, it should not see the light of day.

2) They’re not effective sales tools. Which is a bigger sin, in this context, than not being entertaining.

The underlying goal of these films is to move product. Each film squeezes in shots of 10 or 15 items (clothes, appliances, electronics) for sale at Amazon. This is nothing new—product placement happens in television and movies all the time. But the placements here are laughably misguided. In Careful What You Wish For, a featured necklace is derided by one of the characters as “practically worthless glass”—yet a link still lets you buy it for $55. In Do Geese See God—in perhaps the worst product placement of all time—a filthy, growling, schizophrenic homeless man points to his K-Swiss Men’s Classic sneakers and asks, “Do you like my shoes?” (just before he shrieks, “I am God!!!”). Step right up and get your psychotic bum shoes, just $59.95.

The newish thing about these films (the thing that has people talking) is that the end credits list not just actors, but products. So, the credits for Agent Orange read:

Orange Boy—Christopher Carley

Orange Boy’s Shades—Diesel Ohm Sunglasses

Orange Boy’s Jeans—Men’s Diesel Jeans

And so forth. Clicking on the actor summons his IMDB page. Clicking on a product takes you to the Amazon page where you can buy it. But the links aren’t limited to products that get lots of screen time. Even products shown in passing (bed linens, floor lamps) get their own links.

If you pared a short film like Agent Orange down to 30 seconds and focused on a single product (say, Orange Boy’s watch), you’d have … a perfectly good commercial. No purpose at all is served by padding out the film (it quickly gets boring, and we don’t want to wait around to see the clickable credits), stocking it with too many products to keep track of (none of the products gets enough screen time to drive sales), and posting it solely on the Web (no one will visit Amazon expressly to view these films, and, anyway, I don’t think Amazon has any trouble driving traffic to its site).

3) This is poor branding for Amazon. This project, as a whole, is ultimately one big ad for I don’t understand what it accomplishes.

If the films all had a consistent mood and tone, you could argue that they were meant to convey some kind of Amazon vibe. But these films are all radically different. Some are saccharine cute. Others, edgy and weird.

I suppose you could say the project is designed to suggest that Amazon is a certain kind of place—a place that’s hip and Hollywood enough to finance short Web films by Tony Scott. But I don’t see these attributes as central to the Amazon brand. To my eyes, the Amazon brand is about convenience, service, comprehensive selection, and a loyal and participatory customer base. What about this project suggests any of these concepts?

Amazon brags that it does no TV ads. It uses the money it saves to provide free shipping for all customers. That’s a great move—free shipping does more to enhance this brand than any TV commercial could. But they somehow forgot this logic with “Amazon Theater.” The project’s (no doubt sizable) budget could have been spent far more effectively.

Grade: D+. Amazon has called these films a “holiday gift” for customers. Thanks, Amazon. It’s the thought that counts. But can I return Agent Orange for store credit?