Maybe it was their billionth active monthly user, maybe it was just by chance, but Facebook launched its first television ad last week called: “The Things that Connect Us”, but by now we probably all know it as Chairs.
There’s a lot of familiar in the ad. It features imagery in the typical powerpoint style that’s been favored for a while in creative presentations. Big, simple, direct images with one stark large word or phrase superimposed. DOORBELLS - Discuss. It makes you wonder if the initial creative always was a powerpoint presentation.
When the images move they are shot more or less in that typical“montage” style we’re so overly used to these days. Lots of cuts between seemingly random imagery of people doing mundane sometimes happy, sometimes sad things all backed with slightly morose and ponderous music and a serious young woman’s voice telling us what we’re looking at.
The question of course is why? Why is Facebook advertising on television, why now and, why we should care? It’s always odd when a hugely popular digital service advertises on television for the first time. For Google it was tantamount to hell freezing over. So was it a celebration of that billionth user? Maybe it was about the fact that more and more, both from my own private focus group of 19 – 27 year olds, and from other Facebook users I hear variations on Casey Neistad’s theme that Facebook is:
“just this constant flow of internet diarrhea posted by people I only sort of know”
So perhaps all of this is pointed at Facebook’s declining user growth in the USA, because of late, Facebook’s only growth has come from outside the US.
In this light, the ad feels like an attempt to redefine Facebook and maybe bring back all the charm and reasons you joined in the first place, but it tries to do it within a larger, mystical, “adult” context. But the opening of chairs, bridges and waterfalls with its vision of simplicity fraught with deep mystery soon gives way to some more troubling ideas: A “Great Nation”. Huh? Is this a tacit reminder of the Arab Spring, reminding us that Facebook can change nations? Or is it a call to spur more allegiance to this nation or tribe that we, like it or not, have created using Facebook? What’s worse comes next: “The Universe, it is vast, and dark” (and suddenly very pretentious). The big idea here seems to be that without this great Facebook nation we have to face our lives alone and unconnected in cold dark space where no-one can hear us scream. When I saw this all I realized that Woody Allen had expressed this much better years ago:
The real problem with the ad is that trying to define Facebook is like trying to define a directory, a phone book, because at its heart that’s what Facebook is all about. A service that helps you connect with friends, but as content and inspiration for storytelling it’s really very limited. Yes, it does what it does much better than anyone else, it has the critical mass of users, but really it’s a phonebook and reading the phonebook is not very exciting, unless maybe it's this guy. If you are trying to define a great service, why not use the service to define it and let the viewers imagination fill in the big descriptive visuals like Google’s “Hell Freezes Over” did so well.
Ultimately the missing words in this ad are probably “grown up” or “investors”. The purpose here is not to define Facebook, but to let its confused, downcast investors know that Facebook is willing grow up and do some “traditional” marketing that they understand in order to support their brand. Its also about misdirection, by defining Facebook as a great nation protecting us from the cold dark universe, we might spend less time thinking or considering all the new ad platforms and targeting techniques being hatched around our chairs, doorbells and bridges. When I first saw the ad I thought of Magritte’s “this is not a pipe” painting. It was only when I looked it up that I discovered that the paintings actual title is: “The Treachery of Images”. Somehow it seems very appropriate.