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Tuesday, August 05, 2008


obama and that cadbury ad

For the few of you that haven't seen it before this is probably the most popular and successful UK ad of recent years.

It wasn't acclaimed by everyone as brilliant when it launched, however. Far from it. The most common complaint was, it doesn't make sense. We're used to ads that tell us a simple story that ends with a clear link to the product and a reason to buy it. But in this ad, we see a gorilla playing the drums. Then the milk chocolate bar appears at the end over the familiar (to British audiences) line "A glass and a half of joy". Eh? Why didn't they make the link to the product clearer? Why didn't they spell out the benefit - our chocolate brings you joy, just like music can? And why is it a frigging gorilla?

The people behind the ad realized it didn't quite all add up. But they had a hunch that the ad's very ambiguity would make it successful. They were right. The ad was talked about incessantly, in living rooms, playgrounds and pubs. What was it all about? Was it genius, or rubbish? User groups formed. Emails were sent with YouTube links embedded. The ad was posted on millions of Facebook and MySpace pages. Hundreds of remixed versions appeared, unbidden. And, in the end, more chocolate bars were sold.

There is a parallel here - albeit a tenuous one - with the Obama 'brand'. It's frequently remarked that it can be hard to get a grip on what Obama stands for beyond certain vague notions of 'change' and 'hope'. He is - perhaps sensibly - usually reluctant to take firm, unhedged positions. Nor is it easy to place him in a political or cultural milieu, as David Brooks remarks this week. Obama is well aware of this ambiguity in his image, and cultivates it. He has written that he "serves as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes can project their own views." More recently he said that he has become "a symbol of America's best traditions." He was rather unfairly pilloried by John McCain for this. Rather than self-glorification, he was trying to deflect attention from himself - to say "it's not about me". Elsewhere he referred to himself as "just the excuse". He seeks to remove or at least blur any fixed notions of who he is, or what he stands for, from the campaign. He embraces ambiguity.

Obama and that Cadbury ad are both successful, at least in part, because people are not quite sure what they mean. So people want to talk about them, and write about them, and debate them at length. And - crucially - email, post and create their own user-generated videos about them. In this way do the chocolate bar and the politician become media phenomena. In the age of the web, a little bit of ambiguity is a very powerful thing.

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