Charlie Rose: “Oh, man…Oh, my God!”
That five-second clip, showing Charlie Rose opening a door, was teased all weekend on CBS, in the walk-up to the greatest 15 minutes of sponsored content ever to appear on “60 Minutes.” (Except Amazon got the editorial gratis.)
“Over the last month,” Charlie said in his breathless introduction, “’60 Minutes’ was granted unprecedented access inside Amazon’s operations. If you have ever wondered what happens after you’ve clicked and placed an order on Amazon, take a look. If there is such a thing as Santa’s workshop, this would be it.”
Granted, Bezos, who with this bit of “60 Minutes” manipulation has shown beyond-P.T. Barnum levels of PR genius, is famously into “disruption”; he can be very persuasive and charismatic. Still, I found it shocking that the already beleaguered news magazine, still suffering its credibility gap over serious errors discovered in Lara Logan’s Benghazi story, would be so eager to throw journalistic ethics out the window in the service of Bezos’ “OMG!” reveal.
After all, 30 years ago, when Apple announced the coming of the Macintosh, its own world-changer of a product, the young company bought expensive advertising time on the Super Bowl to do so. Steve Jobs also spent heavy-duty bucks in order to get Ridley Scott to direct. Thus Chiat/Day’s “1984” turned into a cinematic tour-de-force, a groundbreaker often referred to as the best commercial of all time.
By contrast, all Bezos had to do was work up a little in-house demo video, showing a friendly little prototype drone (aka “octocopter”) dropping its package, stork-like, into the surreally empty front yard of an awesome lakeside house. A teen with rolled-up jeans, circa James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause,” is shown calmly walking outside to collect the blessed parcel -- aka a “skate tool.”
Next thing we know, it’s Amazon-mania in the Thunder Drone!
Amazon got 4 million orders a minute and collected $60 billion in revenue the next day, although still did not turn a profit. And I made up all those numbers -- because I’ve never seen a PR move so brilliantly capture America’s imagination.
“Men have become the tool of their tools,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in “Walden.” And we have become the tools of Jeff Bezos.
Yes, I know I am standing in the way of progress here, but what I couldn’t get past was the idea of harnessing such complex technology in the service of something so trivial. Really, do we need to release the stern electric birds so that I can get my Swiffer sweeper refills in 30 minutes?
But the presentation resonated deeply, in part because of Bezos’ appearance. I don’t know when he started shaving his head, but it’s like a literal cartoon lightbulb that gets red and flashes when it’s full of new ways to conquer the world. He looks like a combination of Dr. Evil, maybe a little of the Golum – and, as Stephen Colbert pointed out, like one of Richard Scarry’s one-legged worms in “Busytown.” It’s a head that gets attention, that says “big learnings,” in Silicon Valley-speak.
And you don’t have to be Dr. Freud to understand that the big reveal represents two major themes: flight and birth, or, more symbolically, freedom and renewal.
Creating these cute little consumer drones, Bezos uses technology that previously represented everything grim, all the mistakes we’ve made in war -- death and hellfire for innocent civilians -- and turned it into a luxury robot, a private butler there to meet our every request.
Flying dreams symbolize a sense of freedom -- a release from the pressures of the real world. Think Peter Pan, or the Jetsonian flying cars we still pine for. There’s a reason flying toasters took off as the image for one of the first screen savers, the ultimate old-school workaday item getting set free. There’s also something heart-stopping about the idea of swarms of things “taking off (you can almost hear Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries in the background) after pressing a button.
Then there’s the birth angle. On some subconscious level, these “delivery systems” really seem to do the work of the stork, carrying the new little package in its mouth, preternaturally aware of which house is expecting a “new baby.” It offers renewal, the promise that with each item, we can change our lives and start over, which is the basis of the American dream.
Now contrast that to the earlier part of the piece, which explained the numbingly boring particulars of the fulfillment business. Here’s a quote from Amazon executive Dave Clark, walking Charlie through the factory floor: “And we have computers and algorithmic work that tells people the areas of the building that have the most space to put product in that’s coming in at that time.” Zzzzzz. That part made the fulfillment of our fantasies even more dramatic.
Of course, Bill Gates put it kindly when he said the talk of the Amazon drone delivery business is “overly optimistic.” (And at least 10 years away.)
But in the meantime, Bezos used his brain to offer up a consumer dream at a time when we needed to fall for something hook, line and Swiffer.