Can a Phone Ad Make You Cry?

by , Feb 13, 2008, 12:15 PM
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One of the best insights to come from the OMMA Mobile panels last Thursday was that agencies -- creatives especially -- are not yet very excited about the platform's possibilities. The phone just doesn't seem to offer the kind of palette that creative directors are accustomed to in video or even the large, lush page of a glossy print magazine.

Arguably, many in the trade feel the same way about online. The Dove Evolution ad aside, it is hard to recall truly memorable and noteworthy ads on interactive platforms that approached the impact of a clever Super Bowl spot or provocative fashion ad package in Vanity Fair. A common exercise at digital ad conferences in the late '90s was asking the question "Can anyone remember an ad they saw online yesterday?" The challenge was not confined to the Web, either. Even in interactive gaming, designers often wonder about the inherent limitations interactivity imposes on dramatic impact. "Can a game ever make you cry?" is the frequent lament.

There have been many theoretical musing about this issue. Some believe that emotional impact and memorable moments in art require a greater degree of control than interactivity allows. You need that full share of mind to manage a viewer's attention enough to create deep impact. While full-screen interstitials and jazzy, animated home page takeovers have been used on the Web, neither lived beyond the novelty stage earlier in this decade. I have vague and unpleasant memories of cars racing across MarketWatch front pages and footballs seeming to fly out of my sports and gaming sites to "crack" my display. I remember one gaming ad that actually shook the entire screen image in a mock earthquake.

There is a reason we don't see those ads anymore. Dominating attention seems anathema to the interactive platform, and simulating the destruction of users' PCs just doesn't feel like a big0brand winner.

It will be interesting to see how some of these patterns play out during mobile's growing pains. I came across an ad unit that actually did stick in my memory the other day, but I am not sure that it will be any longer-lived than the hyper-intrusive animated takeovers of an earlier Web. Greystripe, the in-game ad network, has been making big strides in expanding its game library at GameJump.com and its distribution partners. The company recently announced that a GameJump bookmark bundled with all new Opera Mini browsers netted 1.6 million game downloads in its first month. When I tested the current state of the service, the downloaded game popped up a full-screen ad for the new Nintendo DS game "Professor Layton and the Curious Village."

The ad unit itself was engaging because it used the wonderful creative from the game itself, a brown palette of old village scenes and highly stylized typefaces. The art was engaging and the product message was spot-on for a target audience of casual gamers: "Riddles, puzzles and hidden treasure. Solve your way in." Clicking into the ad calls up a rich WAP site that extends the ad's creative style and offers two wallpapers and a trailer.

The importance of continuity here cannot be understated. The idiosyncrasies of handsets still make for very awkward hand-offs among applications, Web browsers, downloads and media player, so the entire experience is interrupted by Sprint's warning pages, application loads, etc. Still, the brown, cartoonish motif keeps us involved in the lush atmospherics of the creative, which itself communicates something essential about the product. The style of the game is one of its chief assets, and the ad units make full use of it. Even the trailer, which could have been repurposed from the Web campaign, is well-suited to mobile. It is brief but reliant on short bursts of video cut scenes, descriptive text and a visual display of gameplay.

Granted, I was predisposed to like the ad. I have this puzzle game on the DS, and I love it so much I was tempted to write yet another column about how Nintendo could own the suffering mobile game market if it wanted. But the product is so well-aligned to the in-game Greystripe network that the ad feels more like good content. In fact, in the case of the sorry games I happened to download from the uneven catalog, the ad was much more interesting than the content. The ad conveyed as much information as a decent Web campaign, and it communicated the product's raw attributes as well as its stylistic appeal. The creative was a seamless extension of the product that was expressed very simply in a form appropriate to its platform and target.

At this stage mobile may not win creative directors any awards. It may not be able to move us, shock us or make us cry. Perhaps at this stage what we should be aiming for is overcoming the platform's obvious awkwardness with a simple elegance.

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