Commentary

Absolut Zero: The New Complexity Of Engagement

"What is this ad for?" my wife asks as a woman in the commercial hangs on a spinning dancer's neck atop a wet mirror surface for what seems like an unusually long span without any sponsor messaging.

"Well, they have us waiting and watching for the answer, don't they?" I explain, suggesting that the ad has already succeeded. Air France (I think) was the answer in a final brand mention that ends the spot. It was perfectly pitched, of course. The ad appeared on "Dancing With the Stars" and so was creatively aligned with the context. The themes of elegance, mystery, romance were all established in seconds, as the viewer stays intrigued enough by the gymnastics of the interminable spin and the absence of apparent message. Who is making us wait and watch, is the question on the viewer's mind as we are recruited to be collaborators in the delivery of a branding exercise.

In the post-modern age in which we celebrate the artful pitch, where we grade Super Bowl commercials, where viral video counts reward advertisers for the cleverness with which they draw out attention, we seem well past asking pedestrian questions like "Have we become collaborators in our own manipulation?" I am pretty sure there are four or five Media Studies Ph.D. theses already in process on that theme of how our "consciousness gets colonized" by advertising. The rest of us went through that looking glass long ago. If you still feel cheap and used because some crafty art director "got you to look," then you just missed a decade.

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Still, getting consumers to buy into and invest time and energy with a grander vision a brand has of itself is another matter. Take Absolut Vodka. From the time it landed Andy Warhol in the 1980s to render his vision of the bottle as a painting , the company has aligned itself with graphic creativity. Obviously this is a sensible extension of its own longstanding print ad series, which the company has made more genuine in actually supporting arts projects and exhibitions.

This week the Absolut branding effort goes mobile with iPhone and iPad apps that extend the Absolut Blank campaign and give the user a blank digital bottle canvas on which to paint with multimedia tools. The app is deftly designed by Teenage Engineering and Great Works, according to UK Campaign magazine. The app abstracts input from camera and microphone to create an animated design that lays over the blank bottle. It isn't always clear how the abstraction is being done and how to exert any but the most general control over the final image.

Of course there is a social component. You can post to the online gallery at Absolut.com and review everyone's creations. Only a day into the app's life and there are already scores of posts, clearly indicating that some people have played thoughtfully with the app to figure out how to control the designs more effectively than I have. I have to say that the app has been haunting me a bit, if only because I am troubled by my own engagement. The question any self-aware person has to ask themselves in such a situation is, whether they are having fun or playing someone else's branding game. What you marketers call "engagement" may actually be more complex and ambivalent for the consumer.

The final product, my Absolut bottle, was unimpressive and ultimately nothing I would brag about or share. My creative urges weren't really satisfied here so much as my curiosity and my admiration for the simple interface and artful use of the app. I was admiring the art of the communicator communicating with me. There are a lot of rabbit holes to which this logic leads. They "made me look" and "engage with the brand." These may well be the metrics that the marketers involved will push to their superiors in the final report.

Okay, but that engagement also left me feeling a little used by the fact that I was simply playing with their logo. I realize that I am supposed to associate creativity with the Absolut brand as a result of these digital tchotchkes. That is where the marketer might want my thinking to stop. But it doesn't. It can't. It leads to a host of other thoughts and suspicions. Does the brand believe I am so enthralled with the Absolut image that I want to engage in such play, that it is a genuine expression of my creativity? I got something from the Absolut app, but I also felt queasy spending an hour playing with a corporate entity, perhaps validating its grandiloquent image of itself, and with an unclear payoff. It felt like a zero-sum game.

Back to my authority in all things, my wife. Sparked by the airline ad, she mentioned seeing another TV spot recently that started a heartfelt story about a father and son and then abruptly told the viewer to go online to see how the story was resolved. "Do they think I am really going to bother doing this?" she asked. Much as she responds to brands who tell her to "like" them on Facebook for no good reason, she was a bit appalled by the presumptuousness of the call to action. She felt as if the marketer really hadn't earned it. The medium was the message here, and the message was arrogance, a presumption that we love their brand as much as their board of directors would like to think we do.

As we invent new, more personal and highly interactive modes of communicating with consumers, we need to recognize that the nature of the relationship will become more complex -- ambiguous, perhaps thorny. What seems to the marketer a fair exchange may produce in the consumer a very different calculation: something closer to a zero-sum game.

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