Before we get into the nitty-gritty of their excellent "Great Moments In Trying Stuff" campaign, I'd like to thank Columbia Sportswear and agency Butler, Shine, Stern and Partners for bucking a noxious trend: Heralding new videostuffs with emails subject-headed "Viral Video!," as if the collective will of the recipients is all it takes to embed a clip deep in the public e-consciousness. I bring this up because a recent Columbia announcement arrived with the less-than-provocative subject header "New Columbia Sportswear Spots Released Today." In a mere six words, it answered my tough-but-fair questions about who/what/when, plus the release that followed filled me in on the where (on the Internet) and the how (by clicking on the link and/or pressing the little "play" arrow).
Click/press I did, and the reason for the understatement became clear: "Great Moments In Trying Stuff" ranks among the few marketing-first series of clips that should find an audience on its own, independent of an army of social-media minions pressing its case. It manages to hit the smart/snide/briskly paced trifecta without forgetting to showcase Columbia wares in their natural habitat. It makes the viral-video thing look easy.
So why does the campaign work as well as it does? To begin with, "Great Moments In Trying Stuff" isn't overly ambitious, riffing as it does off previous Columbia campaigns. As a result, it feels new but not conspicuously so. "Experiments" like draining a five-bean salad in a Columbia shoe are tonally akin to all that came before, especially the ads in which Ma Boyle tests the company's coats in comically super-extreme weather conditions.
Along those lines, the humor hits in precisely the right place, in that tough-to-pinpoint zone between a laugh-tracked sitcom and Tim and Eric-ish meta-meta-meta-comedy. The premises (taste-testing hot dog buns worn in the armpits of dirt bikers clad in Columbia coats, dressing a cat in a miniature Columbia slicker and dousing it with water) are broad enough to appeal to fans of the former but not so obvious as to turn off fans of the latter. They're also garnished with some genuinely weird touches, like a recurring sight gag in which a dude wears a raccoon like a coat, and narration that's just a little bit off (it describes a mesh tank top, compared for the sake of the campaign with a new Columbia techno-tee, as existing "somewhere between a full-coverage shirt and the cool freedom of a bare chest").
Finally, and this is kinda important, the clips don't let the humor overwhelm the look-at-our-gear-doing-what-it's-supposed-to-do imagery. Far too many viral-minded campaigns downplay product and brand in the interest of going viral. It ain't an easy line to walk, which is why the standard recreation-and-whimsy clips of sun and splashing water and trail-running feel necessary rather than trite.
Since this column aspires to fairness and balance, let me note for the record that I don't love "Great Moments In Trying Stuff" as a title; the great-moments bit has been overdone and most such campaigns feel too tonally reverent of Budweiser's epic "Real Men Of Genius" spots. Also, I wish Columbia would take it easy on the product trademarks ("Omni-Dry with Omni-Wick Evap"). Beyond that, "Great Moments In Trying Stuff" kinda rules. I'm not big on blanket X-represents-the-pinnacle-of-earthly-achievement assessments, but any lifestyle brand wishing to appeal to click-happy young'uns should study these things like scripture.