Gaze with me, if you will, into the grand ambitions and broken promises of a distant past. Remember two weeks ago? Duke was dreaming championship dreams. Heidi Cruz hadn’t yet been notified that her beans were soon to come under threat of imminent spillage. It was a time of innocence, a time of confidences.
Also, I wrote a thing that, even by the ankle-high standards to which Video Critique aspires, reads about as smart as a bag of hair. In that column, I said opposite-of-nice things about a Kleenex campaign that sought to associate a tissue brand with benevolence and decency. At its conclusion, however, I turned around and said something to the effect of “durrrrr! But I don’t have any better ideas, so just keep doing more stuff! Durrrr! Durrrrrr!” This was a copout. Gentle points-for-effort pats on the shoulder should be reserved for young kids playing sports and grandparents paying bills online.
With the benefit of a fortnight’s worth of hindsight and the huge leaps in intellectual maturation that took place therein, I wish I’d ditched that second part. My point, I think, was that as much as brands would like to create emotional affinities via content creation, it’s kind of an impossible task. Because one, it’s hard to do content “right” and two, most people care more that a product does what it’s supposed to do - for Kleenex, that would be snot-collection - than whether the way that product is positioned rains emotional gratification upon them.
So let’s try and right that wrong with today’s column, in which a brand that exists in a more staid, less mucus-y realm than Kleenex attempts the same feat: Attempting to forge a connection where traditionally there is none. To that end, I present a pair of Charles Schwab “Why This Road” videos for your consideration.
Unveiled earlier this month, the clips boldly proclaim that whatever career choice an individual decides to make, Charles Schwab will totally be cool with it. Other financial brands might think you’re an ass for chasing your dreams, but not Charlie S.! No, its advisors will be perpetually stationed at the edge of your peripheral vision, shooting you an affirming thumbs-up.
That’s how I read the two videos, anyway. And yet I found them to be far more effective - and affecting - than Kleenex’s saccharine yay-for-mentors! celebrations. The first of the two clips, “Why This Road: Vanessa O’Brien,” attempts to show “how [asking? answering?] transformative questions can lead to a better path in life.” As a person who frequently asks such questions of himself (“what month is it again?,” “do I need an umbrella?”), I buy the weirdly phrased premise.
Plus I enjoyed spending a few minutes with O’Brien, a one-time financial person who quit her job and starting climbing mountains. Some of her inspirationspeak comes off as stilted, especially asides like “patience was something the mountain taught me” (you know what the mountain taught me? Never to leave the couch, that’s what). But O’Brien’s almost casual explanation of the thinking behind her life change connects in a way that most would-be brandular inspiration doesn’t: “That’s what drew me. I just couldn’t think of anything harder to do.”
“Why This Road: Dan Portelance” emerges from an entirely different place. The early voiceover talks about how the protagonist comes from a family of fishermen (can anybody help me with a non-gender-specific term for “fishermen”? “Fisherpeople” sounds like a sub-Marvel grade of mutant society). When Portelance talks about wanting to leave that professional lineage behind and become a chef, one expects the clip to veer into the usual “wise financial company X helped me realize my ambitions with advice and/or a loan” territory.
But it doesn’t. Instead, we hear how Portelance bombed out as a restaurant owner and decided to become a teacher - a beloved one, by all accounts. There’s no second-time’s-a-charm sentimentality here; rather, the video affects a tone along the line of “this was right for me. I hope it inspires you to figure out what’s right for you. If not, no biggie.” And hey, any person who teaches kids how to cook pork tenderloin is on the side of the angels.
I don’t love some of the filmmaker flourishes in the two “Why This Road” videos, notably the jagged images and crashy sounds that follow O’Brien’s thoughts on companies that were “too big to fail” but failed nonetheless. Overall, though, the two “Why This Road” videos work because they don’t over-deliver the do-what-you-wanna-do message and because there’s more than a hint of defiance in both protagonists’ telling of their tales. Let’s hope this series kick-starts a trend towards more rough edges in heart-targeted content.