Commentary

A Brow-beaten Stiff: The Saga Of H&R Block

Sadly, 2016 has ended with a tsunami of unexpected celebrity deaths, each shocking and hard to process in its own way.

And yet, the sobering acceptance of mortality brings new meaning to the old chestnut attributed to Ben Franklin: “Nothing can be said to be certain except for death and taxes.”

But I’m beginning to think that the coming weirdness of 2017 might outwit even Prescient Ben. 

Certainly, with the inauguration of President Trump in three short weeks, the tax part of Franklin’s axiom starts sounding a bit iffy. (See William Goldman on Hollywood— “Nobody knows anything.”)

What we do know is that Trump is the first Presidential candidate in decades not to have released his own tax returns.

But along the way, some insider (and perhaps it was the incredibly PR-savvy President-elect himself?) did leak (via hand delivery in an envelope from Trump Tower!) one page from his 1995 federal returns to the New York Times.

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It showed that, overall, he declared a $916 million loss, a tax deduction so ginormous that it could have allowed the Donald to legally avoid paying any future federal taxes for the next 18 years.

Thus, he could use his own maddening reality as the basis of a compelling campaign promise: that as a super successful guy himself, he had been in the position to — and was even obliged to — take advantage of every ridiculous loophole; therefore, as President, he’d know exactly how to shut down all this perverse tax avoidance by rich people.

Along the way, Trump also announced that he wanted to simplify the tax codes and “put H&R Block right out of business.”

So kudos to H&R Block for being the first out of the gate, establishing its tax prep bona fides and even a little swagger with a major TV campaign that broke last week.

Would that these spots were good. The campaign comes from a great agency — Fallon — which makes the whole creative exercise even more of a head-scratcher.

After all, no expense was spared in the celebrity-endorsement department: the spots feature Jon Hamm, who brilliantly played the main character, Don Draper, on the monster TV hit, Mad Men.

Hamm’s career has taken a bit of a dive since. Along the way, he’s done a few ad things, including supplying the annoyingly stentorian voiceover on Mercedes commercials. (It almost comes from another time, when voiceovers came from very authoritative men and there were dreamy-looking male creative directors with stiff white collars and Brylcreemed hair who … oh, sorry, I nodded off into a Mad Men reverie, I guess.)

And that’s the thing. Even though as Draper, Hamm’s character was an uber-flawed antihero whose callousness and self-destructiveness were not attractive, he looked great in a suit. 

And even though the show ended its run (literally on a high) in 2015, Jon Hamm and his hugely ambivalent DD persona is still worshipped by ad people.

When Hamm appeared at the Cannes Festival years back, he was mobbed by real-life successful ad execs acting like moon-y teenagers.

So he does seem an odd choice here, other than that ad people love to hang with Don Draper on the set. And I guess the tone is supposed to be breakthrough clever/quirky: suggesting everything from the pop culture-invading character “Mayhem” for All-State Insurance to the way the movie The Big Short broke down boring, complex banking rules into entertaining metaphors.

A teaser opens on an office that bears a striking resemblance to Draper’s mid-century agency (nice production work there) and starts with a decent joke: a guy filling up a coffee cup that says “I’m an accountant, not a magician.” He wanders around as things blow up around him. It’s a weird special effect that is slightly more fireworks than bomb but still seems utterly tone-deaf for our terrorist-riddled times.

Then the spot cuts to a modern kitchen and modern people also experiencing these blow-ups all around them.

Out of nowhere, we see Hamm, weirdly static and upright, standing his ground like a major domo. “The old way of doing taxes isn’t good enough,” he says. “So we’re about to blow it up.” 

So many ad people talk about “blowing up” business as usual that it’s just another inside-the-industry cliché by now.

And then, even Hamm seems embarrassed to have to say this (ham-handed?) wrong-headed tag line with a straight face: “Don’t just get your taxes done. Get your taxes won.” 

Who could blame him? What does “winning” your taxes mean, anyway?

The tone of the second spot is “mad” as well, but this time in a more manic way. We’re dropped outside a (movie?) set, with Jon Hamm in a tiny (Thom Browne?) suit with bowtie, (why?). He’s standing over a row of donuts at craft services, talking to the server about her tax options. It’s not only weird, it’s really condescending for a rich actor to lecture the craft services person in this way.

He uses all the different variations of donuts to tell her that one of them gets her the most money back. It’s the one with sprinkles, which he then scarfs down and gets entirely too excited over. 

The only comprehensible line comes from the poor lady in the apron, Amy, who says, “You’ve touched all these…” 

Too bad she doesn’t work up enough outrage. He just ruined all of her inventory but gets to go back to his high-paying performance without a concern in the world, except to throw her the “Get your taxes won” line as he runs. 

So let’s see: these spots don’t offer any specifics that might help people do their taxes. But they do talk about blowing things up, beating the system, and stiffing the little guy. 

Was the team even conscious of the Trumpian subtext?

Well, nobody knows anything.

But I do want to wish all my Mad Blog peeps a wonderful, happy New Year!

13 comments about "A Brow-beaten Stiff: The Saga Of H&R Block".
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  1. Don Perman from self, December 31, 2016 at 9:33 a.m.

    This a terrific year-ender: smart, insightful, emotional and with the usual BL perspective.  I especially liked the dissection of the two spots, and the dialogue with the woman at the crafts table. Yes, a weird message to be sure.  Thanks for the excellent read.

  2. Jo Duran from BOM, December 31, 2016 at 10:31 a.m.

    It almost comes from another time, when voiceovers came from very authoritative men...dreamy-looking male creative directors with stiff white collars and Brylcreemed hair who … I was drifting along with you here . . . WHY I LOVE THIS COLUMN! On the #HRBlock spots . . . #FOMO must watch them now. I've done a stint as a tax gal, I would have preferred spots with rich people & loopholes. It's a much better way to teach the rest of us without ginormous write-offs. LOL! Time for a commercial break! HNY!

  3. Tom Siebert from BENEVOLENT PROPAGANDA, December 31, 2016 at 1:38 p.m.

    While I've not seen it because it's supposed to be REEEEEAAAAALLLLLLY depressing, "A Young Doctor's Notebook"--co-starring Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe--is supposed to be quite excellent.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2164430/

    Hamm also appeared in that Very Special Christmas Episode of "Black Mirror" last holiday season.  That I did watch and can confirm as excellent and REEEEEAAAAALLLLLLY depressing, 

    And while both his Hollywood vehicles bombed ("Million Dollar Arm" and "Keeping Up with the Joneses"), there were also reports he turned down the Dr. Strange role in the latest Marvel blockbuster, so it's not like he's chasing the brass ring anyway. I"m not sure writing "Hamm's career has taken a bit of a dive since," is a fair assessment. 


    Those ads are embarrassing, tho, yeah. "Get your taxes won"? Cringe-worthy. 

  4. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, December 31, 2016 at 1:55 p.m.

    Thanks for the Hamm info, Tom.  I'll have to look into "A Young Doctor's Notebook." I was using the "dive" thing after the  high high of Mad Men, which will probably never be duplicated, no?

  5. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, December 31, 2016 at 4:57 p.m.

    At least the donut one is funny, if you appreciate Hamm as the still-sometimes-clueless Draper persona. The idea of "winning" your taxes is on par with the idea of "winning" Christmas or the internet. I guess it appeals to you if you think in black and white terms. Which probably plays well these days.

  6. Tom Siebert from BENEVOLENT PROPAGANDA replied, December 31, 2016 at 9:45 p.m.

    I think if he gets the right film role, he could be bigger than ever, a sudden movie star like the way Michael J. Fox or Bruce Willis or Clint Eastwood (Back2Future/DieHard/Spaghetti Westerns) suddenly ricocheted to top of Hollywood charts via signature role.

    He needs to play a tough lawyer with secret heart of gold, conflicted spy with double life, smart detective who's a lady's man, etc. That sort of thing.

  7. Feminista Fan from The Past, Present and Future, January 2, 2017 at 9:38 a.m.

    While the rest of us spent the week between Christmas and New Year's day-drinking, you managed to write a very insightful article about the state of advertising and America at large. Tone deaf about the lives of the working poor is kind of a theme these days. Whether intentional or unintentional, Fallon has tapped into the mood of the country. Let them eat cake (or the crumbs left over from our cake)!

  8. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com replied, January 2, 2017 at 11:34 a.m.

    FF, great point. Hope this let them eat cake tone does not continue. I hadn't even realized that "Donut" has the let 'em eat cake theme-- but perhaps donuts are ostensibly more democratic? ;-)

  9. Frank Newcomer from Dystopian Empire, January 3, 2017 at 12:41 a.m.

    So Trump wants to dismantle taxpreparers and espcially HR Block. Wonder how gutting that company's employees is going to play in Peoria, or for that matter, Kansas City, Mo.; where Block's corporate offices have been and still are -- supporting the city, owning homes, shopping at the Dillard's, eating lunches and dinners, paying taxes, to say nothing of Henry Bloch donating his impressive, 200 million dollar art collection to the city and its people. 

    If it were only in Indiana, perhaps. 


  10. Jeff Sawyer from GH, January 3, 2017 at 11:01 a.m.

    At one point Hamm eats a donut, which seems highly improbably and hardly tax deductible. 

    You put it more eloquently, but the ads stink. 

  11. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, January 3, 2017 at 11:23 a.m.

    Jeff. Ha. and true. I should have pointed out that the tiny, Pee Wee style suit hardly allows for donuts!

  12. Mark DiMassimo from DiMassimo Goldstein, January 3, 2017 at 12:36 p.m.

    Barbara, we do the advertising for Jackson Hewitt tax service, so I will mostly confine my comments to praising your writing -- super-enjoyable read -- and your head for knowing.

    The Don Draper character had many faults, but creating self-indulgent advertising was never one of them. 

  13. Hamm Cannot Make Me Laugh from Not Worth Mentioning Inc, January 24, 2017 at 8:58 p.m.

    Anyone think Jon Hamm came up with the slogan, "Get your taxes won!" ? 
    Because that would make total sense. 

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