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Throwback Thursday: Philips CD-i and the fantastic flop

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Phil Hartman's bizarre CD-i ad didn't make up for the product's flop.

There’s a lot to love about the 90s. It’s easy to look at the decade with a heavy, romantic sigh, especially if you came of age during that decade. Walkmans, Nintendo 64, Spice Girls and sugary, sugary candy.

But let’s focus on a flop for a moment, a failure so remarkable that it become a write-off from our memories of the decade.

Take, for example, the Philips CD-i. The console was meant to serve as a gaming console while also combining the functionality of a CD player, with a comparatively lower cost than a personal computer (still a whopping $700 at its initial release, which eventually plummeted). Few gaming fans outside of the most hardcore circles will remember some of the games released on the console (while many were categorized as “edutainment,” there was indeed one Mario game and three Zelda games released) because their release was so overshadowed by game giants like Nintendo 64 and Playstation.

But now, let’s talk about the ad.

There were a number of similar spots featuring an overly sardonic Phil Hartman playing the part of sleepy narrator, enthusiastic infomercial host, confused shopper and, most inexplicably, a sleepy-eyed woman lying in bed who seems to really, really love the CDI.

Really? You’re telling us this thing was a flop?

But in a way, we applaud Philips for going for something different. Video game and console ads were often wrought with uninhibited enthusiasm (see: our first Throwback Thursday to the Game Genie commercial). While it works in getting the target audience (kids hopped up on sugary, sugary candy) riled up for the system, maybe you can only throw in so many variations of “woah, totally radical!” before people start to roll their eyes.

It almost seems as though Philips tried to intentionally under-sell the merits of the CD-i, or to promote it as a thing to be enjoyed ironically.

Irony and self-reflexivity do work — and in fact, it’s nice to see brands with some self-awareness and not taking one’s self too seriously. But with the CD-i, these undeniably strange ads did nothing to boost the image of a widely-panned product.

Philips, we get what you were trying to go for. And we really do appreciate it. Not enough to wish we could go back in time and buy a CD-i, but, you know, good try.

A breakup letter to the laugh track

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The Laugh Track was once so smooth we forgot it was there sometimes.

Dear laugh track,

I’m not going to drag this out: we’re growing apart. We have grown apart. Our growth apart has been impending for years now. And I think it’s time we see other people, if only just for a little while.

It’s not you. But it’s not me, either. It’s the shows you’re on. They’re just bringing out the absolute worst in you. Suddenly I’m aware of how pushy you are, how much you just go along with the crowd, and how you try to pull me in and get me to see the things you see.

I can’t do it anymore. Hell, I couldn’t do it three years ago. I’ve been dragging you around like a dead weight for so long wondering why I just can’t let go.

Back in the 90s, I laughed with you. It felt so natural that it didn’t feel like you were someone else, it felt like you were a part of me. We were so in sync. Maybe, looking back knowing all I know now, that you did influence me a little bit. Laughing with someone else is far easier than laughing alone. But that was why you were so good for me. I never felt like some big dork stifling a chuckle alone in my living room watching Seinfeld basking in the white light of the television set. You were there laughing with me.

But then I met someone — a couple people, actually — who caught my attention. They didn’t need you to validate them. They never tried to please you or impress you. It was a bit of a strange feeling at first, laughing without you. It almost felt like I was being unfaithful to you.

Shows like Arrested Development and The Office put a thought in my head: were you tricking me into laughing? I remember the words everyone used to describe the lack of laugh tracks on those shows: “They don’t need it.” “They don’t rely on it.” “No one’s telling you when to laugh.” I started to feel betrayed. You weren’t telling me when to laugh, were you? You wouldn’t do that to me. You thought I was smarter than that.

Didn’t you?

But a slump doesn’t signify the end of something, so I gave you the benefit of the doubt. Even when people started crying, “The laugh track is over!” I told myself that it didn’t have to be. We were just going through a rough patch. And then years went by and more shows started following suit. I laughed on my own at Parks and Recreation, Community and Modern Family.

There were also shows that actually dared to blur the lines between comedy and drama — would you have even worked on a show like Orange is the New Black?

Like most people in a dying relationship, I went back to the good times. I watched the shows. FRIENDS. All in the Family. I tried to picture what they would be like without you. I was still laughing. It felt right.

But then I watched some of the shows now and I couldn’t drop the idea that I was laughing just to blend in. “Was that funny? Oh, I guess it was.” The worst part was I could see you coming from miles away. Everything seemed so structured around you, with the long pauses and obvious build-ups. I swore I could even see the actors smirking sometimes, thinking, “Yeah, we know you’re laughing.”

So what changed? Why is the crowd you run with so crappy compared to before? Maybe they felt the need to differentiate from the too-cool-for-school shows that eschewed you so arrogantly. Maybe they thought they were paying tribute to the great laugh track days of the 90s and went over the top on purpose. Maybe it’s a bad attempt at irony.

After all, everyone knows you haven’t been cool for the better half of the 2000’s. Maybe your status has officially reached “ironic.” Good for you, I guess.

I think it’s best we spend some time apart for awhile. You need some time to figure out your purpose in life — is it to laugh with people, or to bully them into laughing? Is it to share in our experiences, or is it to create experiences for us?

I won’t give up on you entirely. You were too big a part of my life for way too long. And when I see you really doing your thing — sweetening the laughs on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report I think that maybe there is a place for you in this world. But it’s not in my prime time line-up.

Maybe one day we’ll have another show that we can just watch together, as equal partners, sharing in the laughter once again.

All the best, laugh track.

— Bree (Digital Content Producer at Phanta Media)

Food advertising: reality versus realistic

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PC's new campaign focuses on real flavours and real colours

President’s Choice’s new ad campaign to announce that their food will now be free of artificial colours and flavours presents food in a way that can only be described with one word: glorious.

There are two great ways to advertise food: you can take the go-big-or-go-home approach, embracing excess with gratuitous shots of meats and/or cheeses piled high to the sky, smothering sauces, steaming and dripping in all its melty, stretchy, slurpy glory, or; you can go minimal. You can present food in its simplest forms, on its own, with its quality speaking for itself.

PC’s ad undoubtedly falls under the latter category, with its crispy leafy veggies and meats that knives slice through like air and bowls of oil and vinegar that look like rivers in faraway jungles. This is, of course, to show that even without enhancements, food can be the height of splendor and decadence.

PC’s parent brand, Loblaw, started working with ad agency John St. just earlier this year after more than a decade with Bensimon-Byrne. The former partnership was successful as well, but the new relationship with John St. sees a different direction for the creative, one that aims to make PC more of a lifestyle brand.

This particular ad works because it presents reality. Okay, not really. PC’s ad works because it convinces you that what you see before you is reality.

The difference between real and realistic

When it comes to marketing, “real” and “realistic” are two different things. Food advertising is a perfect example of that. People don’t want to see the reality they currently live in advertised on screen, but they want to see something that they could reasonably achieve.

The ad exists in a world where produce does not have a speck of dirt or a single bruise on them (have you ever foraged around the organic produce section and found consistently immaculate fruits and veggies?), where purple and green cauliflower are just as affordable as its white, unsexy counterpart, where busy Canadian families all have the time and patience to create culinary creations as tempting as the ones dancing across the screen toward the end.

The power to shape tastes (literally)

Food advertising is an especially unique thing because it speaks to both indulgent, self-interested wants as well as basic human needs. As the world becomes increasingly health-conscious, marketers can and have shaped what consumers care about. The most noteworthy trend as of late has been gluten-free foods, which have blasted off from the depths of tiny health food stores to the spotlight of grocery stores’ centre aisles. Gluten-free foods are huge, and despite only one per cent of Canadians suffering from celiac disease, 22 per cent of Canadians opt for gluten-avoidance for “non-medicinal” reasons. Some have hypothesized that any positive reaction that 22 per cent experiences is more of a placebo effect, and we’ve also had a good laugh at Jimmy Kimmel’s “What is Gluten?” segment.

Just last week, we shared this video on our Facebook page of a team of pranksters who set out (and succeeded) to prove that if you tell someone something is organic, they’ll think it tastes better — even if it’s McDonalds. (Turn closed captioning on).

Please note that we’re not saying PC is being disingenuous in its promises to rid its food of artificial flavor and colour. But they are using their power as a brand to make people actually care about such a thing — maybe even a little more than they should.

Overall, John St. did a really smart thing for PC. They presented a reality that was within arms reach of its audience, and have managed to gently capitalize on North Americans’ ever-shifting concern with what goes onto their plates.

And they also succeeded in making us hungry.

So you’re in a slump. Now what?

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Stuck in a slump? This will help you on your way.

Earlier this week, we had some pretty harsh words for anyone who’s ever experienced a creative slump. If you’re too pressed for time, here’s the basic summary: if you’re experiencing the slump, it’s probably self-induced.

We listed off a few reasons why people fall down that pit. But admittedly, for a few reasons — like not wanting to make the blog post a 1,000-word entry — we didn’t include any tips on how to get out of that slump.

We’re sorry. We didn’t mean to kick you when you were down.

We don’t want to leave you hanging and we don’t want to tell you it’s all your fault and then leave you to find your own way out. So here are a few things you can do to feel inspired again and pump out dynamic content even despite a rut.

1. Revisit your old and most successful content

It may seem like a mopey, wishy-washy thing to back and reminisce about the glory days. But it’s more than just passively watching or reading. Like a troubled relationship, it’s important to look at the content and ask, “What about this made them fall in love with us?” Was it that you were saying something really groundbreaking, or was it how you were saying it?

2. Focus on shaping up, not on shaking up

Maybe you look back and find that your most successful content was stuff that dropped truth bombs and shot from the hip. The problem is, setting an expectation for yourself to reinvent the wheel over and over is not realistic, no matter how good you are. Instead, you need to transition content to focus on small bits of enlightenment, stuff that doesn’t make your target audience’s jaws drop but rather makes them nod and consider new ideas. Maybe it’s a small improvement to make an existing product more functional. Maybe it’s something to remind your target audience of why you’re already great. The trick is to write this content with the same urgency and importance as though you were reinventing the wheel every time. Don’t under-sell or underestimate the importance of small, practical ideas.

3. Observe your competition, but not just their individual pieces of content

If it’s any consolation, you’re definitely not the only one who’s ever been through a creativity blockage. The secret is not giving that away. For all you know, your biggest competition’s product development teams could have had long nights of pulling at their hair and scrapping long pages of ideas into a bin. You have to learn from the best. Don’t just watch a single piece of content from them and say, “Wow, that was good.” Look at their story, look at how they evolve over time. What content came out as a subtle compliment to their previous content, and what came out as a big punch out of nowhere? Don’t try to emulate the ideas, but try to craft yourself a similar story and trajectory.

4. Converse about it

When you internalize your creative problems because you’re embarrassed or frustrated, that means the problem is stuck in your head — and there’s not a lot of room for it to move around and grow in there. Sit down with a colleague and some coffee (perhaps even a muffin) and lay it out: you’re in one place, but you want to be in another. Start conversing about your project — maybe even hearing a different voice on it will help you get an idea for your next hook or theme.

5. Get interactive

When all else fails, content that directly addresses your target audience and demands active participation can help you steer your brand in exactly the right direction. And there are multiple ways to do that. If you’re the kind of company that does surveys, pump one out. There’s also social media engagement, or more direct contact through your web site. Maybe you want to put out a video that features or even makes light of audience complaints (if you want to go edgy), or one that has a “you spoke, we listened” message (if you want to play it more safe). Sometimes you’ll never know what the problem is unless you just ask.

It’s important to know that there’s always a way out of the dark and dry creative slump. No matter how you got there, there is a way to recover, and we want to make that clear. It doesn’t come from long, contemplative walks or cups of tea (but those help too), it comes from taking a breath and a small step back and looking at your project with a critical eye and saying, “Okay, let’s dance.”

Throwback Thursday: Pizza Hut’s quirky Pizza Head spots

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Pizza Hut's Pizza Head was the epitome of 90s nonsense.

The 90’s were a deep treasure chest filled with amazingly silly, kid-targeted pizza commercials. Pizza has never really had to sell itself all that hard — no one ever makes claims that it’s good for you (except for when the US government tried to claim it was a vegetable), it’s rarely passed off as an inspiring gourmet dish, and it’s never presented as a radical, different or original creation.

And that’s why it’s so easy to have fun with it.

In the 90s, Pizza Hut had a brief little mascot named Pizza Head. He was an enthusiastic little slice who had some pretty amazing adventures that usually involved him getting sliced, rolled, or stepped on.

Wait, what?

Just watch it.

Like the best kids entertainment out there, Pizza Head had appeal for the parents as well as the kids — he’s an obvious sendup of the once-ubiquitous Mr. Bill, the former Saturday Night Live claymation character who went on to star in a few solo adventures (including commercials for Burger King). The grown-up reference almost negates how annoying Pizza Head can be if you’re over the age of nine.

We chose this Halloween commercial because, hey, ‘tis the season, but it’s worth taking a look at all of the Pizza Head commercials. They’re totally absurd, but isn’t that the essence of a truly effective, kid-targeted commercial?

If you were a child of the 90s, perhaps you loved re-creating Pizza Head’s adventures on a piece of Pizza Hut pizza. And if you were a parent of young kids in the 90s, we’re sure you had the patience of a saint.

Commercials for kid-friendly food have two options — they can target the parents, who want to know that it’s good for their kids and won’t turn them into hyper, sticky-fingered sugar goblins, or they can target the kids, who want to know that it’s fun and tastes good.

This one is the epitome of the latter. And maybe the abundance of candy displays at the grocery stores right now are bringing out our inner child in full force, but it’s working on us too, and we want a slice.

Creative slump? What it actually means

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Stuck in a rut? You might have yourself to blame for that.

Any writer can speak to the complex and dark pit of despair known as writer’s block — but of course, that slump is not just limited to writers. Any creator has or will at some point experience a blip in their creative process. For some who are fortunate, the slump is a short-term lapse, a small amount of time grasping for the right words or a new idea. But for others, the lapse turns into a slump, which then becomes a rut, and suddenly it’s weeks or even months before you’ve made any progress.

Creative slumps are usually self-induced

It’s an issue that can plague not just individuals but companies or brands as a whole. But here’s the thing: creative slumps are usually self-induced. They don’t feel that way, but they’re often the crushing result of bad habits that have built up over time and amalgamated in a crushing collapse in creativity.

“It’s just a slump” is not an excuse — it usually means one (or several) of the following:

1) You weren’t ahead of the game to begin with.

Sometimes ideas or products are well-received because they piggyback off of current trends — creators luck into good ideas because they’re essentially doing the same things that everyone else has already done, maybe with one or two little tweaks. It works for awhile, but sooner or later something will happen to shake up the brand landscape, and you realize that you were only treading water the entire time. Take, for example, retailer JCPenny, which was stuck playing perpetual catch-up to other department stores and “reinventing” itself numerous times in the 2000s. Their 2012 rebranding resulted in a 20% drop in sales for the first quarter of that year. The key is starting out fresh and strong, doing and saying the things that no one else is saying. When you spend your entire career treading water, odds are low that you’ll magically start to soar when times get rough.

2) You have tunnel vision.

Creativity is supposed to be all about you and your vision, right? In a perfect world, yes. In the real world, there is competition, and you have to pay attention. Observing your competition is not to say you must imitate them — on the contrary, you need to know how to set yourself apart, and to do it right. Last week, we looked at fast food brands who have been losing business to fast casual chains for this very reason. When you’re used to dominating a market, you don’t think you have to sleep with one eye open.

3) You’re trying to reinvent the wheel over and over.

It’s hard to approach the creative process full of energy and enthusiasm when you think everything has to be a Big Idea in order to get people talking. While Big Ideas are great for dinner table debate and grabbing headlines, what builds trust and intrigue is practicality and accessibility. Subtle changes and small improvements that are geared toward your consumers’ needs show respect and awareness. Attempting to always come out with attention-grabbing Big Ideas is like trying to climb a mountain over and over, which is not only too daunting, it can put you out of touch with what your consumers want.

4) You haven’t been paying attention to why people like you.

When Blackberry felt the squeeze of competition from the iPhone, their instinct was to rely on their physical keyboard as an advantage over iPhone’s touch screen — ignoring the evidence that very few people switched to iPhone for their touchscreen alone. That left Blackberry toting a single trait versus its competition’s total package. It’s not enough to know, “They like me!” You have to understand why they like you and capitalize on that. Engage with your audience (it’s not hard these days), find out what they like (and don’t like) about you, instead of playing guessing games.

5) You think creativity is supposed to come spontaneously.

“Waiting for inspiration to come” is just a fancy way of saying you’re being lazy. Inspiration is something you have to go looking for, which means actually being engaged 100% of the time. Very few people actually have “aha!” moments out of nowhere — those “aha!” moments happen to people who have trained themselves to think creatively all the time, to look at a situation and think, “How can I make this better? How can I apply this to my project?” It’s a learned process and one that needs to be trained, not something which merely happens.

Creative Block is Normal

If you’re stuck in a creative rut, it can be difficult to get out of. It takes a lot of sweat to even stay creative, let alone pull yourself out of a hole — which is why you need to start exerting that effort now instead of suddenly finding yourself unable to recover. A little creativity block is normal and happens to everyone once in awhile, but the worst thing you can do is lie back and use that as an excuse to wallow for even a few minutes.

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