by Rob Walker
Do you regard the world you inhabit with a profound sense of resentment and contempt? Do you long to escape the bosses, relatives, and other sources of boredom that distract you from the reveries of your smartphone?
If so, then perhaps Facebook Home is the product for you!
This seems to be the upshot of the ads touting the social network’s latest offering, its super-app for Android phones announced earlier this month and now making its way into the marketplace. While reviewers and users assess Home itself, I’m left wondering why Facebook’s advertising is so bad.
Like many, if not most, so-called Web 2.0 companies that have caught on, Facebook built its brand without traditional marketing. So it was notable when late last year, it marked crossing the billion-account threshold with a minute-and-a-half long ad for itself, grandiosely titled “The Things That Connect Us.” In tones of momentous gravity, with lush cinematography and pensive musical score, this short film explained that Facebook is like … a chair: “Anyone can sit on a chair, and if the chair is large enough, they can sit down together.” (Wouldn’t that be a couch?)
Also, Facebook is like doorbells, bridges, airplanes, dance floors, and basketball, because these are all things people use to “connect” and “share,” and remind us that we are not alone in a “vast” and “dark” universe.
Obviously that didn’t make a lot of sense — unless you conclude that people use Facebook as part of a futile program to ward off thoughts of some inevitable oblivion that awaits us all.
The latest ads for Facebook Home strike, let us say, a lighter note. One involves a guy killing time more effectively with Home while stuck in the familiar dead zone of an airplane, pre-takeoff: Pictures and status updates spring to life around him. While some are jarringly weird, and the guy turns out to be one of those bozos who resist the flight attendant’s requests to power down, the spot is basically harmless.
A second installment, however, moves the over-arching idea (distraction everywhere!) to a workplace setting. The specific workplace is Facebook itself, where none other than Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg debriefs an improbably small group of employees on the wonders of Facebook Home. Immediately, the ad’s protagonist stops listening and begins conjuring up various digital entertainments — a goat screams at Zuck, a racquet-balling friend beckons, alternate realities involving swimming pools and all-terrain vehicles drown out the dull realities of the boss droning on about the new product.
This is a fascinating maneuver, given that the product that is boring this guy out of his mind is the product being advertised. Perhaps the message is supposed to be that Home is so amazing you don’t need to hear the pitch? If so — why the pitch?
A third spot, called “Dinner,” depicts what I suppose is a family meal, dominated by a tedious relative whose rambling monologue is smoothly ignored by a young woman who escapes into her Home-enabled phone. This has been criticized elsewhere as an unfortunate celebration of antisocial behavior — but in fact that sentiment is the inescapable point of all these spots. You don’t need to pay attention to the world you inhabit with your body: All you need is a phone, Facebook Home … and perhaps a chair.
In any case, if Facebook is going to roll out branding messages, it needs to figure out what sort of brand it means to be: Awe-inspiring — or kind of snarky and fun? Admittedly this is harder to do when the branding begins after hundreds of millions of people have already decided what your product is for, and have no real interest in being told how to use it or why. In contrast, consider how carefully Apple has treated its brand over the years. Can you imagine a commercial depicting Steve Jobs being ignored?
Of course not. The company positioned his most blatantly self-promotional utterings as something we were privileged to hear. You might not take Apple’s hyperbole seriously, but you rarely doubt the company itself does.
Facebook’s marketing, so far, seems incoherent by comparison, a mere afterthought. Possibly that says something about how it regards traditional branding in general. And, actually, that’s fine: Maybe a service that reaches such scale without advertising just doesn’t need advertising.
If so, the company might be better off just staying silent and letting users come to their own conclusion about what Facebook “means.” Because Facebook itself seems to have no idea.