March 21, 2017

These six-second YouTube ads gave me a new appreciation for classic literature


YouTube at SXSW

Over at AdWeek, your one-stop shop for writing and promoted content (read: ads) about ads, Gabriel Beltrone reports on YouTube’s recent South by Southwest ad campaign, which, for reasons, is all about six-second video adaptations of various literary classics — Moby-Dick, Dracula, Jane Eyre, The Metamorphosis, and more.

The ads, created by various agencies for the historically (but no longer) free and independent music and film festival, showcase YouTube’s new brief pre-roll ad format, which, from what I can tell, is just ads that are six seconds, instead of a different (usually higher) number of seconds, long. (Pre-rolls are those annoying little videos you have to watch five seconds or all of before what you actually clicked on starts playing.)

Advertising is fascinating work.

The book ads, which Beltrone variously calls “renditions,” “vignettes,” and “successful,” are exactly what you’d expect. They are, at their best, charming reminders of a reading experience you had, or were assigned to have, in high school or college. Such is the case with Zeke O’Donnell’s “recreation” of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Entitled “Jane’s Err,” it humorously hints at the novel’s bleak plot using puppets and stop-motion animation.

Other ads are little more than fun aesthetic exercises, as in the six-second-ad trilogy (eighteen seconds total!) for Around the World in 80 Days, directed by Tim Bierbaum. This advertisement imagines Jules Verne’s classic tale of adventure as a JRPG with Super Nintendo-style graphics recalling both Final Fantasy III and Chrono Trigger, two of the best games ever made.

Beltrone concludes that “Overall, it’s a fun approach to showcasing the potential for storytelling in a miniature window.” Which, okay, sure. But he goes on:

YouTube’s goal here is, in a sense, more ambitious — persuading all brands that they can fit persuasive sales pitches into a blip. But it’s largely successful, even if a lot of the nuance of the original stories, and the joys of reading, are obviously somewhat lost. And while it might be tempting to lament vanishing attention spans, or the death of the written word, the clips, by and large, actually aren’t bad promos for the books.

Here is an instance where I don’t know what the phrase “largely successful” could possibly mean. The ads deal too much in nostalgia, and they are far too short to provide any real sense of what a complex work of literature is about, especially if you aren’t already familiar with it. This, presumably, is one of the reasons why YouTube has chosen classic literature for its showcase. You, the consumer, know these stories already. But you are not the audience targeted by these advertisements: other advertisers are. YouTube is attempting to obscure the real product. The real product is not literature, but the ad format itself. And ads are not cool.

So the choice of classic literature as the “advertised-product-within-an-advertised-product” here seems intended to play off the cachet advertisers (to whom the ad format is being advertised) may assume books possess.

Books are, if not intrinsically cool, perceived as cool. They are, if not uniformly dignified, perceived as dignified. In short, books are everything ads are not: selfless, interesting, worth the money. And people, having read them or not, love to identify with them. These characteristics of books (or people’s perceptions that books have these characteristics) are built in, providing a sheen of cred to any marketing campaign that deals in very well-known lit.

As a result, these ads get marked as cool. A person in a cockroach suit writhing on the ground for six seconds is a cool, arty ad from a cool, arty advertiser  — one worth showcasing (at SXSW, need I remind you) because Kafka, as everyone knows, is one of the cool, arty writers. The ad is an in-joke for the literary SXSW set. Without the text of The Metamorphosis, and without the knowledge of that text, however, that ad was just a confounding waste of money: a spot about some invisible product (bug spray?).

In the end, no doubt, YouTube will just do ads however it wants, no matter what its clients say — because it is YouTube, and because YouTube knows how the world has shown itself to function. YouTube doesn’t really need its advertisers to agree that six-seconds of video is the way to go. But YouTube wants to appear cool and not gross. YouTube wants to feel like a respected, classic book — not the guy in the cockroach costume writhing on the floor, but the guy who shows you that guy, winks because you both get it, and then, once your friends, sells you some bullshit. And so, this.



Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.