Can You Empathize with Facebook?

I am sure by now you have all seen “that ad” – the Facebook Ad of course, the one done by Wieden & Kennedy, Facebook’s first ever ad. What is interesting is that I would bet most of you have seen it either as part of someone’s blog or on Youtube, in other words, virally and not in paid-for broadcast media. There’s progress for you, it might even be irony. What is even more interesting is that it has been received with the kind of interest normally reserved for a new iPhone and about as much warmth as the new iPhone 5, at least as far as ‘industry experts’ are concerned. Generally people seem to be a bit disappointed with the Facebook Ad.

I get the impression that everyone is piling in to share their point of view, mostly lukewarm or negative as I say, about the Ad. I even got an email from a client and friend (yes I still have them, clients and friends, not so many these days but still one or two) who shared some of the debate going on in his organization about the ad and asking my opinion.

Here is what I told him. Firstly I find it hard to judge an Ad when I don’t know the brief. How I can conclude it was successful if I do not know what they were trying to achieve? Actually that’s not true. None of us find it hard to criticize an ad if we don’t know the brief, we do it all the time, so maybe I should have said we shouldn’t judge until or unless we know what the brief was.

That said I have worked with W&K, have a huge respect for them but know that very often they write their own brief. They have in the past, politely or not so politely, told the client that they are wrong and spelled out what their brief should be. I know this because Dan Weiden told me as much and because I experienced it first hand, not once but twice. On the first occasion they were right and we were wrong. They then produced a campaign that was nothing short of brilliant to a brief they wrote themselves. The second time I told them, not so politely, that either they followed the brief or they could f*** off. They then came back with some work that was not so much on brief but took the brief to a level we had never imagined. Nothing short of brilliant again. The brands in question were Miller High Life and Miller Lite in 2003, you figure out which was which.

So anyway, I am going to assume that W&K wrote their own brief for Facebook and I am going to speculate that Dan was heavily involved (I could be wrong on both counts). I am further going to speculate that they concluded the following:-

1.    The Ad is aimed at the 6 billion people who do not use Facebook (those that do use it require it neither to be explained nor promoted)
2.    Against a background of the movie Social Network, IPO’s, share prices, world domination etc the key task is to make people see Facebook as a natural progression of how we as humans build, and live in, communities.
3.    Ergo the task is to position Facebook not as technology or a big business brand but just a natural, inclusive, everyday thing to use.
If I’m right – and I may not be – then the Ad does not seem so bad, but maybe not so great either. I interviewed Dan once for a film I was making and listened to him explain, wisely and convincingly, how he saw brands and advertising.

He made three big points:-

1.    People mostly want to get some idea about who is behind the brand, what they believe in, their values.
2.    Throughout history we have enjoyed sharing stories – brands should tell a story.
3.    But at the end of the day an Ad should stir the emotions. His precise words were “Just f***** move me Dude!”

So let me look at the Ad against Dan’s own criteria. It tells me something about the people behind Facebook and what they believe, not a whole lot but something. It tells a bit of a story although I am not sure people will entirely get it. But it didn’t much move me dude and I’m one of the 6 billion.
The big question is why did Facebook feel they needed an Ad? I think I might have done something different, I might have quite literally told a story about the development of community and the power of empathy based on communing. If you haven’t seen this then you are in for a treat, Jeremy Rifkin’s film about ‘The Empathetic Civilization’.

Or maybe the fundamental challenge for an intangible brand is to make it tangible. Maybe Facebook should have spent their money on doing real things with real communities to position themselves as a natural extension or facilitator? Who knows? What I do know is that Facebook, and W&K were on a hiding to nothing. Because in the marketing community we are better at criticizing than we are at empathizing.

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