Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Le papier ne sera jamais mort / Paper is not dead!

“…every piece of entertainment, like every political speech or swatch of advertising copy, has nightmarish accuracy as a triple-distilled image of a collective dream, habit or desire.”

So said James Agee 70 years ago.

I can’t compete with Agee’s eloquence, but advertising’s nightmarish accuracy in triple-distilling our collective dreams, habits, or desires sometimes seems profoundly superficial, which—depending on your preference for reading via paper or pixels—may determine your reaction to this brief French television commercial (not to worry: you needn’t know French to understand or appreciate it):

I do wonder about one apparently vital decision the advertising agency behind it, Leo Burnett, or the crew Burnett hired to create it, made in casting the father.  Assuming we’re hearing his actual voice, his accent sounds unmistakably American.

Am I jumping to conclusions thinking the (presumably French) casting director made this choice deliberately—that this man’s obsession with a tablet that looks unmistakably like the All-American iPad offers the French TV-viewing public one more opportunity to laugh at us and our technofetishism?

Kinda looks that way.

Postscript: my sister Leslie—who actually emailed me the link to this video and who speaks excellent French—demurred when I suggested to her that the father is (or is meant to be taken as) American.  She pointed out that when he pronounces his wife’s name he emphasizes the second syllable, “ma”, while an American would emphasize the first syllable, “em”.  I guess she’s right.

And it’s true that the commercial works hard to evade being pinned down linguistically or culturally.  In the father’s first intrusion—when he illustrates how perfect the tablet is for drawing—he avoids spelling out a word and simply swirls a couple of circles.  Then, later, the ad agency decided he should show his wife she could be using the tablet to solve a Sudoku puzzle instead of, say, a crossword.  Sticking with numbers once again preserves the commercial’s international appeal.  Very clever, these Mad Men.

Equally interesting is that the ad doesn’t insist on portraying Emma as a Luddite.  In one scene the crime in her husband’s eyes is that she’s printing something out while working on the home computer.  The implication here seems to be not merely that Emma has refused to go paperless but that she insists on using yesterday's cumbersome desktop technology (which requires its own room!) to accomplish tasks the sleek, portable tablet can handle anywhere.  She’s clinging to old, workaday tech instead of excitedly embracing tomorrow’s.  Which means Emma’s pretty much like all of us who are annoyed that the pace of change dictates we buy a new gadget every year or two—even when our old gadgets still work fine.