In Praise of the Product Demo

It's time to get back to advertising's most unimpeachable format

Maybe—maybe—we got ahead of ourselves. Maybe we drank the Kool-Aid and tried to bust through too many walls. The business of advertising suffers its fair share of external pressures, and can't simply bootstrap its way to stability. But some of our wounds feel self-inflicted.

Personally I blame Bogusky. (It's fun to blame! More blame, I say.) His namesake agency contrived a creative blueprint so ingenious it shook the walls of every competitor. His team of workaholic wunderkinds built a parallel universe in which advertising could be culturally proactive. With four simple words—"What's the press release?"—he freed us from convention.

The result? Agencies now operate as though they are in the business of fabricating cultural artifacts on behalf of brands. Creatives are incentivized to think up "firsts," ideally on the latest platforms or channels, leveraging the most current trends or fashions. We try to swallow the zeitgeist and regurgitate some small piece of it.

I'm no media theorist, but let's assume you catch my drift, and you're willing to entertain my judgment that this is bad—not inherently, and maybe not pre-pandemic, but certainly now.

It's bad for a number of reasons, not least because critics think our recent output is grotesque. Why shouldn't they? This is a time of civic duty, national protest, and deep, sustained reckoning. Who cares that Buick is here to help? Advertising's tractor-beam attraction to "conversation" and cultural engagement was already crass; in 2020, it's darkly comic. Black artists are being asked to contribute to brand whitewashing "while the protests are still relevant." That's not just an indelicate phrase, it's an indictment of our business model. Police are tear-gassing moms in the streets of Portland. Let's sit this conversation out. 

I'm not saying we hang up our spurs. Everyone needs advertising, especially me. (I'm not employable in other fields.) But it's time to go back to the toolbox. 

It's time to dust off the product demo. 

Product demos are nearly always deliberate, defensible and on-brief; in a word, they're unimpeachable. They write checks that brands can actually cash. They dispense with a lot of dramatic artifice, so they tend to appease clients. But they're also flexible and capacious, able to give serious mileage to good ideas. Apple's "Get a Mac" series ran for years. It remains one of the best-written and most elegantly conceived campaigns in advertising. It's thrifty, it never subordinates the brand to the actors, and it molds every conflict or storybeat around a particular product benefit.

That's what we're here to do, right? That's the first covenant of commercial storytelling. And it's no coincidence that Apple, a brand once known for bold, narrative TV spots like "1984" and "Here's to the Crazy Ones," ultimately pivoted to product-centric work. "Shot on iPhone" is another masterclass in the deceptive simplicity of a strong product demo, which succeeds on its own merits and therefore enjoys a longer shelf life. The Apple Store revolutionized retail by making it, in effect, one big product demo operated by the customer. The brand's recent commercials, celebrated for their buoyancy and vividness, are basically just expressions of what a great product can give you. 

Even Apple's take on the pandemic—which finds its twee team of "Underdogs" navigating the pitfalls of working from home—turns a short film into an exhaustive rundown of cool features.

As the world's foremost authority on creative technology, Apple doesn't have to stretch for relevance, and it shrewdly keeps its focus on the foreground. But most brands should steer clear of Covid. Why allude to it at all? Why add one more gesture to the gust of empty gestures? If companies are truly donating their time or resources to a virtuous cause, let their PR firms pitch it. Let the public record reflect it. Creative agencies can't persuade people that a brand itself is "good"—it's tacky, and it's not what we do.

Our job is to explain how this particular product or service, this widget right here, can provide some utility.

Two words, baby. Product demo.

Imagine airlifting Krylon's "World's Largest Yard Sale"—the celebrated, integrated, box-ticking Deutsch campaign—from 2015 to today. It would resonate! Its executional curlicues guaranteed positive coverage at the time: It made headlines and garnered awards as a category "first" conducted on Pinterest, then a still-young platform. But the "World's Largest Yard Sale" was, at bottom, a product demo, and its insight was rooted in a simple proposition: A fresh coat of spray paint will make your stuff more valuable. Whether by selling old trinkets or giving them new life, it encouraged us to stretch every dollar. 

Krylon could run the campaign today. It's certainly relevant: Excepting the plutocrats, we're all hurting financially. That's the current subtext of America.

But suppose Krylon went further—suppose the campaign spelled everything out. Close your eyes for a moment and envision the anthem. Let it wash over you like a tepid, low-pressure shower: Empty yards (because of Covid). Steely, determined faces (because of Covid). Rusting bikes (because of Covid?). And then the voiceover: "Krylon knows times are tough."

You get it. It's awful. Why is it awful? Because it turns the subtext into text. It tries to make a hero of the brand, not the product. As a prompt, Krylon's campaign is powerful. As a "message," it's patronizing.

Product demos have no truck with messages—that's what makes them pure. They are raw feats of explanation. And they work for everything. Tech gadgets and home improvement tools might seem like obvious candidates, but even as a brand's benefits become abstract, product demos can offer a clarifying lens, as Intel's drone light shows and IBM's "Smarter Cities" work illustrate.

Most importantly, they're creatively pliable. Nothing is sacrificed on the altar of a product demo except our own self-seriousness. The most nakedly artistic ad of all time placed Jean-Claude Van Damme astride two Volvo trucks, Enya crooning in the background. That's an ad for everyone. My sixth grade homeroom teacher, Mrs. Higgins, probably loved it. No muddled agenda, no handwringing, no fuss: just a delightful product demo with a memorable point.

As Mrs. Higgins used to say: Show, don't tell.

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Mac Schwerin
Mac Schwerin is a freelance copywriter. He lives in New York City.

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