Saturday, September 8, 2007

Very Animated Spokesbees

There's clearly something deeply weird going on in our culture right now. I'm not going to delve into simplistic statements about attention span or media saturation. But clearly we're riding a real cleft in the culture between people who grew up in a world of linear, carefully structured narratives and the young ones, who fall into a pit of worry if they aren't blasted by three or more narratives and/or image streams at the same time. There's something entirely new going on in human history right now. It's just beginning to play out.

But there are some things that are basically constant in how narrative is constructed. I don't care how non-linear or avant-garde your movie is, chances are it really sucks if you didn't sit down and work out the chronological structure of events. Non-linear narrative doesn't free you from the requirements of drama. It does the opposite: you MUST plan that stuff out well if the audience is going to stay with you through your ever-so-elegant leaps and breaks.

Characters also are constructed in the same basic way they always were. It doesn't matter what terminology you use -- character arc and flaw, misbehavior and desire, mode and need -- you are pretty much talking about building a clear, strong conflict that makes a character both "feel" real, and propels them into and through the plot. It doesn't matter if it's Shakespeare or a detergent commercial. The character is carefully constructed to garner sympathy (read: our attention) and drive the plot to the resolution the writer's aiming for.

That's why the protagonists in soap ads mirror a very specific image of a suburban housewife. That's why the protagonists (germs, grass stains, her smelly family) swarm down. And each resolution is her overcoming her character flaw -- she didn't know there was this wonderful substance named Boraxo.

So what to make of the Nasonex Bee? Have you seen this bee? Who hasn't? It's a computer animated bee that speaks with a somewhat gay Mexican accent. And you gotta ask: how on earth did they decide that this particular character would sell allergy medication?

I puzzled over this for a while. The bee isn't a protagonist per se. He's more of a narrator. So his main job is to get us to listen. But what's his inner conflict? How does the writer construct the character sympathy? Why should we care?

My guess is this. Bees have an association with pollen and summer. When an allergy sufferer sees a bee, they make a link to their stuffed up nose. Perhaps there's something a little deeper. Bees eat the pollen -- and make something useful out of it.

Now the bee is obviously animated. If you're going to employ a spokesbeee, you probably want one generated in a computer. For me, it's still creepy when the bee helps pop the cap off for the suffering human. Who's going to grab a bottle with a bee on it? There's a particular connection between bees and allergies: reactions to bee stings. I'd think you'd want no bees in your allergy commercial. But someone decided this was a good thing.

Next step: choosing the voice. Anyone who works in animation will tell you that this is a critical choice. Audiences want to know where to put your character. If the voice is too loopy... you look for a bit of humor, but put little investment in the bee. You've got a cartoon. If the voice contrasts sharply with the visual, you can build humor, but you also risk a certain dissonance. If you want to get your audience engaged in the character, it helps if the voice is distinctive or even well-known. That's why Robin Williams still has a job.

So picture the ad exec bigwig types sitting around a table in their Madison Avenue skyscraper, deciding on the voice. Someone says, "Let's mirror the voice to our target audience: white females, 30-49". (This is an example. I have no idea who buys Nasonex.) Great. They test it out. The audience just thinks it's strange.. or feel put down somehow.

Hmmm. What'll make the bee work? "Let's get Robin Williams in the studio!" They try it, but the audience is now looking for a joke, and start laughing when he tells us Nasonex causes swelling of the brain lining and hallucinations involving talking insects (Nasonex does not cause this. I'm sure it's a delightful, completely safe allergy medication.). So no go. Thousands and thousands have been spent on this ad.

"I know. We need a voice that sounds helpful and polite, yet knowledgeable around the subject." Someone thinks of the concierge at their day spa. And you've got yourself the first gay Latino spokesbee in history.

I'm obviously speculating here. But someone really does make choices like this. Someone thinks through this stuff. And they're paid well for it.

Yer kiddin' me. Nope. And they probably earn every penny. They know about these memes and types and characters floating around in Americans' heads, and they know how to play them. Rush Limbaugh probably wants to run a check on the bee's work papers. The Nasonex bee would probably get fired if we found out he shares a well-appointed duplex hive in West Hollywood with another male bee model.

But with the right touch, that bee does exactly what it's constructed to do.

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