A recent ad for Hotels.Com features their new brand ambassador, Captain Obvious, declaring his decision to run for president while literally running through a desert.
While the individual commercial is clever and employs some effective advertising techniques, the campaign as a whole has become stale and irksome, as it attempts to make too much out of a single pun and commits overly-ambitious cultural appropriations. The Captain Obvious campaign is tired -- probably from all the running! -- and has simply gone too far.
The Birth of a Spokesman
I first saw Captain Obvious in a commercial entitled “The Crazy Guy Trying to Redeem Hotel Points.”
In the ad a flummoxed hotel-searcher is attempting to solve the complex algorithm that determines how his rewards points can be applied. Before shedding some light on the situation, Captain Obvious opines, “This seems crazy,” to which the exasperated vacationer replies: “Tell us something we don’t know, Captain Obvious!”
Voila! A brand ambassador is born!
Again, taken individually this advertisement is moderately effective. It combines absurd humor, sarcasm, and a witty crack about a nudist resort before finishing with a satirical slogan: “Hotels.Com. They won’t judge your life choices!”
And there is also the character himself, Captain Obvious, the personification of a figure of speech. Ironically, the first time I saw the commercial I didn’t get the joke. Failing to connect the character and wardrobe to the expression, I simply wondered why Hotels.Com chose a creepy elderly general with a baritone voice as a spokesperson.
But in case you didn’t know, commercials run incessantly, and it didn’t take long before I was saturated with Captain Obvious ads.
A Strong Start
Initially these short ads were fresh and funny, often relying on humor and the sarcasm of the central character to deliver an effective brand message:
“Hotels.Com. Safer than staying with a stranger!” (Capt. Obvious Hits Las Vegas)
“Hotels.Com. More helpful than Janet!” (The One with the Guy Locked Out in His Underwear)
Even the titles of the commercials seemed to reflect an ironic self-awareness of the attitude of the protagonist (invisible to consumers but observed by practitioners), especially effective when combined with the humorous situations the commercials depict.
Self-Reflexive and Self-Referential Advertising
A campaign based upon stating the obvious would be remiss to ignore its function as a piece of media and advertising, and the Captain Obvious campaign utilizes both self-reflexive techniques (awareness of itself as media) and self-referential techniques (awareness of itself as an advertisement) in the campaign.
In the ad called “Legal Copy”, Captain Obvious delivers a quick message and then plays upon the legal copy that fills the screen, as it might in a typical over-promising advertisement. He references it directly in his dialogue -- “Most of this legal copy is just instructions on how to win a free trip.” -- and then doubles down by reading his own accelerated voiceover, saying “Instructions actually written in this legal copy. Use your DVR to read them. This is the pre-recorded voice of Captain Obvious. I am not a ventriloquist.”
By giving Captain Obvious this awareness, Hotels.Com establishes brand credibility by presenting the idea that the brand is “on the same side” as the consumer. “We are not here to trick you like the others,” the ad implies, “We are here to legitimately help you.”
Further, Captain Obvious displays a self-reflexive awareness to the medium of the advertisement (a television commercial) by removing himself from his seat so his head can be seen above the legal copy that he knows will fill the screen when the commercial is displayed on TV.
In “The One with the Dancing Kid”, Captain Obvious admits his presence in the commercial is unnecessary, as the comically chubby, clumsily-dancing child is “kinda nailing it”.
He knows his role as a spokesperson in an advertising campaign, and an ironic reference generates humor effectively.
The ad ends with another satirical slogan (Hotels.Com. They don’t need me right now.) and completes the millennial pander-play by providing a hashtag to reference the commercial: #KindaNailingIt.
Captain Obvious Runs Too Far
It is human nature to become excited by an idea that finds initial success, and so I do not blame the marketing department for running full-steam ahead. But feedback is important to any creative work, and my suggestion is that Captain Obvious retire ASAP.
2016 is an election year (obviously) and the Captain Obvious campaign received a culturally appropriated makeover. Devoid of new ideas for effective shorts, the authors decided to expand the campaign, and their misguided attempt to tackle the presidential election, literally the biggest happening of the year, has failed in part because they lack the substance to scale.
Like brownie mix spread across an oversized pan, the results are too thin, and no one likes thin brownies.
But a bad brownie is still a brownie, and not all of the recent ads have been utter failures.
For example, the aforementioned “desert” ad is effective and a continuation of past techniques. We have the literal interpretation of a figure of speech as a basis for action: “running” for president. We also have a stunning example of liberal media bias, as Captain Obvious claims he’ll run against anyone, even “orangutans.”
Presidential candidate Donald Trump, a lightning rod of controversy from the start of his campaign, was once likened to an orangutan by comedian Bill Maher. Trump, in top-Trump form, hit Maher with a $5 Million lawsuit, and the reference to the orange ape is a not-so-veiled dig at the Republican nominee.
Even Captain Obvious knows that.
Politics aside, the commercial ends with a couple of lackluster punch-lines (“This would be a lot simpler if I was standing still” and “It’s almost as simple as getting lost, which I’m pretty sure I am”) before Captain Obvious fades into the horizon, only to resurface in the next underwhelming commercial.
End of the Road
“Captain Obvious Runs for President”, which depicts his initial announcement, is devoid of any humor, desperately pleas with consumers to follow the campaign on social media, and ends by attempting to defuse a legitimate concern: perhaps people in general do not give two shits about their advertising campaign.
“So follow me!” Captain Obvious screams as he embarks on his journey. “Or don’t. We live in a democracy.”
Perhaps companies think their ads possess enough entertainment value to warrant such interaction, or perhaps they think consumers really are bored, devoid of individual personality, and ready to comply with any behavioral request.
The age of social media has given advertisers a new golden goose: potential to go viral. Clever hashtags (and not-so-clever ones) and social media campaigns ask consumers to pro-actively participate in advertising campaigns. Others design commercials based on ridiculous internet trends, and we end up with terrifying mutant puppy-monkey-babies selling us energy drinks.
In this case, Hotels.Com has created an entire website dedicated to the fictional campaign for president, packed with interactions, bonus lines, and a “Kiss my baby” app.
Their recent commercials have lost their edge, and even Captain Obvious’ punchlines seem feeble.
“I have liquids in my body,” he shouts as he rides the conveyer belt into the airport scanner. (Captain Obvious at the Airport)
Even the titles have lost their sense of humor!
In a word, the recent ads have seemed forced, and so does his entire campaign for president. Again, I don’t fault Hotels.Com for trying to keep a good thing going; it’s just the scope that failed them, as they tried to create too much out of too little. It is not easy to create a viral trend, and you can’t make a personified pun into a celebrity.
Captain Obvious had a great run, but it ended long before he ran for president.