The Google+ advert: It’s a Wonderful Life

by thewheatandthechaff

A couple of weeks ago, Google+ aired it’s first advert on British television to promote the benefits of it’s social networking site.

The ad was created by Adam & Eve, the go-to agency for finely crafted, heartstring-tugging sentimentality, and it may well be their finest work to date.

Following the life of everyman ‘Tom’, as he lives and shares on the Google+ platform, while Benedict Cumberbatch reads the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ over some twinkly, contemplative music (taken from Castaway), it is 90 seconds of precision-engineered emotional manipulation, and it’s brilliant.

On a functional level, the ad plays Google+’s trump card over Facebook in pushing it’s social ‘circles’ feature to the fore, which allow users to share content selectively within social circles rather than splurging every gory detail of their lives on the page for all to see, a la Facebook’s controversial Timeline. On an emotional level, it taps into our fundamental desire to build a good life for ourselves and our families whilst keeping in touch with friends over the years. Most importantly for Google, it seems to have worked in encouraging more of us to try out the site.

I’ll put my cards on the table here: I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff. Every time I watch it, without fail, I well up at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, and, even though I know it’s shamelessly schmaltzy and calculated, by the time the strings come in and Aurelia says “Just in cases” to Colin Firth near the end of Love Actually, I’m making all the usual excuses about getting something in my eye or blaming the onions I chopped three hours ago. Don’t even get me started on Turner & Hooch. The thing is, I know full well that Frank Capra and Richard Curtis are the puppet masters ruthlessly tugging at my heartstrings, and that these emotions have been provoked completely artificially, but I’m perfectly happy with that arrangement.

It’s completely understandable, however, that many people are instinctively cynical about anything, whether it’s a movie or a television programme or even a song, if it is geared towards manipulating their hearts. Whilst these same people would presumably expect a good comedy to make them laugh or for a horror movie to make them jump out of their seats, they’re immediately uncomfortable if they feel that their deepest and most private emotions are being prodded for the purposes of entertainment.

The recent Tom Hanks 9/11 weepfest “Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close” was, despite it’s Oscar nomination for Best Picture, generally lambasted by critics for this very reason, and Simon Cowell’s crudely manufactured brand of emotional manipulation in the routine X-Factor contestant sob stories has become tiresome for even the most ardent fans of the show.

Many people are therefore, unsurprisingly, particularly resentful of schmaltz and sentimentality if it is deployed in the context of advertising. It is one thing for a film or TV programme to try to tug at their heartstrings, but it’s something altogether more sinister if it’s some faceless global corporation trying to sell them something by melting their hearts.

It’s for this reason that advertising aimed at the heart is by far the hardest to pull off.

But Adam & Eve, and also Google, have previous form here. Below is Google Chrome’s ‘Dear Sophie’ campaign which ran last year, created by their in-house Creative Lab in collaboration with BBH, which shows a father setting up an online journal of memories to one day share with his daughter.

Despite the considerable amount of flack it copped on it’s release from people complaining that they couldn’t set up similar accounts for their children because of Gmail ‘s age restrictions (it’s frankly worrying that so many internet users lacked the initiative to work their way around this, as the father in the ad does by setting up a ‘dear.sophie’ email address rather than an email address in her name, but whatever), it effectively showcased the web-browser working in conjunction with other products like Gmail and YouTube in a way which resonated emotionally with pretty much anyone with a functioning soul.

Adam & Eve are best known in the UK for their John Lewis tearjerkers, and the ‘Always a Woman’ campaign which ran in 2010 (below) holds particular relevance here. Following a woman’s life from her birth to her twilight years, all the while never knowingly undersold by middle England’s favourite department store as part of their ‘lifelong commitment’ to her, it treads some familiar ground with their ‘Tom’ ad for for Google +.

Google+, like John Lewis, we’re assured, will be with us our whole lifetime, and will also, they hope, become a part of the furniture of our lives. Unlike the John Lewis ad, though, ‘Google+: Tom’ feels tinged with a more palpable sense of melancholy, particularly in the brief but poignant pause when Tom is reminiscing about his youth later in life. I think the shift in tone makes perfect sense. After all, there are more important things in life than a new dining table.

Whilst John Lewis can furnish our homes and provide us with material possessions from time to time, which is perfectly nice and all, Google+ is here to help us with the stuff that really matters. It will help us to record and preserve our memories and, later, reminisce about times gone by with our friends and family.

With ‘Tom’, Adam & Eve remind us (and we do all need reminding) that, when all is said and done, what is life worth without love and friendship and the memories of these times spent together, or the promise of times yet to come?

There is a fantastic line in the final scene of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, scrawled in George Bailey’s copy of Tom Sawyer – a present from his friend and Guardian Angel, Clarence: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends”.

Tom’s ‘epitaph’, if you can call it that, in the Google+ ad is: “A life lived and shared. That’s a plus.”

Regardless of your own personal opinion of Google or however cynical you may be about the brand’s true intentions, who could really argue with either of those sentiments?