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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Zach Galifianakis, bringing the elites back down to Earth

Zg

Have you noticed how hard it is to keep up nowadays?

No matter what you do, it seems you're never smart enough, emotionally intelligent enough, informed enough, rich enough, influential enough, have a good enough job, technologically literate enough, a good enough parent, attractive enough, thin enough, feminine or masculine enough, youthful enough, a good enough cook, even religious enough. 

They might as well title every book and magazine article, "How to do everything better." (Actually, they do...more or less.)

To make matters worse, the simplest tasks have become impossible. Because we live in a complicated, litigious society where every single activity is the subject of a possible dispute and/or part of a vast mechanized system that has to keep track of what's going on.

Which leaves the average person feeling sort of scr***d and helpless.

This matters for brands of every kind, including government-as-a-brand. Because it's the job of a brand to help cut through the clutter and get people where they need to go without feeling stupid and without a lot of hassle.

A true story:

Awhile back I made a doctor's appointment. New doctor. Picked name out of the book.

Waited months for appointment.

Show up to office. 

See a square surrounded by what looks like bulletproof glass. Inside the square is where the staff works.

Outside is a TV with some bland ad for the practice.

I walk up to glass, see receptionist, and get handed the clipboard to sign in. Get handed the forms. There are approximately five thousand. I am exaggerating.

Forms appear complicated and are written in legalese. Like all forms nowadays.

I have no idea what I'm looking at here. I fill out the forms, trying not to think about it, till I get to one that looks really bad.

At this point I've wasted time, and I just want to be seen, but also I feel a little bit scared. My husband's not there - I can't get him on the phone - and just don't feel comfortable. I have no advocate. 

I am scared to get them mad at me, or they may refuse me the appointment. But still.

I walk up to the window and say something to receptionist. "Blah blah blah" to the effect that I don't want to sign it. 

She says, "You have to sign it or the doctor won't see you."

I say, "I am going to call my insurance company."

I call them. Operator says, "The doctor can have whatever office policy they want."

Me: "Yeah, but don't you have an agreement with them that gives me any rights?"

She: Equivalent of "no" - hangs up.

I go back to window and say, "I want to speak to the doctor about this before signing it."

Receptionist says, "Oh yeah?"

She goes to the back of the pen and gets the Commandant, or headmistress, leader of the penitentiary, you get the idea.

Commandant walks up to window: "You got a problem?"

Me: "This is unfair."

Big mistake.

Commandant to receptionist: "Get her papers."

Papers in hand, Commandant walks to shredder and they are gone. Before my eyes.

I am gaping in horror. Two hours lost. Visit lost. 

As "Seinfeld's" Soup Nazi would say, "No Soup For You!"

Later, everyone I told about this implored me, "Contact the insurance company. Contact the AMA. Complain!"

I thought about it for a little while. Then I didn't do anything. Because I just had too many other errands to do.

This experience, in a microcosm, is the experience of the average person in today's world. 

  • They watch the news, but don't know what's really going on.
  • They go to school, but we don't know how to get from there to a job.
  • They buy a computer, but as soon as something goes wrong, they are helpless.

It is completely overwhelming.

Now I'm going to talk about how we can fix this. By learning from Zach Galifianakis.

I first saw Galifianakis in the movie Due Date with Robert Downey. They didn't market it well. It's beyond hilarious. Then I saw It's Kind of a Funny Story with no big-name stars. A completely brilliant movie. (Not going to see Hangover 2 - stupid.)

And just the other day there was coverage in Salon.com of the online show Between Two Ferns (warning: offensive; not suitable for children.)

At first I thought Galifianakis was just acting out scripts that others wrote. But then I realized that it was his own personality that was coming through.

His basic strategy, as an entertainer, is to carefully own his weaknesses - particularly his weight - and use them to make elites let down their guard. With raw emotion, pathos, and biting humor based on honesty, he brings down the elite and puts them back on Planet Earth.

This is hinted at in Due Date, not really addressed in It's Kind of a Funny Story, but completely blatant in Between Two Ferns.

If you're not familiar with the online program, the format is approximately a 4-minute "webisode" funded by product placement, in the vein of a talk show.

Celebrities like Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston, Sean Penn, Will Ferrell, Steve Carell and others show up, sit on a chair next to Galifianakis - surrounded by two ferns and with a black curtain as a backdrop - and proceed to get nailed to the wall. He asks completely obnoxious questions; they squirm. Sometimes they punch him.

It's like The Tonight Show in the Twilight Zone. 

I watched and couldn't believe the popularity of this show. It is so hard to get a video to "go viral" or to get someone to your website. And here is this plain person, getting about a million viewers for a couple-of-minute web episode that looks homemade (see especially the Ben Stiller or Bradley Cooper episodes) has got something.

So, to wrap it up with something practical, here is how I would use the Galifianakis approach if you happen to be a communicator who needs to reach people with information or to sell your brand:

1. Video rules. Avoid words.

2. Content is 90%, production value 10%.

3. Use real people to represent your product, not celebrities.

4. Throw the script out the window. Feature real talk.

5. You can brand yourself with simple, consistent visuals and color (like the green plant and black curtain).

The bottom line: There is too much information out there. But people still need it. I would have liked to know how to complain about that doctor. But I didn't, and I didn't have time, and so an important opportunity to provide feedback was missed. 

You have to recognize the circumstances in which your audience is functioning. Recognize that to them, you are an information elite. Speak to them in a non-elite way, from the place at which you are sitting. Make a genuine human connection, and they will come to you.

Have a good weekend everyone, and good luck!

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Photo source here