Every week, critic Robert Ham breaks down the mechanics of a particularly excellent Silicon Valley scene, joke or character. This week, it’s all about that brilliant fake ad.
I’ve become more and more convinced that advertisers have almost given up trying to actually sell their products to us. Instead, their goal seems to be to either confuse us or give us something recognizable that we can tweet about or share to our Facebook walls.
How else to explain the still-horrifying Puppymonkeybaby that a certain soft drink company threw in our faces during the Super Bowl, and that continues to haunt my dreams even to this day? Or the appearance of multiple memes and regularly shared clips from YouTube videos and gifs cluttering up commercials for hotels and air travel? Or the strange juxtaposition of a Ramones song to sell an app that will help you sign documents on your smartphone? It’s terrifying how dumb these ad agencies think we are, and it’s equally terrifying to consider they may be right.
That’s why the ad that they stuck to the start of this week’s episode of Silicon Valley felt so dead on. No one within the company really knows how to explain just what the hell it is that Pied Piper does to the average person, so why not throw as many empty platitudes and as much stock footage in their faces as they can handle. All the better to just send people, saucer-eyed, to download this app. They don’t know what it is, but they know they need it and it’s going to make the world a better place.
The clip was reminiscent of those hilarious ads for Veridian Dynamics, a company with far shadier dealings than Pied Piper could ever get into. Yet the message was clear that they wanted you to trust in their products and principles. So they trucked out the happy people and the soothing voiceover to make the medicine go down. Or, those flagrant drug ads that seem to creep into the commercial breaks for hourlong dramas and sporting events that use the happy-go-lucky montages as a backdrop for a litany of potential side effects. You feel like you’re taking your life in your hands just by taking one pill, but at the same time… look how fun and active those people are!
For as brash as the humor can often get on Silicon Valley (and I just now found out that they green-screened Stephen Tobolowsky into the horse copulation scenes), their satire is the sharpest when it is as subtle as this fake ad was. It didn’t beat you over the head with a message. It just served as another reminder of how much they are paying attention to every little detail of the cultural world and using it to their considerable advantage.
The simplest message that Clay Tarver, the writer for this episode, is trying to convey with that ad is just how out in the weeds most tech companies are about selling their products to the everyday user. It’s a point that ripples out through the whole episode as the team tries to do outreach to get people to make a habit of using Pied Piper’s platform. The trick that they and most tech companies never pull off is how to build something that the average person can just grab a hold of and start using. It’s something that Apple does disturbingly well. For example: I had my iPhone for just a year before my less than two-year-old son got a hold of it and was opening apps and making things happen. If someone with that limited mental capacity can make a smartphone hum, so can the rest of us halfwits.
That is also why Apple’s ads will always win out. Even when we don’t know what the product is, we just know we have to have one. The Pied Piper ad is emblematic of every last tech company that just doesn’t get it and will forever lag behind the king. They aim for Steve Jobs, and land somewhere closer to Shawn Fanning who tried and failed to bring Napster into the 21st century. And, us, the simpleton users, we’re just waiting around for the next shiny object or famous spokesperson to rove into our view and keep us entertained for a few minutes.
Robert Ham is a regular contributor to Paste and the author of Empire: The Unauthorized Untold Story, out now via Regan Arts. Follow him on Twitter.