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I am Iam Over Here, Lotus
Mar 04, 1999 :: Gregory Alkaitis-Carafelli

It was exactly the story Lotus Corporation's lawyers might have foreseen in a nightmare: Andrew Brookes, age four, died in a tragic accident while pretending to fly like comic book hero Superman, Irish news reported earlier this February. Lotus, heavy into it's "Superman" advertising campaign for R5, the new version of its Notes and Domino product lines (not even shipping to customers until late March after yet another series of developer delays), must certainly have been wary of incidents like this -- although they probably had information technology staff and not young children in mind when they penned a disclaimer to appear at the bottom of print advertising: "Our lawyers want you to know that you can't actually be Superman, since Superman is really Kal-El of Krypton (a.k.a. Clark Kent of Metropolis). It is a metaphorical, feeling type of Superman that Lotus R5 enables you to be by making you feel as if you can do anything (but don't try lifting a car or jumping to the top of a building…you could hurt your back)."

It is unfortunate that even with this paranoid attention to detail, Lotus' ambitious advertising campaign to promote R5 does not do justice to the Man of Steel. While pieces of the Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide effort are technically executed well, the campaign as a whole lacks cohesion, and its muddled message leaves me nostalgic for the simplicity of two irascible elderly Parisians walking by the Seine and their accented delivery of an unmistakable tag: "IBM? Oui IBM."

On its own, the R5 television spot is striking, mostly because of the insidious remake by a group of female studio singers of the Clique song "Superman" (already loaded with GenX cred thanks to R.E.M's cover on their 1986 album "Life's Rich Pageant"). "I am, I am Superman and I can do anything" the singers croon, while letterboxed in bold yellow the camera finds images of individuals in crowds and cubes all over the world holding up different hand-lettered signs reading "I am." Titles dissolve smoothly in and out along the bottom of the screen: "I am ready"; "I am connected"; "I am Superman." But what of the message? Are you supposed to fight crime or data loss? Do you don a red and blue costume before loading Domino on your workgroup server? Superman was regularly roused from his bed at all hours of the night -- something most IT staff would rather avoid. Is that your fate after installing Notes?

We may never know. Suddenly the commercial is over and the viewer is left only with the remade "I am" theme music dancing around, like an aural version of a bad aftertaste, wondering just who all those random people were.

Some of those people do actually reappear -- hand lettered signs and all -- in print ads, inside lavish eight page trade magazine spreads where suddenly the focus is on "super.human.software." Besides the egregious punctuation, this summary phrase annoys with a message that appears to be at odds with its goal of selling product. Human software by definition would be vulnerable to the sympathies and frailties of human nature. "Super" human software would only emphasize those frailties, resulting in a product any typical bureaucracy-laden enterprise would shy away from faster than they recoil (at least publicly) from using free operating systems.

With visually cluttered layouts that are saturated with pull quotes and complex sidebars, and poor connections with sister campaigns in other media, these print ads are radically different from IBM/Lotus' past history of a clean and crisp appearance in their media spots. The images readers are left with are indistinct: the lower torso of someone wearing jeans, a hand and part of the Wall Street Journal, a man's head, the rest of his body hidden by a giant cardboard box on a warehouse conveyor belt. It all, unfortunately, just doesn't add up. The whole campaign feels like there were too many late night sessions involved, with people more eager to finish the project than to finish it right.

And why bother to do it right? It's only advertising -- and for a software product not even destined for the general market. But by spending millions on advertising for R5 in print, television, and other media, Lotus is obviously pandering to a general market, dragging out the haggard technology advertising theme of personal empowerment. After years of being messaged to death with visions of networked glory, we could use an ad campaign that doesn't cause most PC users to mutter derisively under their breath ("Yeah, right, I can be Superman."), much less one that's as confused as this one.

We know that the customer ultimately decides if a product flies like a super hero or dies like an unrealized fantasy, but shame on Lotus for squandering a ripe opportunity to sway the verdict on R5.

 

 

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