Samsung's Galaxy Gear commercials have a big problem (and it has nothing to do with Apple)

Rob Walker, Yahoo News
Yahoo News

Samsung has a hit on its hands. Not its much-hyped Galaxy Gear smartwatch — but the ads for that watch. In particular, a supercut-style spot mashing up various fictional techno-watches in action across scenes from bygone pop culture has racked up nearly 2.5 million YouTube views in just a couple of days. The consensus seems to be that the commercials are better than the product.

That in itself is an obvious problem. But it could still be counted as a kind of victory for Samsung, suggesting that it’s finally closing in on the sort of marketing prowess that’s long been a not-so-secret weapon of its rival Apple. Unfortunately for Samsung, however, it’s not true: These clips may have some viral traction, but they’re terrible advertising. Here’s why.

Start with that supercut. It rifles through scenes from “Get Smart,” “The Jetsons,” “Knight Rider,” “Star Trek” and (inevitably) a Dick Tracy cartoon, among others. It’s certainly well edited, and it’s easy to see why people enjoy it as a rapid-fire visual essay on what is apparently a recurring dream of a techno-object that society has been having for decades.

But in retrospect, doesn’t that dream seem pretty goofy? Some of the clips made the object seem faintly absurd in real time; others simply look dorky.

While that’s charming as the subject of a video, its function as a commercial is to link the Gear to a tradition of kitsch. (I mean, "Knight Rider"? Seriously?) And that is pretty much the worst possible message to send about a product whose conspicuously unstylish look is already a problem.

This spot is actually the middle installment in a sort of three-act ad suite. I think the opener in the mini-series is even better as a video (and has about 1.1 million views), but again a flop as an ad. It shows a series of physical mockups of fictional world superwatches — from “Inspector Gadget,” “Predator,” “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers” and some of the shows listed above — climaxing with the Gear and the claim that “The Next Big Thing Is Here.” The problem? Compared to the extremely interesting-looking imaginary watches, the Gear looks bland, clunky and limited.

And that’s the bigger problem lurking beneath this entire strategy. Samsung isn’t just linking its product to dreams of a techno-future that never come true: It’s reminding you that the Gear isn’t remotely as cool, useful or quasi-magical as the objects we’ve been dreaming of. It’s practically a Buzzfeed listicle: 13 Fictional Watches That Are Way Better than the Gear. The tagline may as well be “The Next Big Thing Still Isn’t Here.”

This becomes incredibly clear in the final spot of the series, which has drawn much less attention (and far fewer views). Claiming to show us the Gear “in the wild,” it actually just documents comedian Max Silvestri bothering people in Times Square, showing them the object’s features. Presumably this footage involves the most-impressed-looking people possible — but they still mostly just seem to be humoring him. The watch looks just short of comically large, and when Silvestri takes a call and raises it to his ear, the gesture is awkward and ridiculous.

Some have suggested that Samsung’s supercut ad is a ripoff of a similar ad that helped introduce the iPhone. Whether or not that’s true (it isn’t), the comparison is useful. In the old Apple ad, a quick succession of movie and TV scenes in which characters say “Hello?” into a phone concludes with a shot of the iPhone and the word Hello. The function of the ad wasn’t to link the iPhone to imaginary objects, but to core human behavior: Here’s a product that is a significant step in the act of communication itself. It makes sense to build that case through the connective tissue of classic pop culture — and it’s far more effective to skip the carnival-barker claim that this is “the next big thing” and go with a one-word greeting that implies you’re about to meet the future. That’s a good sales pitch.

The good news for Samsung, then, is that its marketers have created a piece of cultural expression that a lot of people enjoy. The bad news is that it’s probably not going to sell any Gears.

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