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Google Mugs Father Christmas

I was just starting my annual letter to Santa when I saw a commercial that threatened my entire system of belief. Santa will have to guess what I want this year because this letter felt more important:

Dear Google,

Please tell me that you really aren’t just another brand! I want to believe in the spirit of Google. I want to believe not only that you are smarter and better than those other technology companies but also that you aren’t evil.

First, let me say that, from a story perspective, I love the ads you’ve made so far. I actually use them as examples of how to do storytelling right. With ads like “Jess Time”, “Dear Sophie” and “Make it Happen”, you have played to all the key principles of effective storytelling. You’ve routinely crafted your communications around conflict, you’ve suggested meaning deeper than the surface message, and you’ve never hit me over the head with what you were trying to say. You’ve been thoughtful and engaging, and you’ve seemed to care about what everything means.

That’s why I was so shocked by the Google Chromebook Christmas commercial you aired last night. On the surface, it’s very similar to the other things you have done. It’s an upbeat and even touching montage of people opening gifts and reacting. What’s beautiful about it is that the reactions are so genuine. The unbridled excitement and glee, the occasional eyes that brim with tears&#8212all really capture something about the true joy of giving. Part of that magic is the energetic rock and roll beat of the Christmas tune you set the commercial to, “Father Christmas”, by the Kinks.

With that, however, you shake my faith. I know that song, and it’s not about the true joy of giving. It’s a song about a department-store Santa Claus mugged by a gang of children, who tell him to give them money and save his toys for the little rich boys. The power of the song is the devastating contrast it draws between the happy excesses of Christmas and the harsh reality of poverty. It sounds great in the spot. But it doesn’t fit.

This is a classic error that brands make. They like some lyric of a song or its snappy tune, but they don’t really pay attention to what the song is saying. Or they assume I, their audience, don’t know what it means. They miss or ignore the fact that the song has the exact opposite message from the one they’re promoting. I’ve seen this done over and over—as when Target used Devo’s “It’s a Beautiful World” an ironic song about how ugly consumerism is, in an iconic design campaign. Great choice for Target!

Of course, most people never noticed the unintended irony in the Target ad. So, what’s the big deal then? “Father Christmas” wasn’t that big a hit for the Kinks when it came out in 1977. Maybe people won’t know what it’s really about. Well, maybe they wouldn’t have in the old days before you, Google, changed the way we access information. But these days (thanks to you) it’s only too easy to ask the Internet what that catchy song was on the Google ad, to google the lyrics and instantly find out what it’s really about. Again, only a few people may do it, but that’s not the point. The point is that up until now, I thought you were smarter and deeper than this kind of error, Google. I thought you cared about the deeper meaning. Up until now, I had faith that you weren’t just organizing all the scads of information floating around on the net, but that you were actually trying to make sense of it and help me understand what it all meant. Because what good is information if I don’t know what it means?

But now I’m worried. What if you don’t care? What if you’re just like any other big company? What if you are just another cold-hearted brand trying to push my emotional buttons so I’ll buy what you are selling? If that’s the case, it’s very, very scary, because I’ve been unwittingly giving you information about my emotional buttons for years now. So please, Google, say it ain’t so. Show me that you knew what you were doing and that I can still believe in the spirit of Google.

Yours hopefully,

And just in case you just are not as deeply devoted to the Kinks as I am, I have pasted the lyrics to “Father Christmas” below. I certainly hope Google has not shaken your faith in Christmas.

Happy Holidays,

When I was small I believed in Santa Claus

Though I knew it was my dad

And I would hang up my stocking at Christmas

Open my presents and I’d be glad

But the last time I played father Christmas

I stood outside a department store

A gang of kids came over and mugged me

And knocked my reindeer to the floor

They said:

Father Christmas, give us some money

Don’t mess around with those silly toys.

Well beat you up if you don’t hand it over

We want your bread so don’t make us annoyed

Give all the toys to the little rich boys

Don’t give my brother a Steve Austin outfit

Don’t give my sister a cuddly toy

We don’t want a jigsaw or monopoly money

We only want the real McCoy

Father Christmas, give us some money

Well beat you up if you make us annoyed

Father Christmas, give us some money

Don’t mess around with those silly toys

But give my daddy a job cause he needs one

He’s got lots of mouths to feed

But if you’ve got one, I’ll have a machine gun

So I can scare all the kids down the street

Father Christmas, give us some money

We got no time for your silly toys

Well beat you up if you don’t hand it over

Give all the toys to the little rich boys

Have yourself a merry merry Christmas

Have yourself a good time

But remember the kids who got nothin’

While you’re drinkin’ down your wine

Father Christmas, give us some money

We got no time for your silly toys

Well beat you up if you don’t hand it over

We want your bread, so don’t make us annoyed

Give all the toys to the little rich boys

“Character gets to the heart of what good storytelling is all about. They’ve helped Wendy’s focus on what makes us unique, different and special and that’s helped us to get people’s attention, keep their interest and keep the business growing. We compete with much larger brands, but by being overt about how we want to attack those differences, we’ve been able to have a lot of tension and conflict in the story that we are telling. That allows us to keep the story fresh and to fuel it. The more we do that the more positive attention we get as a brand and the more the brand continues to grow, which, in turn, builds our confidence in our storytelling and keeps the courage level high.”

—Kurt  Kane, President U.S. & Chief Commercial Officer, Wendy’s Corporation

“I’ve been through Character’s story framework process four times in my career, and it has always added extraordinary value. It was a central piece of Walmart’s rebranding effort in 2006, as we sought a new articulation of our brand narrative and our purpose. It’s an equally powerful tool for us now, as Walmart defines its place in a rapidly transforming retail environment. And we are currently using it to do the same for Sam’s Club.”

—Tony Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, Walmart

“Since articulating our story framework, Gallo has had its best year. We’re up 10% and we’re outpacing the category. From a creative standpoint it’s been great because we’re all in alignment. Now that we have the articulation of our story, our social media, our partnerships, our programs, our packaging—it all makes sense.”

—Stephanie Gallo, Chief Marketing Officer, E&J Gallo Winery