Sprint is running a new series of commercials with a fictional family called the Frobinsons. Maybe you like them. That's fine. You're entitled to your opinion. So am I, and I think the ads are, so far, pretty terrible. Here's why.
Here is the debut Sprint spot with the family:
Of course, this series of commercials was launched after Japanese mobile phone carrier Softbank bought Sprint.
Since 2007, Softbank's commercials have featured the "White Family" (白戸家 or Shirato-ke or its other naming, Howaito-ke), and the ads were to promote Softbank's White Plan (note, the carrier also has a Gold Plan). The family's name was also a Japanese language pun on the last name of one of the commercial's stars, Aya Ueto.
The ads are built on the concept of "yosougai" (予想外), or the "unforeseen" or "unexpected" element. In the Softbank ads, those elements are the father and the brother.
Compare the Sprint commercial with a White Family ad:
The writing is better, the editing is better, and the music is better. The Softbank ads are just... better. But why?
What makes these ads so damn good is also that they play up the unforeseen element in a smart way. In this ad, you can see the family members making fun of yosougai:
Yet at the same time, the commercials never play up the nationality or race of Dante Carver, who plays Brother, for cheap laughs, either. There aren't cheesy Different Strokes moments in the commercials. Inside, you might see the family trying to deal with English speakers, and the Sister turn to Brother and say something like, "You know English, don't you?" And he'll kinda shrug, and the commercial keeps moving along, not missing a beat. Compared to how foreign actors tend to be fetishized in many Japanese commercials, the fact that Carver is just another member of the family is incredibly refreshing.
The unforeseen elements work because they play them with a straight face—or rather, a knowingly straight one—and portray this as an actual family, with a father, a mother, a sister, and a brother. And because of that, people continue to respond to the ads. The family isn't just gimmick after gimmick.
Worst of all is that the Sprint ads seem confusing. The yosougai elements are a father who is a hamster, a brother with a Southern accent, and a daughter with animated birds who speaks French. Bwah? So busy! Why not either let the daughter speak foreign languages or have noisy, animated animal friends? Why both? And really, there are too many kids in the family! I thought the other brother was the father, and the father was just a talking hamster.
Yes, I know, I know. The campaign is just starting. But the second ad introduces even more characters. (Maybe grandpa was added after Sprint realized the first ad was all white folks?) But again, there's simply too much going on—we don't even know the principal family members yet! And people need to process that the animal is the father and not, you know, the family pet.
Though, the French language cover of the Motley Crue song is quite nice.
The smart thing about the original Softbank commercials is that there was a strong core family. Commercials are short! So viewers need stuff interesting and clear. To mix things up, there are cool guest stars, whether they were super famous Japanese celebrities—or Hollywood stars. They'd usually only guest in one or two commercials, as not to muck everything up.
What's the big deal? Who cares, right? These are just commercials. Brian, you're being petty, right?! The issue is that these commercials are attempting to be a reworked version of the Softbank ads—which continue to be really good. In comparison, these Sprint versions aren't as focused, aren't as sharp, and aren't as good. So far, that is.
As I mentioned previously, these Sprint commercials are just getting started. They're about two commercials in, so hopefully, they'll improve and hit their stride. Though, people could probably say the same thing about Sprint's service, no?
The Frobinson Framily [Sprint]
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