Commentary — January 21, 2011, 3:43 pm

United We Brand!

Last September, when the pollsters at Gallup asked Americans to “describe the federal government in one word or phrase,” 72 percent of the responses were pejorative. The federal government was a “constipated,” “obese,” “crappy” “bureaucracy” run by a “bunch of yahoos,” or by a “bunch of [profanity deleted].” We may be more politically polarized than ever, but when it comes to the federal government, we stand united in our disgust.

One often hears that we should run government like a business. What would a business do if it saw brand loyalty give way to such brand hostility? Wouldn’t its executives summon the alchemists of advertising? The day after last November’s midterm elections, Harper’s Magazine gathered creatives from four ad agencies—Saatchi & Saatchi, Goody Silverstein, Grey Group, and Weiden+Kennedy—and assigned them a daunting task: to develop a television spot for the federal government. And not just any television spot. We wanted one both memorable enough and entertaining enough to compete in the most expensive televised-marketing event of the year—the Super Bowl.

The conversation that followed, which can be read in our February issue, touched on government’s image problem and the recipe for the perfect Super Bowl ad. All four agencies created storyboards for Super Bowl spots, which also appear in the issue. One of them, Goodby Silverstein, took the task a step further and created a real website as a companion to their fake ad below.

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Nobody in academia had ever witnessed or even heard of a performance like this before. In just a few years, in the early 1950s, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student — a student, in his twenties — had taken over an entire field of study, linguistics, and stood it on its head and hardened it from a spongy so-called “social science” into a real science, a hard science, and put his name on it: Noam Chomsky.

At the time, Chomsky was still finishing his doctoral dissertation for Penn, where he had completed his graduate-school course work. But at bedtime and in his heart of hearts he was living in Boston as a junior member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, and creating a Harvard-level name for himself.

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