MaverickMovies: How to Make (and How Not to Make) an Ubuntu Commercial

August 23rd, 2010

Look. I appreciate that you want to help. We depend on foot soldiers like you to get the word out about Ubuntu. But watching these videos (and others) drives me absolutely bonkers. Because I know this isn’t your best work. I know Canonical has given you about two hours in which to scramble to make these things. I know the Libre world hasn’t given you adequate tools for video editing. I know these things. But don’t let yourself settle for this. You’re better than that.

With that in mind, here are all the points I’ve been able to glean from sitting through my fair share of user-made Ubuntu promotional videos.

  • Study. Go watch some Apple commercials. Seriously. I know that merely by mentioning Apple I’m risking turning this comments thread into an absolute flame war, but let’s not kid ourselves. Through their advertising they are able to create and foster an emotional bond between the viewer and the product. They eliminate the mundane cruft of the interface — progress bars, launching programs — and just depict a deep involvement in acts of creating, communicating, sharing, remembering, etc. They don’t depict you importing your photos into iPhoto. I’m not telling you to mimic them. (Read that sentence again so I don’t have to repeat myself in the comments.) I’m just telling you to watch them, and to think about how they make you feel, and to figure out why they make you feel that way.
  • Put some real thought into what to emphasize. Is it really a killer feature of Shotwell that it makes it easy to import photos? But wait, before you answer that question: Do you honestly believe Shotwell even does make it easy to import photos? And: What about its photo importing process differentiates it from every other photo manager out there? If you can’t answer these questions, then don’t show that feature. If there are no Shotwell features that meet these criteria (hint: there aren’t), then come up with a different way of presenting it.
  • Think of a narrative, and show, don’t tell. Don’t just list features. You sound like a robot. Go watch some of Google’s “Search on” ads again to see what I mean. Make people feel something, don’t beg them to use Ubuntu by telling them it has power windows and cruise control and a brake pedal. Also watch this Mad Men clip if you haven’t seen it.
  • Don’t show progress bars. What are you trying to say here? I know you’re severely handicapped by the likes of the two-year-old gtk-recordMyDesktop and the meager PiTiVi, but just crop that crap out. You don’t have to go for realism, here. People understand that there will be progress bars and hourglasses. Don’t remind them of that. Instead of showing the entire progress bar animation, why not jump-cut to a closer view of the activity that is likely to follow whatever action took so long? I had to crack up when I saw that the video thumbnail in Mark’s proposal for this idea was frozen on a damn shut down dialog. Don’t show us shut down dialogs. Please.
  • Go easy on “Easy.” And “elegant.” And “simple.” And “beautiful.” And “fast.” These words don’t mean anything to anybody. They are hollow and flaccid and will never, ever grab anyone’s attention. Stop it.
  • Don’t damn with faint praise. If your video mentions that with Ubuntu you can “Get connected to the internet,” then you’ve already failed. This is 2010; people expect to be able to get onto the internet. You don’t have to remind them that the desktop can display “Millions of colors,” do you? Likewise, don’t tell them that they can “Manage their contacts and calendar.” If you think it’s important that people know that Ubuntu has a capable email program in Evolution, then imply that that’s the case. Don’t bash them over the head with it.
  • Be careful with your music selection. Don’t include a song because you think it’s “cool.” Think hard about how it will be perceived by others. Ideally it ought to communicate the same emotions one is meant to feel while using Ubuntu. Does gritty aggro-rock really create an attractive atmosphere? Maybe for you, but not for most — you know that as well as I do. If it has lyrics, be extra careful about what they’re saying. Irrelevance is probably worse than vulgarity here.
  • Polish, polish, polish. This video accidentally slips Gill Sans into what was previously strictly Helvetica. In that moment, the video is dead in the water. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of attention to detail. I know that’s vague. But please, just, I mean — try, damn it. Make every frame vital to the video.
  • Linux for whom? Oh, right: people. I see absolutely no people in these videos. This one still has the default user avatar in the GDM login window. A while back I saw this video, which includes an Ekiga video chat with two people on the other end, and I was stunned. These people were smiling and waving! Is it possible that Ubuntu really can do more than “manage my contacts” and “play music”? For a brief moment, it seemed like it. So go grab your most photogenic friend and get him or her on a damn Skype chat for crying out loud. Show them sitting on a park bench opening a netbook with an Ubuntu sticker. Anything to give me the idea that what I’m looking at isn’t some abstract, esoteric digital landscape populated by brains in vats, eternally editing copies of Big Buck Bunny in PiTiVi.

Why not eschew Canonical’s guidelines entirely? To hell with them. I know that means you might not make it onto Shuttleworth’s blog right away, but get over yourself. Give something valuable to the community. Get a head start on a commercial for Natty. Damn the features, show people, show photos, show actual home video, show you and your friend recording a song in Jokosher. Be funny, be minimalist, be maximalist, ignore the interface entirely. You’ve got four seasons to do it. If you aim higher than Shuttleworth’s misguided request for “features emphasis,” you’ll almost certainly come out on top and make everyone notice, and maybe the higher-ups will gain some damn perspective for once.