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With Help from MacFarlane, Oscars Preview a New Vision: Fresh, but Unfocused

Posted by: Darcy Newell and Jennifer Vano on February 26, 2013
Seth MacFarlane

The best performances of the year were honored last night, but the most disputed act seems to be that of host Seth MacFarlane—was he a hit, a miss or something in between?

In case you missed it: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) chose MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy and Ted, to be the host of the 85th annual Academy Awards in a rather obvious effort to rebrand the show as relevant to younger audiences. In our previous post, we wrote that MacFarlane faced a three-pronged challenge: to channel the old school sophistication for which the show is known, advance the AMPAS’ new brand vision, and to maintain his own personal brand in the process.

Since our last writing, the AMPAS made another change, though it was so subtle many viewers may have missed it. For the first time in history, the AMPAS branded the show “The Oscars,” its informal nickname, rather than its official moniker, “The Academy Awards.” Other additions, like a show theme (music in film) and pre-taped comedy segments, prove the Academy has been thinking of ways to spice things up while leveraging the lesser-known talents of its host.

Dance Number

The AMPAS acknowledged from the start of the show that the comedian was an unconventional choice whose performance could go either way: as part of MacFarlane’s opening monologue, Captain Kirk beamed in “from the future,” chastising him for his ensuing flubs and showing reviews from the next day declaring him the “worst host in history.” A clever tactic, as it afforded MacFarlane the opportunity to push the envelope and then redeem himself, reverting back to old school showmanship, complete with Broadway-style singing and dancing.

It’s a compelling combination of dashing and devilish, one that had the potential to evolve the Oscars brand. Yet, MacFarlane’s performance, and the strategy driving it, was puzzlingly scattered, making us laugh as often as we cringed. Not surprisingly, real reviews—not from Captain Kirk—were mixed. Here’s our take.

The good:

MacFarlaneMacFarlane crooned the classics and tap-danced with ease. He seemed fully invested and genuinely enthusiastic in even the most over-the-top sketches, like his visit from Kirk or his homage to The Sound of Music—attributes that are on-brand for the Oscars as we’ve known it.

His commentary around cut jokes appearing on the teleprompter and follow-ups when jokes fell flat made for a fast-paced, anything-can-happen vibe that brought the show into fresher territory. For example, the line about Django Unchained’s R-rated language being based on Mel Gibson’s voicemails was booed by the audience, but the follow up, “Oh, so you’re on his side?” saved the moment. Of course, he had some universally funny moments, like making Tommy Lee Jones laugh within the first two minutes of the show and delivering good-hearted jokes about Ben Affleck’s nomination snub.

The bad:

Some blasted MacFarlane’s joke about John Wilkes Booth and his reenactment of The Sound of Music scene as tasteless; others found them to be funny, or at least fair play. Still, some jokes seem to be universally off-putting, like Ted the bear’s bit about being Jewish in Hollywood, MacFarlane’s badly timed joke about women losing weight for the ceremony and a lazy lob about mistaking Denzel Washington for Eddie Murphy.

Ted the BearEven if your tolerance for boundary-pushing humor is sizable, we think MacFarlane failed to pick his moments of shock and dismay, and balance them with more good-natured humor, like Poehler and Fey did at the Golden Globes. Overall, this lack of balance undermined the Oscars’ legacy of class and glamour.

Let’s not forget that MacFarlane isn’t the only guy writing his jokes—both the good and the bad—nor is he responsible for some of the broadcast’s more awkward moments, like when the orchestra started playing the Jaws theme song to cut a heartfelt acceptance speech short or a sock puppet reenactment of the movie Flight. There’s a team of people—hired by the AMPAS—producing every word, action and musical cue of the night.

It seems to us that the Academy made a common branding mistake: a strategy seems firm on paper, but execution wanders hopelessly “off brief,” perhaps because of a weak premise, bad planning or inadequate foresight. The Academy set out to be funny and provocative, but without defining what kind of funny, how provocative, and in what way, we’re left feeling like we saw a movie before it hit the editing room.

Evolving the brand is great, but the Academy must not leave the Oscars’ identity behind. At its core it’s a production: a velvet-curtained, perfectly orchestrated show that we only get to experience once a year—not a skit, and certainly not a rehearsal.

Let’s call this year a rough cut of the AMPAS’ new, and not entirely flawed, strategy and hope next year we get to see the final.

Darcy Newell and Jennifer Vano are Consultants in Verbal Identity for Interbrand New York.

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