Subservient Chicken and the Oncoming Train

February 8, 2009 at 2:30 am 1 comment

(This article was originally published in the July 10, 2006 edition of Adweek with the title “BK Redux: A Fool’s Errand.”)

Subservient Chicken was boring. There, I said it.

A fair number of people will react as if I just tore a page out of Ogilvy On Advertising and blew my nose on it. However, I suspect a good many more will privately agree. Simply put, when I’m looking for amusement, a guy in a chicken suit doing calisthenics ranks a couple of notches below a Larry Storch retrospective.

(However, the guy in the chicken suit still ranks a couple of notches above the designer barcodes that were recently awarded a Titanium Lion at Cannes. That work is the conceptual equivalent of dotting your i’s with smiley faces. But I digress.)

Before Alex Bogusky and Benjamin Palmer start building a letter bomb with my name on it, I hasten to add that even though I found Subservient Chicken boring, I also admired it. In fact, I’d even say it might be the most influential site ever created. Early 2006 saw the launch of sillywalksgenerator.com, which promotes a new set of Monty Python DVDs. It essentially uses the same trick as Subservient Chicken—i.e., it gives consumers control of what amounts to a digital marionette—and I would argue doesn’t do it as well.

So how can Subservient Chicken be so important and at the same time somewhat dull? Allow me to explain. I’ll only have to go back 110 years and six months to do it.

On December 28, 1895 in Paris, the Lumière brothers—Auguste and Louis—showed a 50-second film called L’Arrivee d’un train en gare de la Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station). It was the first public exhibition of a motion picture. Der Speigel reported that the audience panicked at the site of the oncoming train and scattered to get out of the way. Some modern commentators doubt that a sophisticated 19th-century French audience actually believed they were about to be run over. Whether they dove into the aisles or not, it’s a safe assumption that, never having seen a motion picture before, the crowd was impressed and, upon leaving the theater, told everyone they knew about the images they had just seen.

The film had no characters, no stars, and no plot. But it didn’t matter, because it had something no one had ever experienced before—moving pictures.

So it was with Subservient Chicken. The content people saw when they visited the site wasn’t that remarkable. What was remarkable was the interactivity—the very fact that the consumer controlled the action in what seemed to be an almost limitless way thanks to the cleverness of its creators.

Granted, the internet and interactivity existed before Subservient Chicken, but not in a form that had ever truly caught fire. The Barbarian Group’s web site claims 25 million hits in the first 48 hours after Subservient Chicken went live. During those two days, the mainstream understanding of what interactivity was all about was formed.

Which brings us back to the Lumière brothers. The importance of their work was undeniable. Their films were in large part the basis for the initial mainstream understanding of what motion pictures were all about. That being said, I am not anticipating any new Hollywood releases about trains pulling into stations. In the last 110 years or so, we’ve figured out that films of trains pulling into stations are, well, boring. Kind of like Subservient Chicken.

That’s not to minimize Subservient Chicken’s importance, but to draw a comparison between the early days of interactivity and the early days of motion pictures. Right now, we’re inventing the interactive space one idea at a time, just as the pioneers of cinema had to invent that medium one film at a time.

For the moment, game developers—not advertising agencies—are leading the way. Slick as their products are, for the most part they’re merely delivering interactive violence in a handsome package. Violence is essentially slapstick without the laughs, which is why I like to think of game developers as the Mack Sennett and Keystone Cops of interactivity. Amusing to be sure, but certainly not at the level of Chaplin, Keaton or Eisenstein.

Trying to create the next Subservient Chicken is a fool’s errand. It’s impossible. The novelty that made Subservient Chicken possible is gone forever. Today’s challenge is much more daunting. Try to create the next Battleship Potemkin.

© Scott Johnson

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Lies, Damned Lies and Bears on Bicycles

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