The Linux Foundation Video Contest: An Experiment That Failed

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Apr 15, 2009 GMT
Bruce Byfield

From the start, I viewed the Linux Foundation's contest to create an ad for GNU/Linux with apprehension. In theory, I can see where promotional material for free software is needed to help explain it to the average computer user. However, as someone who has deliberately developed his own mental version of ad-blocker, I find that the idea makes me uneasy. Today, advertising is one of the major repositories for visual cliche in our culture. Could the contest entries move beyond the usual cliches? More importantly, could they manage the difficult job of explaining free software in basic terms?

Unfortunately, after looking at the winners and many of the other entries, I conclude that they couldn't.

From one perspective, the winners successfully imitated the structure of professional ads. The winner and the first runner up in particular captured perfectly the unctuous cadences of a voiceover speaking vaguely mystical generalities. With stereotypical electronic music looping in the background, the winner recited a list of answers to its initial question, "What does it mean to be free?" The first runner-up lacked the music (although it did have sound effects), but went on in equally vague terms about evolution.

Given my mental ad-blocker, I had to watch both several times before I could absorb them, because I kept tuning them out. I'd seen their like before countless times, so they had the effect that any cliche does: I stopped paying attention, even when I made a conscious effort.

The second runner up was the only one of the winners to feature live actors. Although the actors were obviously amateurs, they at least held my attention more than the crude animation of the other two.

But the second runner up was a cliche of another sort, showing a computer suffering from "viral infection and memory loss" being rushed into a hospital emergency room, where the doctors are helpless to save it. Just as all seems lost, an unbearably smug Tux lays hands on it, then waddles off with a nurse under each wing, his voice so self-satisfied that you just know there's a smirk under the costume.

With its attempt at drama, the entry was playing off the countless medical dramas that have been littered television for the last fifty years. It was playing for laughs, perhaps, but still following a predictable pattern that, ultimately, I had seen too many times to focus on easily.

But, if the winners failed to produce anything new or arresting, all three suffered even more from their failure to explain what they were talking about. Instead, all opted to create a mood rather than conveying a message.

This tactic that works well if you are advertising something that needs no explanation like a luxury car, or an item that is so generic that associating essentially unrelated moods is your only hope of being memorable. Unfortunately, it works less well when you need to explain something as complex as GNU/Linux.

When the average person doesn't even know what an operating system is, what are they likely to get from the winners? That there is something called Linux that is free (the winner) or highly adaptable and evolved (the first runner up), and that it can magically free computers from viruses (the second runner up). None of this is particularly useful information for someone who wants to know what the ads are about.

From the first two, the audience might not even guess that computers were involved. That is not the problem with the third, but it leaves watchers wondering what the giant penguin has to do with anything. Possibly, they might catch the final reference to Windows and Apple, but the second runner up still leaves them to conclude for themselves that an alternate operating system is being referred to. Many, I suspect, won't have the knowledge to do so.

Other entries suffered from at least one of the same problems. The ones that showed flashes of originality, like "Linux and the Blues" failed to explain, while those that tried to explain, like "Why Linux is Awesome" not only failed to do so, but, in their efforts to be original, ended up being simply bizarre.

Looking through the entries, I was reminded forcibly of the time when I was doing advertising for a company, and passed off designing the monthly print magazine spread to a committee because I was busy helping the company lawyer on bundling deals (it was a very small company). The results were -- well, "mixed" would be the politest word. For all that everybody likes to denigrate advertising, producing an effective ad is never easy, and most of those who have never done it can only respond in muddled cliches in their first efforts.

Strangely, neither the winners nor any of the entries reflect the sponsor. The Linux Foundation being a non-profit assocation consisting largely of corporate members, I would have expected the winners to talk more about business advantages rather than software freedom. In fact, if they had, they might have set themselves an easier task of explaining, and been more successful.

As things were, for all the talk of freedom, few entrants bothered to submit their work in a format that could actually be played by free software. Whether the Flash entries would play in Gnash was hit or miss, and few bothered to submit an Ogg Theora version. This lack made the messages in the entries seem somewhat insincere.

Such judgments may seem harsh. But remember that the contest was specifically framed as a response to professional advertising from Apple and Microsoft. Under these conditions, it makes sense to judge the contest entries by the standards of what you are competing against. Besides, to lower your standards is condescending and creates a false sense of accomplishment in those you are judging.

I wish I could be more enthuastic about this experiment. But, as much as I regret the conclusion, the contest failed to produce a thoroughly professional ad, or one that is really usable. Enthusiasm is all very well, but it also takes skill for amateurs to produce quality results -- something that the free software community itself has proved many times over.


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  • Alex commercial and the tuxproject

    Alex, I posted a reply at thetuxproject . Later, I'll see if I start a dedicated thread for it. [Forum activity is low, btw.]

    Thetuxproject has always attracted some people with ideas on marketing Linux but has never taken off per say. However, particular ideas which were discussed there have been taken to a much higher level by its authors and/or interested parties (eg, Ken Starks and friends with Lindependence at Felton and Portland).

    [Thetuxproject was started by the same small group that got sponsorship to put a tux logo on an indy 500 car. Yes, car crashed early on -- it was a risky proposition whose results angered a number of people -- but ahead of the race, numerous magazines and newspapers carried stories about the Linux community, their product, and their heart, etc. One of the emotional surprises there was a last minute qualifying time by the driver that substituted at the last hour the initial "Tux" driver (who got hurt in a qualifier attempt). I would expect one day after LInux becomes mainstream for such stories to be documented in a professional feature somewhere as "a setback along the way to a happy ending".]
  • Blender can really help

    >> Pixar Studios?

    >> New Mexico Mark Apr 17, 2009 8:56pm GMT
    Since they use Linux systems for rendering animations, maybe they could come up with a really cool animated short about Tux in order to contribute back to the community.

    The Blender community has released animated pieces of several minutes to show off their product (eg, Big Buck Bunny). The full source code is provided for these along with FOSS licenses (not sure if everything is in a FOSS license.. iirc, some of the music used in the film might not be).

    Studying their work can help any future team that wants to build an animated Tux short.

    Blender is a great FOSS story. People really wanted the code released so got together to make that happen. It's a great product. It does have a learning curve that is not minor, but you can be very efficient with the software once you learn the controls (I think the design is by/for those that will use the tool a lot). There are many tutorials and docs in the site to help you out. Perhaps they will add demo or interactive videos in the future. They do ask for help in constructing their wiki'd tutorials.

    This ad about a learning animation DVD was posted on the blender site
  • Educational campaigns are for those with time and money to waste

    >> These education campaigns are always going to be fruitless. The reality is that anyone who has the mental accumen and interest to understand the message, also has the kind of mentlity that questions what they see around them and seeks answers on their own, so in other words will already have found out what you are trying to tell them.

    OK, Mr Bill Gates, I'll keep your advice in mind.

    Anyone that wants to waste time and money can sample this
  • Breaking the chains idea - Creative Commons 3.0


    Glad you liked the idea!
    If you can use the idea, run with it. If I have to choose a license then I'll go with Creative Commons 3.0.


    Alex C.
  • Correct strategy?

    What could have been done is get in tune with both ads from Micro$oft and Apple. They don't advertise their products really. Apple bashes Micro$oft and call themselves cool. Micro$oft bashes Apple for being expensive, and advertises PC notebooks(Not the operational system). A Linux ad should bash both operational systems as expensive and bad.
  • More seeds

    Charles, that was great.... license?

    New Mexico Mark, not as clearly defined of a commercial description as the other two but interesting. The Revolution OS continuation does sound interesting but maybe it won't get done until there are more Linux breakthroughs.

    JJS, how about this adjustment. The commercial starts with 5-10 seconds' worth of scenes from some popular movies that used Linux for effects. [Fair use?] Then we transition as if waking up from that dream into the scene you described. Use pale colors to implement the scene to signify a time in the past and to suggest those events was where the dream began which led to the movie (effects) shown at the beginning.

    People may want to work on animated logos, tunes, and written message to reuse in related commercials.
  • Another seed

    Alex Chejlyk, that was great. You could probably use help in getting that commercial done, right? What license do you want to use?
  • Prime Time too large a jump. Learn from path Linux took.

    The harsh criticism is useful to have.

    That aside, we all know that FOSS has not been embraced by the cream of showbiz. I think they will at some point. It's a great model that will appeal to many. Everyone loves to have a say in how things develop.

    If the Linux Foundation had very high expectations given the time constraints and everything else, then perhaps they were looking for "failure". However, the motivation they provided was great because of what got produced.

    The next step is to make sure the material is submitted with "source" and a license that allows others to take each commercial and evolve it the same way FOSS evolves.

    If you want more artists to embrace FOSS, it makes sense to offer them the same potential that attracted software developers.

    BTW, I liked a lot of what I saw. True, none of it is ready for prime time, but neither was Linux at one point in time. Linux made tremendous headway through the work of amateurs, students, and volunteer professionals.
  • My idea, inspired by the old Nike Russian Fashion show add

    Black and White:
    Tables and tables of people chained to various computers.
    Show all states of frustration amongst the users, lockups, drumming fingers while waiting, ctrl+alt+deleting, crying, punching.
    Loud Buzzer sounds everyone looks up anxious, nervous, expectant.
    Men in black suites (think the matrix mr smith) and a leader, (fat bald man in a suit) commands UPGRADE NOW!!! Leader does a monkey dance ; )
    Men in black suites, start grabbing chained users and pulling out their wallets while roughing them up.
    Other users see this and fearfully start fumbling out wallets, purses, etc. money is grabbed by the men in black, handed to bald fat guy.
    Some people have their computers smashed by the men in black, too old or not powerful enough - more money extracted.
    Have a clean cut man at a typical table, stand up and say 'ENOUGH!!!'
    The Men in black and fat bald guy converge... another guy at the table stands up, then a women, the whole table stands.,
    Clean cut guy pulls out a linux CD pops it into his computer.
    Computer colorizes, man colorizes, chains melt away,he starts slinging disks, passed out like frisbee's
    The discs are caught and installed (screens should show spreadsheets, photo apps, wordprocessing, photoediting, games, databases, compiling, etc.) some are blocked by the men in black. Colorize the winners, the others are still chained, crying, wailing or submissive.

    Freedom to choose
    Freedom to change
    Linux is Free

  • there is no point

    These education campaigns are always going to be fruitless. The reality is that anyone who has the mental accumen and interest to understand the message, also has the kind of mentlity that questions what they see around them and seeks answers on their own, so in other words will already have found out what you are trying to tell them. If not, then it will all be water off a ducks back. Like tryijng to fill up a kettle with the lid on. The mart people will already know, and the dumb people could care less.
    Of course there will be a small percentage of mentally awake people who do not yet know what you want to tell them, but they will learn for themselves eventually. It will only be a matter of time. But those who are sleeping mentally (most people) will sleep through your adverts and presentations and you could talk to them for the next miullion years and it would all be to no avail.
  • Pixar Studios?

    Since they use Linux systems for rendering animations, maybe they could come up with a really cool animated short about Tux in order to contribute back to the community. I haven't seen any of the other candidates, so please pardon me if someone else came up with an idea like this one.

    Show Tux imprisoned in a Gotham-esque zoo where looming Windows logos stop him at every turn, bullying, demanding more money, knocking him down, and generally making his life miserable. (The teacher voice from Peanuts cartoons or Tux Paint would be perfect. Penguins don't need to really talk.) The narration could talk about being able to buy any computer you want as long as you pay off the big boys first and always trust them to make the rules for you.

    Tie in images of huge EULA's, DRM, malware, etc. As an aside, it would be funny to show one of the cages containing a shiny Mac logo ringing up sales on a huge cash register and looking very smug behind its own bars.

    Tux goes back into his den, we hear some clanking and power tools (honestly portraying the "do it yourself" philosophy of Linux), and he emerges with rockets strapped on, takes off, swoops, and glides while the other logos look on. The narration talks about freedom meaning the ability to do exactly what YOU want to do with YOUR computer. Learn what it means to be free. Dare to be different. Fade with the sun setting on the Windows zoo while other rocket trails take off to join Tux in the sunlight. (Include a URL for more info.)

    The points made about the complexity of operating systems and the limitations of an advertisement are absolutely correct. But a commercial is like a first interview for a job. It is only to establish if you meet basic qualifications and would fit in. If so, what steps should you take next? In this case, the next step should be a good Linux web site with lots of new user information, simple instructions on how to get started, etc.

    It would be awesome if there were a newer version of the "Revolution" OS movie (and without the sad ending of the dot-com crash). That would be a very cool next step for folks not familiar with Linux.
  • Preaching to the wrong crowd

    The idea for a Linux commercial should be taken out of the pages of microsoft.
    Advertise to the guy in charge of buying the servers and desktops. They calculator guy who needs help figuring out how to get the phone on speaker without hanging up.

    Show THAT guy how much money he'll save and how much less time he'll spend reading various computer equipment reports, and you have a winner.

    Guy who just saved a ton of money and time purchasing Linux: "Honey, I'm home.."
    Wife from upstairs cheerful tone: "You're home early, how's that Linus-Buntoo project thing - Is he getting along with everyone else?"
    Guy- "Terrific"
    Wife: "Are you working again after dinner?"
    Guy: "Nope, I don't have to do that anymore" Speaking to himself now almost singing: "No more waiting for those TPO reports to genertate..."
    Silent Pause for a second or two.
    Pan to close angle of the steps.
    Wife- bedroom voice- as two svelte high heeled legs visible to calf seductively step down the steps: "Now that you have some time, perphaps you and I could go over some (breathless) T P O reports..."
    Still on legs, we hear guy's cutesy man growl or grunt or whatever.
    Then zoom to her anklet with TUX charm....
    Or fade to a tag line.
  • Experiments don't fail

    As even you stated, expectations were low for this contest. Taking that into consideration, I think that there were enough reasonably well done entries to call this first ever attempt to solicit amateur commercials from a community that has an innate aversion to commercialization something of a success.

    Also, one of the successes of the contest is that you wrote an article pointing out where improvements need to be made. If this were to become a semi-annual event, the quality would undoubtedly improve, and possibly very quickly, because of the community feedback.

    I actually thought of a commercial, but didn't have time to put it together. My idea was to do a demo of making a commercial using FOSS applications. It would open with a big chord progression and a graphic of Tux with "Linux" and "Freedom" printed somewhere. Then, my daughter would interrupt with, "Whacha doin'?" And for the next 25 sec., I would explain to her about the software I was using, including the availability of FOSS apps, how easy it is to stay on top of security fixes, and, of course, the price of it all. Then it would end with me saying something like, "This is going to be the best commercial ever. It's going to have Tux fighting dragons, and a rock and roll soundtrack, and ..."

    If anyone wants to take this idea and run with it for the next contest, fell 'free' to do so.

    Later . . . Jim
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