A puppet of a cockroach lies on its back, flailing its arms wildly. A mouse cursor hesitates over an order on the website “Poison Depot” before changing it from one bottle to eleven. A gleeful Victorian marriage proposal goes awry when lightning strikes a nearby tree.
Each story is told in just six seconds of video. And there are more than a dozen such short recreations of classic books from the Western canon, all promoting YouTube’s new brief pre-roll ad format.
Those three vignettes, of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (famous for its protagonist waking up one morning as an insect), William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (spoiler alert: everybody dies) and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (with its romantic symbolism around a split chestnut tree), join similar takes on George Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and more.
YouTube got a range of filmmakers and ad agencies to work on the campaign, including J. Walter Thompson, Wieden + Kennedy and Deutsch, which was part of a challenge hosted at SXSW. (This followed a similar earlier activation at Sundance, featuring the efforts of different creative agencies. Those videos were not re-creations of novels, though.)
Fittingly for the video-sharing brand, many of the new interpretations of the old texts include modern tech twists, like the aforementioned e-commerce angle on Hamlet. Another version of the same story finds YouTube parent company Google’s voice-activated assistant, Google Home, unable to answer a 21st century prince’s version of the timeless question “To be or not to be” (though in all honesty, the device probably should have spat out the number for a suicide hotline).
A newfangled Dracula (hat tip: Bram Stoker) snaps selfies while goofing around in the blood of a recent kill (because apparently humans and monsters alike are more garish in the mobile age). For Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, one fish evolves into a man wearing a VR headset and groping around in the dark, while a second ends up on the man’s sandwich.
In a fresh rendition of Peter Pan, a young man working as a stock picker at a Sam’s Club equivalent repeats “Happy thoughts” to himself in a whisper before taking flight to fetch giant jar of mayonnaise from a towering warehouse shelf.
The campaign’s centerpiece, though, may be a three-part, 8-bit video game rendition of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, complete with loading screens, clunky physics and screwball dialogue.
Overall, it’s a fun approach to showcasing the potential for storytelling in a miniature window. And it can’t but, on its face, evoke Geico’s famous “Unskippable” campaign by The Martin Agency, which crammed a marketer’s message into a five-second window before it was cool to do so (and is now condensing its ads in other clever ways).
YouTube’s goal here is, in a sense, more ambitious—persuading all brands that they can fit persuasive sales pitches into a blip. But it’s largely successful, even if a lot of the nuance of the original stories, and the joys of reading, are obviously somewhat lost. And while it might be tempting to lament vanishing attention spans, or the death of the written word, the clips, by and large, actually aren’t bad promos for the books.
Except maybe for Hamlet, because, well, everybody knows how that one ends.
See all 19 videos at this YouTube playlist.