Okay, so I haven't really made a secret of the way my skin crawls at bad advertising. Friends are always sending me links to ads that they find horrific, ostensibly to hear my opinion but really to hear my violently cringing reaction.
I've also made no secret about my disdain for "cute" ads. I use the quotes because "cute" ads are rarely as cute as the admakers intend - the idea is that if you throw a baby or a puppy in there, in or out of context, it automatically pulls on the viewer's heartstrings and entrances them into using their product. This is not the case. To repeat: This is not the case. If you decide to have your toddler do all of your voiceovers in a screeching monotone, your viewers won't be able to understand what he's saying and will probably turn down the volume anyway. One ad for a dry-cleaning service in Columbus offers to come to your home to iron your drapes - and closes with a shot of two fluffy, white lapdogs jumping into the truck with the VO, "Even your dog will like us."
WTF? Where did that come from? What was the leadup to the dogs? Where was the context? And most importantly, why the hell do I care what my dog thinks of my dry-cleaning service?
This is not to say that ads with cute things never work or never can work. Cute ads work all the time - when the cute is in context. Used properly, babies and puppies can be both adorable and effective. Take, for instance, this ad for Pedigree (and basically every ad that Pedigree has done in the past few years; they do it right. I always tear up):
Isn't that the most adorable thing? Few, if any, people can resist the adorableness of a fat little puppy. Even if you're not a dog person, watching a fat little wiggly puppy on TV is adorable. But the ad doesn't work just because of the cute. The ad works because the cute is in context - Pedigree really is for dogs, and so showing dogs in the ads makes perfect sense. The fact that they're cute dogs is a big bonus.
The E-trade baby is more of a stretch. What, precisely, does a baby have to do with investment banking? But if you're trying to emphasize the ease of using your service, putting it in the hands of a baby is a good way to do it (in the hands of a caveman, Geico? Not so much. It's all about execution). In this case, the random cute is offset by the fact that the baby is ridiculously precocious in a non-annoying way, the kind of baby you'd like to take down to the bar for a sippy-cup of lager and a round of darts.
But there are ways not to do it. One way, of course, is to blatantly rip off an idea that someone has already done, quite publicly and quite well. That's just a bad idea in general. But if you're going for the cute, make sure you land on cute - and not incredibly, unspeakably creepy.
Shudder. Again, it's about execution. Make sure that your CGI doesn't make the baby look like a deformed Verne Troyer. Make sure that the "baby's" laugh isn't stolen directly from Krusty the Clown. And for the love of all that's holy, don't make the baby say the word "mother-trucker."
This is why it's been my refrain from the beginning: Local advertisers, you can't do it yourself. It looks easy, and I'm sure you have some great ideas, but people go to school to learn how to do these things. Dip into your pockets, beef up your advertising budget, and hire a decent agency who won't go turning your toddler into a midget Picasso with a potty mouth. Because that mess just isn't cute.