Hype Sheet: Vizio Rising

The Pitch This commercial's official title is "Helping Hand," but "Manmade Disasters" would've been more accurate. The spot opens with a dude balancing his old tube TV on a balcony ledge, then scanning around to make sure no one's gonna bust him on such an obviously callous maneuver. (Pity about the pedestrian who will likely get brained below.) Next comes a literati type purposely nudging a flowerpot onto his big screen, then a housewife knocking over her mammoth Clinton-era TV—and smiling at the mayhem she's caused. Are these folks closet psychopaths? Nah, just ordinary Americans "looking for an excuse to buy a new Vizio," which are apparently starting at $599 nowadays.

Is this low-end HDTV brand—the Q2 LCD-TV sales champ in North America charming Joe Sixpack with its tongue-in-cheek ad campaign? Or are consumers destined to choose quality over value, no matter how riotous Vizio's ads may be?Rip-Off Of There's a certain fast-food quality to this ad—wasn't there a Mickey D's commercial some years back in which the actors searched for any ol' excuse to cram Quarter Pounders down their gullets? The comparison may be particularly apt because Vizios are meant to be somewhat disposable—not quite iPod disposable, perhaps, but I don't think anyone expects their Vizio Gallevia 42" is going to last for the ages. Hey, at a mere $599 per basic set, why not upgrade every few years?

The Spin "Vizio is making HDTV a possibility for everyone," the narrator quips at the commercial's end, thereby encapsulating the brand's entire philosophy in a mere 20 syllables. Everyone's been waiting around for LCD prices to drop, but progress has been painfully slow. Sure, they've come down a little, but all-too-rarely into three-digit territory, which is what 85 percent of consumers would consider remotely affordable. Now here comes Vizio—under the slogan "Where Vision Meets Value"—offering sets that cost less than half of comparably sized Samsungs or Sharps. Now, everyone knows they're gonna have to upgrade from tube sets sooner rather than later, especially with the end of analog television (theoretically) less than two years away. Vizio is one of the first brands to make us short-armed, deep-pocket types think, "Huh, why not make the move now?" After all, it's not like Samsung et al. appear in a hurry to manufacture truly affordable HDTV options.

Counterspin Notice how they don't actually show you any images flickering on those Vizio sets? Makes you wonder if they've got some quality issues to hide. And they do, of course—even satisfied consumers have noted such woes as color bleed and underwhelming backlighting (particularly on those over-42" sets). I don't think Vizio will argue that its sets performs as well as those of higher-end competitors; their argument, instead, is that there's no point in paying twice as much for performance that's just, say, 20 percent better. In other words, it's the classic value-brand argument. But raise your hand if you haven't wished, at least once, that you paid for the "real thing" instead of the private label alternative. Anyone?

Takeaway Vizio's mediocre specs will never impress the Gizmodo crowd, but the general public begs to differ: The brand's LCD-TV shipments were up a whopping 76.4 percent last quarter. Vizios are being end-cabbed at Wal-Marts nationwide, which means they'll get a first look from a lot of consumers—and those consumers, having heard for years that you've got to spend upwards of $1,000 for a big-screen HDTV, will be duly impressed. But Vizio shouldn't get too comfortable with its recent success—as Dell or Gateway know well, budget-conscious consumers will turn on you if the service isn't there. And already there are some grumblings about poor retail-level warranties—Costco has gotten a lot of flack—and an unusually high number of returns due to defects. Folks may be willing to put up with a little color bleed for the sake of joining the HDTV Club, but they might not countenance being placed on hold for 58 minutes while trying to return their malfunctioning Maximus.

Hype-O-Meter 6.5 (out of 10). Not a highly imaginative ad, but effective at communicating Vizio's core message. However, I still can't help thinking about the passer-by who'll get squashed by the TV tumbling off the balcony. A ghoulish touch to an otherwise lighthearted spot.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Hype Sheet column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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