Hype Sheet: The Nikon D40 Meets Joe America



The Pitch A horde o' red-blooded Americans from Georgetown, S.C., are handed 200 Nikon D40s and instructed to document their daily lives. Cue a cloyingly sweet montage of townsfolk snapping each other at barbershops, cheerleading practice and garden parties, while the narrator waxes rhapsodic on the D40's ease-of-use. The spot culminates with the Georgetowners congregating for a photo show, then holding up some Fathead-sized portraits as the outro music swells. Georgetown, we're finally told, has been unofficially rechristened Picturetown, "a place where ordinary people take extraordinary pictures." Has Nikon found the right formula for pushing DSLRs to the masses, or does the Norman Rockwell approach miss the mark?

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Rip Off Of Where to begin? The whole have-Joe-Q.-Public-try-it approach is classic infomercial, though the production values here are way higher. The spirit of the commercial is actually more akin to that of the recent Chevy spots featuring John Mellencamp's "Our Country." Both are centered around slice-of-life visuals of archetypal small-town Americans—no disaffected goths or skate punks, please. Heck, they even go so far as to have one of Georgetowns ponytailed shutterbugs blurt out, "Gotta have a picture of the American flag!" Yes, we get it—true patriots use digicams, and DSLRs at that.

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The Spin The obvious message is that the D40 is perfect for entry-level photographers, even those who might be frightened by the sizeable lens. Nikon realizes that everyone and his brother now has a point-and-shoot digicam; it wants to get folks comfortable with splashing out some extra scratch on DSLRs like the D40, with the upside being higher quality pictures. Not that there's much discussion of specs in this ad, aside from a brief mention of shutter delay. The spot instead harps on how easy it is to use the D40, a point that's made head-thunkingly clear when the narrator's soothing voice intones, "There's really nothing to it." He's right, of course; the 6.1-megapixel, 17-ounce D40 is a winner, and a good value to boot: Sam's Club, for example, currently has the body plus an 18-55mm lens priced at $559.95.

Counterspin Curious how the phrase "DSLR" is never mentioned in this commercial. It makes me wonder how consumers will react upon learning that the D40 is priced hundreds more than perfectly serviceable 6-megapixel point-and-shoots such as the Canon PowerShot SD700. Granted, the Nikon D40 is a superior camera, but does this commercial make that case? Not really—the aim here is to demystify DSLRs, albeit (strangely) without actually making clear what a DSLR is. Nikon seems to be hoping that the ad will direct viewers to the Picturetown website to learn about the camera's technical aspects. Might've helped, though, if they actually mentioned the site's URL in the ad.

Takeaway The digicam revolution seems to have caught Nikon somewhat unawares. The longtime choice of professionals, Nikon hasn't made the smoothest transition from analog to digital; when I was camera shopping last winter, no fewer than three pro photojournalists warned me to stay away from high-end Nikon digicams, due to durability issues. Yet Nikon hasn't found particular success with its low-end Coolpix line, either. So the D40 (and its 10.2-megapixel successor, the D40x) represents a fresh strategy for the fabled camera maker: budget DSLRs geared toward everyday shooters, rather than the camera geek crowd. But does that demographic really need DSLRs, especially as fewer and fewer photos are printed out? And will the neophytes get freaked out upon learning that DSLRs feature removable lenses? Budget DSLRs might be a good long-term play, but Nikon could also be getting a little ahead of itself.

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Hype-O-Meter 4.5 (out of 10). This is very much an eye-of-the-beholder ad, and thus a tough one to judge. But I'm not prone to sentimentality, so I didn't exactly tear up upon seeing all those happy cheerleaders and barbers enjoying their D40s. If anything, the commercial struck me as sorta condescending—Nikon seems to be saying, "Hey, if these numbskulls can use D40s, then a much smarter person such as yourself surely can." But above all, I thought the Americana angle rang false, not least of all because Madison Avenue seems to have handpicked an unbelievably photogenic crew. What, no one in Georgetown has neck tattoos or wears "I'm Going Nucking Futs" T-shirts? Hard to believe.

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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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DISCUSSION

Interesting take on the commercial. You brought about some ideas that I had previously not thought about, but I came to a bit of a different conclusion. I think that this was a lowest common denominator advertisement. It is targeting suburbia and the countryside more than the NYC punkers and the guys wairing "I fucking hate you" t-shirts as well as the techno-geeks (or anyone that reads Gizmodo for that matter).

What I got from it was that is was targeting the one ones who have had just the old-school point and shoot film cameras and maybe had a point and shoot digital but didn't like the quality and they also don't know how to get a good picture. They just want what they see to be put to paper or screen (case in point, most of my family and friends). They don't understand what the aperature is, limited understanding of ISO if they used film before, what time does to the action, and available light, or that megapixel is only part of what makes a good camera - not everything. The person they are targeting not only doesn't know, they don't WANT to know, they just want to press a button and POOF, a good picture.

Thirdly, it's not real life - it's a commercial. So they did pick a real town with real people in it, but isn't democratic - it's reality TV in a 30 second ad. If I was Nikon looking into this untapped market I wouldn't want Johnny Rotten in the ad either. Now I agree that it done as a complete piece of fluff, but so many people around me in the country totally dig that kind of fluff. I can see how it would work and would give the ad a moderate to high sell-ability for them.

As a guy who has had Nikon for years from the film era to the D70s that is on my desk, I think they are some of the best quality cameras out there within reach of mortal men's wallets because of one thing, their lenses. Canon lenses just can't compete with Nikon (except the high-speed zoom lenses for sports) and all of the ones I have had have been rock solid. The D40 is a solid camera who does want to make the jump to learn more about how to take better pictures and does come out with some great quality - I was really surprised.

But above all, I was surprised you picked this commercial to hype-sheet. If you read Gizmodo this commercial doesn't target us at all, so of course it is going to have zero impact on us. It's like putting a tampon add in the middle of sportcenter - poor target audience.

- T