Canon India’s new phony campaign

When I watched the 4 ads that are part of Canon’s new Indian ad campaign titled, ‘Some Things are Best Left to Canon’, I could genuinely feel for the legendary camera brand.

Here are the 4 ads – watch these first, before reading the rest of this post.

If it wasn’t obvious already, the fact is that the smartphone has made a whole of standalone products largely redundant. I wrote about this in 2019, but here’s a quick recap.

Software-based equivalents (that is, the phone uses a software-based equivalent of the original single-use product):
Alarm clock
Note pad.
Portable music player/radio.
Address book.
Photo album.

Hardware-based equivalents (that is, the phone needs a hardware-based extension to create the equivalent of the original single-use product):
Audio recorder (mic needed).
Maps (GPS tracker needed).
Scanner (camera needed).

The smartphone is now akin to a Swiss Army Knife.

So, Canon feeling the pinch, like any other standalone camera manufacturer, is fully understandable.

The numbers are mighty obvious.

As per the most commonly available data, digital camera sales in the year 1999 were about 10 million, 121 million in 2010, and 8 million in 2021!

There’s a neat video that tracks the sales of film cameras, digital cameras, and smartphones in a chart over time – take a look.

The gist, in the end, is this:

But consider what the pitch is, in these new Canon ads made by Dentsu Creative.
– Out-of-focus video
– Selfie video instead of the actual video
– Messages and notifications interrupting video shoots
– Phone calls interrupting a video shoot
– Software updates interrupting a live streaming

A huge chunk of Canon’s new ad campaign showcases the bugbear of the digital camera industry—smartphones—and how they can be a bad idea when it comes to video shooting. And finally pitching a Canon product as a solution.

This is not a new idea, anyway – JWT Mexico has done some wonderfully creative work for Canon back in 2013/14 with photos as the framing (pun unintended) instead of videos.

But the digital camera industry largely stays away from comparing itself with smartphones since they inherently understand that not only are smartphone cameras improving tremendously year after year, but they are widely expected to overtake even DSLR quality soon, as per both Qualcomm and Sony!

The writing is on the wall and is just a matter of when.

So, to see Canon India try to pitch itself as being better than smartphones, when it comes to videos, not based on the quality of the video itself but based on supposed impediments of the smartphone because of it being a multi-functional device, is quite a surprise.

And the use of the nearly-4-letter expletive which the script hastily twists to ‘F/Phone’ is laughably silly in the most unironic way. If the agency thought they are being smart and cool by inserting that expression (however changed, to avoid it being R-rated), I think the joke’s on them.

In fact, Apple released an ad to showcase the iPhone 14’s ‘action mode’ in January 2023, and this is in direct contrast to the clumsy idea of the first ad in the new Canon ad series.

To portray user-level stupidity of shooting their own selfie videos or incorrectly focusing on the subject as a smartphone-level issue (that needs those users to shift from a smartphone to a digital camera) is both preposterous and disingenuous. Why? Because the so-called problems showcased can easily be solved without buying a standalone digital camera. These are not reasons enough to consider a completely new device when the existing multi-functional device is more than sufficient.

In terms of all the interruptions we face in a smartphone while shooting video (or taking a photo) – this is an old hat by now. The entire world has gone through this long ago when smartphones were new and any reasonably serious live streamer or video shooter would first ensure that their serious shoot is not interrupted by notifications or messages by using the appropriate settings in the phone. The easiest and most commonly used setting is ‘Airplane Mode’. I use it all the time during serious enough video shoots on the phone. This is just plain common sense, the equivalent of setting a phone on mute during a meeting.

As for live streaming, of course, you cannot use the ‘Airplane Mode’ for that, but this is also nothing that a ‘Do Not Disturb’ setting cannot solve. Sure, the DND setting differs from phone to phone, depending on the OS and software, but this is definitely not rocket science, or surely not a deal-breaker enough to ditch the already-high quality smartphone camera in favor of a new standalone digital camera.

If the idea was to portray a standalone camera as a superior device worth investing in over and above a smartphone that also has a great camera, then the narrative needs to hit vastly different notes instead of trying to accentuate the stupidity of smartphone users.

Smartphone cameras have moved from just being about always/instant availability—something we cannot claim with digital cameras that we don’t always have with us—to phenomenal quality in terms of photo or video, plus image stabilization, zoom, etc. For a casual user, smartphone photos and videos are perfectly sufficient, and given improvements in technology, software, and overall evolution, perfectly adequate.

That brings me to the kind of user Canon is targeting instead of the kind of use case (that should actually be the focus) it does in the new ad campaign: 2 ads focus on parents (who are trying to capture videos of their children in action) and 2 ads focus on semi-professional content creators!

All these are ideally just casual users when it comes to video shooting. For them, setting up the already expensive smartphone to ensure that their shoot is not interrupted by notifications or messages is very, very easy compared to investing in yet another standalone device.

Oh, I do understand why Canon is speaking to these users: they are THE largest potential buyer segment out there, but they would actually be considering a top-end Android phone or an iPhone for the use case depicted! That would easily do.

A dedicated camera (for photos or video) is for a serious user.
A smartphone works for everyone, including serious users.

Instead of focusing on the user, standalone digital camera brands are better off focusing on specific use cases where smartphones may not be enough. There are a lot of such use cases.

Serious users who really care for the output (photo or video), because their life/profession depended on it, would opt for a standalone device that does one thing and one thing only – capture stupendous quality photos or videos.

But this would be a tiny segment compared to the larger segment that thinks of smartphones without a second thought for the same kind of use case.

So, let us come to the intersection of users – non-serious/amateur users (large potential buyers segment) with specific use cases for a dedicated digital camera.

This is where digital cameras need to acknowledge, with humility, that they can be—and already are—secondary devices.

Even the Canon ad subtly—and unwittingly—acknowledges this! Take a look at the ad where the father is trying to capture a video of his son’s football game. Look at the other parents around him. Does anyone else use a standalone digital camera? Nope! Are they using smartphone cameras? Of course!

So, how to frame better use cases that can be convincing without resorting to such a silly depiction of user-level stupidity?

Think about it.

A parent getting a shot or a video of their baby’s first step may most probably happen through the smartphone that is always near them. But once that first step has been captured hurriedly (and adequately), the next step (and eventual walk) could actually be staged, planned, and fully organized. For that, a dedicated, high-quality digital camera could be immensely useful so that they are able to capture it in the best quality possible, for posterity.

An amateur content creator could easily start with a smartphone camera in the early stages of their content creation/sharing activity. But when they think they are ready for the next step, to take that activity into a full-time/part-time profession, they could invest in a dedicated device.

In fact, Canon’s 2017 campaign by Grey captured this beautifully using a Rube Goldberg set-up (that uses intentional chain reactions):

The point is simple: if you are going to great lengths trying to set a lot of things up only to capture it in great detail in the best quality possible, then it stands to reason that you would use the best device to ensure that capture (video or photo).

Even the typical ‘parents-taking video/photos of children in action’ narrative needs to first acknowledge that most parents would do that using a camera they already have at their disposal: the smartphone, which has been adequately promoted by smartphone brands using the camera as the USP.

The trick then would be to not deride the smartphone’s camera/video capabilities in a juvenile manner. It would need maturity on Canon’s (and Dentsu’s) part to acknowledge that the smartphone’s capture wouldn’t be bad at all – in fact, it may be good enough for most people. The trick would be to show the incremental improvements between a smartphone camera and a dedicated digital camera, and make parents visibly notice the difference.

This can also be done by showcasing 2 parents in the stadium – one with a smartphone, who captures good-enough videos, and another with a dedicated digital camera on a tripod who captures demonstrably better video than the former even though the smartphone video may seem good enough for most parents. So, focus on specific aspects – better quality zoomed-in shots, better quality image stabilization, and perhaps more.

This is the simple trick that Dentsu’s Canon India campaign seems to be missing, and instead, aiming for a low-brow ‘attack the smartphone’ narrative with a near-F-word in a completely mistaken notion that smartphone users would consider their standalone cameras over such silly depictions of users.