The one night in the year that real people give a shit about advertising and we gave them… a pile of shit
I begin this rant by admitting that I’m an outsider, that last night was only my second Superbowl as a US resident, that no doubt I’m missing something. No doubt there were references beyond the chimps in the Career Builder ad and Gregory House’s nod to Coke that people across the country nodded along to I don’t know about. But what I do know is that any glimmers of original thought or creativity were few and far between, that this year’s crop of Superbowl spots were dominated by derivative and lazy strategy and uninspiring creative.
In her oft cited Fast Company article from October last year Mayhem on Madison Avenue, Danielle Sacks laid out a promising future for marketing on the brink of “its first creative revolution since the 1960s” but a bleak one for the ad industry who “might get left behind”.
So has the industry heeded her warning?
2011 was meant to be the year that Superbowl advertisers got their shit together, building off buzz generated by the TV spot to drive richer and more rewarding participation around brands. Twitter has been alight for the last week with the battle for pre-game-buzz supremacy, tracking which advertisers were extending their ($3 million) media-buy. And during the game itself, you were nowhere if you didn’t include a Facebook URL.
This is all well and good but on Superbowl Sunday, your spot matters like at no other time. Unlike the rest of the year when most people are ignoring TV advertising, Superbowl Sunday is our special night – the night when ad-watching is sport as much as the sport on screen. When every brand has a clever Facebook activation, Twitter integration or FourSquare check-in strategy, your advantage is directing them to yours with a great TV spot: on this night, the fate of your brand depends on how epic / funny / touching / charming you can make a 30 second spot. And for me, the vast majority failed to do so.
1. We must stop talking to ourselves
I have already congratulated myself for spotting references to other advertising in last night’s ads (Careerbuilder’s perpetuation of the chimp meme and House, and I’m sure that there were many others that I missed) but maybe this is the problem. As advertisers, we have the whole gamut of popular culture to reference in order to spark a connection with the viewer, so why do we choose to reference our own work instead of something with more resonance? Step forward Motorola who re-imagined Apple’s 1984, this time with a twist! Now Apple is the oppressive Orwellian big brother in control of our thoughts. Motorola is cast as the hero with ‘The tablet to create a better world’. Leaving aside the ridiculous claim (how will people using Motorola Xoom tablets in stead of Apple ones make the world better?) and the laughable strategy and creative (being anti-apple is not a strategy and the first idea that comes up in the brainstorm is probably not the answer) the real problem is that no one cares. The only people who remember / care about 1984 are ad people, Morotola would be better off running an ad in Ad Age rather than subjecting Superbowl viewers to it.
2. If your only strategy is to entertain, you’d better be entertaining
There is a school of thought which says that the only role of a Superbowl spot is to entertain. Spend the rest of the year ramming selling messages down people’s throats but save Superbowl Sunday for affinity-driving. The danger is that in the YouTube era, you have a lot of competition. When limitless amounts of the world’s most entertaining content is only a click away, yours better be good – how galling for a video made by a kid in his bedroom to have millions more views than your multi-million dollar Superbowl spot. This is a balance I think VW got right with ‘The Force’ (though it’s s shame they only ran the 30). Rather than trying to talk up product features, it set out to charm, and it achieved this thanks to a nice creative idea and a great performance from the mini-Vada.
Less successful in my opinion were Bud Light, Pepsi Max and Doritos which set out to entertain and largely failed. Poker-playing dogs? 80s style stand-up comedy material about how men and women think differently? Man gets floored by puppy? Really? I learned nothing of interest about your products (so not useful) and can find millions of funnier skits on YouTube (so not entertaining).
3. When you have something to say, don’t let an elaborate ad idea get in the way
Though humor (particularly male American Pie-esque humor) has been a Superbowl staple over recent years, it is now necessarily the answer. Particularly when you have a compelling message to impart. Credit to Verizon and VW for not letting an advertising conceit get in the way of a strong proposition. Everyone wants an iPhone, on a network that works, so that’s what Verizon gave us – some product porn and a simple message. Similarly, VW announced the forthcoming Beetle…with a beetle. At the other end of the spectrum, Groupon, a brand with an incredibly compelling message hid it behind a very polarizing ad idea and probably managed to alienate existing customers rather than gain millions of new ones. And Living Social’s spot was better. Oops.
4. If you’re trashing a competitor, make sure you’re pushing on an open door
Knocking copy is a risky strategy at the best of times but your risk is multiplied when it is witnessed by hundreds of millions of viewers. So you’d better be pointing out something negative about your competitors that people agree with. Hello (again) Moto. As someone who works for one of Apple’s competitors (Samsung), I feel your frustration. The products don’t work well, they are arrogant and yet people follow them in a worrying zombie-like frenzy. This is particularly the case for the iPad, the most successful ever CE launch (fastest product to ever reach $1 Billion in sales). So making an ad saying people who love Apple are mindless drones (when that’s basically everyone) feels somewhat counterproductive if your objective is to get them to like you.
I felt the same about Audi’s spot. I really liked the detail of the execution (setting Afghan Hounds on people escaping from ‘old luxury’ was priceless) but I question the strategy. It is true that Audi is the (relatively) new kid on the block in the premium car segment – Audi was launched in 1965 whilst Karl Benz created the first gas-powered car in 1886. But Mercedes aren’t still rolling out that same car. Whilst I found P Diddy’s cameo in the Mercedes spot utterly pointless, you can’t argue with the presentation of the product – their 2011 model line-up looked stunning, sleek and decidedly modern. Though the profile of a Mercedes driven is older than Audi, it doesn’t mean that young people don’t aspire to own a Mercedes. Ultimately, Audi’s sneering claim that Mercedes is decadent, out-of-touch old luxury feel a little shallow.
5. For a spot to be truly compelling, it must feel like it’s delivered by the authentic voice of the brand
I loved the spirit the Chrysler spot. A proud statement of brand provenance, a rousing call-to-arms for America to re-find its pride in the things it makes, a brand and town reborn. As @Scottfrog commented “Chrysler incites a movement that millions of Americans will want to belong to”. My only question is whether they tried to do too much in one (admittedly pretty lengthy) spot. In addition to claiming Detroit, the spot was also charged with showcasing a new model and attempting to build an argument around gritty, blue-collar Detroit being a natural place for luxury cars to be born which I found a little confusing. However, what you can’t argue with is the authenticity of the tone.
Which is more than can be said for Ford which, during local ad breaks ran footage of a car driving over the Brooklyn Bridge set to Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind”. To the best of my knowledge, Ford has little claim on New York City (beyond supplying the cabs). This just felt like a weak attempt to buy favor, very inauthentic compared to Chrysler.
So, back to my previous point. If the Superbowl is our industry’s zenith, the ultimate showcase of our best work, I fear that Fast Company’s prediction may be right. Mark-Hans Richer, Harley Davidson CMO commented in the article “many agencies are hanging on to this idea that creativity is theirs to own and sell”. Based on last night’s evidence, we’re grasping by our fingernails alone.
I wrote a post a while back about the difficulty of applying traditional approaches to marketing to a new generation of multi-faceted and super-connected products. Whether you’re talking about physical devices like the iPad (a huge number of converged functions supported by a complex ecosystem of digital services) or virtual ones like Foursquare, the impulse to dramatize a single-minded value proposition in communications is increasingly complicated.
Infographic by Section Design demonstrates the iPad’s complexity
Two new posts from Paul Worthington of Wolff Olins and Henrik Werdelin take this thinking a step further, calling into question long-held assumptions governing the relationship between brand and product. Traditionally, the role of the brand has been to elevate the product. Your audience may not be interested in the toothpaste category and your brand of toothpaste may be undifferentiated in the marketplace; but the identification of a bigger, more engaging brand promise / purpose / mission to attach it to will elevate it and make it (and therefore the product) aspirational for that audience.
But increasingly, digital products are re-writing these rules. Werdelin points out that “few digital products are true commodities” meaning less need to differentiate on purely emotional terms. In fact the opposite is true “digital products are instead successful when they solve a problem and also look pretty and feel good–not the other way around. The importance of the packaging will of course change as more digital products get made and their utility becomes commoditized. But for now, the product creates the brand.” And if the product creates the brand, the marketing challenge is less about projecting that brand via advertising and more about finding ways to stimulate usage (participation) so that people can be enveloped in a multi-faceted user-experience.
As an example, Paul Worthington points to Google posing the question “is the Google brand elevated beyond the Google product, or does the Google product create the expectation and underlying narrative for the Google brand?” Despite Google’s many laudable efforts to build its brand over the last year or so (a lovely Superbowl spot, Teach Parents Tech, ‘Life in a day’ etc) which have sought to build warmth and humour into it, perceptions are still almost exclusively driven by people’s daily interactions with the search engine whose utility suggests solidity, trustworthiness and straightforwardness. In the case of Google, the product creates the brand and not the other way around.
BrandZ data suggests Google’s utilitarian, product-centric brand associations.
Contrast the way in which the Google brand is constructed with how Microsoft have gone about presenting Bing. Putting aside the fact that Bing appears just to be copying Google’s results, it has been built in a manner that seeks to differentiate it from Google by making the presentation of results (in theory) less overwhelming and more relevant. The descriptor “decision engine” has been coined in order to explain this value proposition and in this way (like Google), the brand is defined by the product.
And yet the advertising campaign has accompanied the launch of Bing appears to seek to do the opposite – to build a brand image around a higher-order consumer benefit (the avoidance of information-overload). Though true to the product, how credible is this benefit for consumers generally happy with Google? Does Google really leave us paralyzed and incapable of making decisions (it may have uncovered 30 gazillion results but how often do you go beyond the first page)? Whatever the case, Bing ran with it, employing advertising hyperbole to make their point more forcefully and in the process making an interesting but somewhat shaky insight seem faintly ridiculous.
Whilst I’m not suggesting that Microsoft were wrong to use advertising (they needed to build awareness quickly), I can’t help thinking that they could have been smarter with the role that they ascribed it. Though it would be nice for Google to have some competition, no one is crying out for an alternative. So rather than running advertising which seeks to engage people in the hope that they are encouraged to (maybe) consider Bing next time they’re searching online, why not be more direct? Why not create initiatives that directly drive usage and have people experience the ‘decision engine’ for themselves? And why not use advertising to publicize these rather than just tell people about the brand in a not very convincing way?
To their credit, this is exactly what Microsoft (with the help of Droga5 http://www.droga5.com/) did in partnership with Jay-Z around the launch of his autobiography ‘Decoded’ (great Fast Company write-up here). Armed with a compelling property, Droga5 created a worldwide scavenger hunt where, in advance of the book’s release, all of its 320 pages were posted in a variety of unexpected locations (ranging from a rooftop in New Orleans, a pool bottom in Miami, cheeseburger wrappers in New York City, a pool table in Jay’s 40/40 Club) with eager fans keen to get an early look encouraged to hunt them down. And Bing became the indispensable tool for doing so, with clues revealed and locations posted on its maps meaning that dedicated page-hunters were enjoying habit-forming interactions with it around 3 times every day during the life of the event.
As a planner, it is tempting to seek to craft acute comms propositions which shed light on the complexities of the brands we work on. To build complex analogies and elaborate metaphors which bring their benefits to the surface. However, with technology products whose experience in its totality is what’s compelling, we must accept that traditional comms will never be able to do them justice and find ways to enable people to experience these benefits rather than having to listen to us talk about them.
Lots has already been written about the likely impact of Facebook Places: the potential for it to take social networking genuinely into the real world, the threat it poses to Foursquare, that fact that you wouldn’t actually want most of your Facebook ‘friends’ to know where you are anyway, the opportunities it creates for burglars…
But for me, the most noticeable impact has been a decline in the entertainment value of status updates. A recent SDSU study finds, 57% of young people believe their generation uses social networking sites for “self-promotion, narcissism and attention seeking”. And the evident effort that people put into creating their social media personas (humorously-written dispatches from the minutiae of their days) has provided generous voyeuristic entertainment. But sadly, the advent of Facebook places has damped my enjoyment because for every report of work-place embarrassment or drunken misadventure, I have to scroll through numerous banal check-ins at parks, shops and railway stations. I’m terrified this is going to become another Farmville and I’m going to have to start de-friending.
Thank god they changed the privacy settings allowing you to select which of your friends to alert as to your whereabouts – otherwise my favorite time-wasting activity when waiting for elevators or for sandwiches to be made may be gone forever.
I couldn’t have put it better myself