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.
Where once we simply looked to fill ad space, today we spend more and more of our time looking to drive consumer participation with brands. The thinking, as eloquently expressed by my colleague DB, is that consumers (helped by PVRs, music streaming services like Pandora etc etc) are creating ‘personal firewalls’ allowing them to lead blissfully advertising-free lives and enabling them to engage with brands only when they choose to.
Once our objective was damage limitation: we intruded on our captive audience’s TV viewing or magazine reading and hoped that we could win them round with funny / catchy / emotive / silly advertising so that they might remember us next time they were in the supermarket / car showroom / online… But today this captive audience has all-but disappeared, meaning that brand engagement must be a more positive choice – when you aren’t compelled to engage with a brand, why would you when there are so many more interesting things to do? Our new task, as argued by Gareth Kay is to create ideas that give people something in return for their attention: ideas that actually do something rather than just talking up our new toothpaste, car, perfume, cat-food. Citing examples like Nike+ and Fiat Eco Drive, he calls for us to ‘get into the business of creating communication products and out of the business of simply communicating products.’
Though this ‘give and take’ relationship with consumers entails more work and exposes brands to greater risks (Skittles anyone?), the rewards for getting participation right are significant. Thanks to their ability to spread brand messages far and wide via social media, engaged individuals represent a larger (in many cases) and significantly more persuasive channel than any TV or poster campaign we may have bought in the past, meaning that if we can create a sufficiently compelling ‘communication product’, they will work on our behalf to popularize it.
Where once the brief may have been ‘do me a 1984 or a Sony Balls’, it is increasingly ‘do me an Old Spice / VW Fun Theory / (insert flavor of the month here)’. But for every brilliantly conceived, so-simple-an-idea-you-wished-you’d-had-it, even-your-mum’s-talking-about-it, participation-driving-social-media-phenomenon, there are numerous others which fail to hit the mark. And of course, in our super-connected world, antagonizing consumers is the last thing we want to do: participation has more power to engage than traditional marketing approaches but it also has more power to piss people off.
In an open letter to ‘all of advertising and marketing’ (which has gone viral, striking a chord with consumers bombarded with ill-conceived invitations to participate) that objects to a campaign for a sausage brand, Brian (he doesn’t give his surname) writes “I don’t want to make a film, or draw a picture, or nominate a friend. Or compose a sound-track, or re-edit your advert.” He continues “I know it must be very tempting to sit in your nice, comfy offices and dream up schemes where normal people like me forget our everyday cares and participate in your marketing. But…please, please, PLEASE…Leave me alone.”
I have a suspicion that Brian may be from within our industry and this may be a hoax but whatever the truth, he raises a valid question: are there some categories and some brands where attempting to drive participation is inappropriate?
It is certainly true to say that the campaigns that often stimulate the most participation are from categories and brands (like the ‘Why so serious’ alternative reality game which launched ‘The Dark Knight’ or ‘The Best Job in the World’ which showcased one of the most beautiful places on earth) that people genuinely care about. But in these cases, consumers were not participating with the film or the Great Barrier Reef, they were participating with an idea (a communications product) inspired by them. The Barrier Reef has existed for many millions of years and the Batman franchise for 70 without a huge amount of social media buzz. It was the creation of compelling ‘communications products’ around them which got people participating.
The same goes for more mundane brands and categories. Given all the other distractions available to them, for consumers to spend time thinking about (participating with) blenders or soda would be and odd choice. But this is exactly what they do thanks to ‘Will it blend?’ and ‘The refresh project’, compelling ‘communications products’ that have been created around Blendtec and Pepsi and have successfully driven participation.
In his letter, Brian says ‘If you’d like to tell me what’s good about your product, fine. I may buy it. I may not.’ This is a perfectly logical approach and one that often used to work. That is in the days when Brian had little option other than to listen to what brands had to say. But now I fear that he has put up his personal firewall and is blanking out marketing messages meaning we have little option other than to attempt to communicate what it is that’s good about the product via more participative means.
So rather than condemn the sausage brand in question for attempting to stimulate participation, we should question the ‘mode of participation’ they sought. Finding itself in a low interest category, Blendtec doesn’t make big demands of its audience. It simply asks that people endorse its brand in the form of sharing links to, ‘liking’ and ‘tweeting’ the videos that it creates. I would argue that the mystery sausage brand’s mistake was to blindly seek participation without considering what its audience wants / needs and how a communication product could provide them with genuine value.
Identifying the appropriate ‘mode of participation’ is as important as the idea at the heart of the brand.
Given our changed brandscape (and despite Brian’s protestations), I believe that creating participation around brands will be absolutely key to their future success. And that even the most mundane products and brands, by understanding the role they play (or could play) in consumer’s lives have the opportunity to create compelling, value-adding communications products. But for these communications products to be successful, the demands they make on consumers must be proportionate to the reward they offer in return. Where traditional campaigns were about getting the message right, participative campaigns demand that we also get the ‘mode of participation’ right.
Given the miniscule readership of my blog, I’m unable to apologize on behalf of ‘all of advertising and marketing’. But on behalf of me and others who believe that done well, participative marketing is the future; sorry, we’ll do better next time.
This year’s Cannes Lions mark a shift from the age of celebrated creatives to one of collective creators
With the exception of the wonderfully written and realized Old Spice campaign which picked up the Film Grand Prix, one could easily view this year’s (and last year’s for that matter) Cannes victors as marking a definitive shift in the DNA of great communications.
If the last 50 years of our industry has been beholden to the talents of great individuals (epitomized by Don Draper who magics award-winning ideas out of the bottom of glasses of scotch), campaigns such as AMV’s ‘Choose a different ending’, DDB Stockholm’s ‘Fun Theory’ or Crispin Porter’s ‘Twelpforce’ are characterized by the collective labors of broader teams of creators.
W+K have shown with the Old Spice and Nike ‘Write The Future’ campaigns that the ability to agonize over a 60 second film, to hone and craft every frame and make every split second a delight remains an important skill. But at the same time, such opportunities are increasingly thin on the ground. Spending this much time and effort is only worthwhile if we can ensure that the content will be consumed in a set form; but as we know this is increasingly not the case with consumers assuming control. Just as brands are becoming used to consumers interacting with them on their own terms, so too must agencies.
And this is creating a different approach to idea generation. Where advertising was judged on the basis of its visual and verbal execution, this year’s Cannes winners stand out thanks to the quality of their core ideas, applied to our changing media landscape. A chalk-toting robot which allows consumers to participate in the Tour De France, a platform which enables us to get tech support more efficiently, an experience that gives us an understanding of the causes and consequences of knife violence rather than simply telling us that it’s a bad idea. All of these ideas were the work of creative minds though not the excusive preserve of a conventional creative department. Indeed, without the up-front input of broader teams of creators: media specialists, technologists and industrial designers, none of these inspiring campaigns would ever have seen the light of day.
After I attended the Global Leadership Summit at Best Buy last month, I wrote a piece arguing that ‘the connected world’ (the holy grail for technology and media companies) is not something that can be easily defined and packaged (much less explained via traditional communication channels). Rather it is a complex ecosystem of kit, connections and content allowing individuals to better engage with their passions and interests through technology.
As marketers, this is complexity we’re facing more often as we find ourselves trying to present the increasingly complicated user-experiences enabled by these connected technologies. And the channels we have conventionally relied on; dependent on reductive thinking and neat propositions are ill-suited to the richer, more multi-faceted experiences required to bring them to life.
As if to demonstrate this point, this inforgraphic by Section Design shows how the iPad (the ultimate converged device) does basically everything making it (as apple have demonstrated with their advertising) equally difficult to define.
If the perception of BMW is that it is an aspirational but ultimately pretty conventional brand, their willingness to hand over their brand and products to leading creatives may cause you to think again. I wrote a few weeks back about how surrendering some control of the brand helped BMW to create its ‘Dwelling Lab’ installation in collaboration with Patricia Urquola, Giulio Ridolfo and Kvardat for the Salone Del Mobile. Unlike other brands which appear at design shows in the hope that some credibility will magically rub off on them, BMW provided a canvas for these talented designers to create something genuinely engaging (which they duly did). What BMW realize (and many others don’t) is that it’s better to share more attention with others than have no attention all to yourself. In contrast to other car brands who are highly secretive and precious about their brands, BMW’s willingness to experiment presents it in a good light.
Understanding the power of providing artists with the space to create something unique is something BMW has done over many years, most notably through its Art Car Project where noted artists create a unique paint job for a car. Whilst this sort of project feels somewhat hackneyed today as design partnerships become standard marketing practice, Art Car holds greater authority and authenticity thanks to its longevity (it has been going since 1975) and the stature of the collaborators (Warhol, Lichtenstein and Hockney amongst others).
Alexander Calder’s 1975 design
This year’s Art Car, unveiled at the Centre Pompidou, is by Jeff Koons and features a colourful, pulsating design which (apparently) captures “life energy” the “desire to achieve” and “desire to win,”.
In addition to touring museums and art galleries, it will race at this year’s Le Mans 24 Hour endurance race where it is bound to stand-out against its multi-sponsored, multi-logoed competitors and make a bold statement on behalf of the BMW brand.
I have been very inspired by Jeff Jarvis’s thinking around the creation of businesses which act as platforms for other businesses to prosper. The ultimate example is Google whose advertising platform benefits individual sites and blogs who earn money for themselves (and Google) by attracting an audience. This revenue creates an incentive to deliver more content and attract a greater audience, which provides the site (and of course Google) with further revenues – a truly virtuous circle.
(Image from Dave Gray via Flickr)
This approach to business got me thinking about snowballs. Google provides the mountain and the initial push (its platform) but the gravity and momentum which perpetuate the motion of the snowball and cause it to grow are provided by individual sites which profit from the platform that Google has created. The snowball continues to grow as it travels down this never-ending slope and all the time Google makes money without having to do anything except ensure that the slope is steep enough to maintain the snowball’s descent (ie. by continuing to provide access to the platform). The platform continues to grow because Google has millions of snowballs hurtling down virtual mountains all the time and a constant supply of new ones ready to roll off the summit.
Whether or not you’re a ‘platform business’, the ‘snowball’ theory can also be applied to marketing with our client Best Buy’s Twelpforce a great example of this approach in action. The objective is to commuicate to consumers that Best Buy’s Blueshirts are both helpful and knowledgeable – able to answer any technology question you can throw at them. One approach to this challenge would be to create an advertising campaign where friendly Blueshirts answer customers’ queries leaving the viewer at home with the impression that if they too had a technology question (and happened to be near the store), an equally helpful Blueshirt would do the same for them.
But creating advertising campaigns is costly and time consuming as well as finite (once it’s been on air, the campaign must be refreshed with another campaign which is equally costly and time-consuming to produce). Twelpforce is a smarter solution to the challenge because it is a marketing platform. An ever-growing ‘snowball’ of content is created by the interactions between customers and Blueshirts and every such interaction (preserved on the Twelpforce feed) acts to further reinforce the message that the Blueshirts know their stuff. The other benefit is that rather than creating an advertising conceit which must grab the attention of a disinterested viewer and be suitably convincing to overcome any cynicism they may have as to the expertise of the Blueshirts, Twelpforce is a useful service which allows them to experience Blueshirt expertise firsthand rather than take Best Buy’s word for it. This level of audience participation causes the snowball to grow as people who use the service and find it useful, use it again and recommend it to their friends, creating self-perpetuating content tangibly demonstrating Blueshirt service credentials.
Other examples of self-perpetuating, ‘snowballing’ marketing content includes MyStarbucksIdea (Starbucks is made to look like it values its customer’s opinions as well as receiving handy innovation tips thanks to content created by its customers) and The Best Job in the world (Toursim Queensland created the platform in the form of the competition but the snowball of publicity for them was generated by the eager participants).