The Super Bowl always comes as something of an eye-opener for those of us who inhabit the bi-coastal bubble that is advertising. For all our dreams of groundbreaking executions and clever socially-driven engagement, the winning formula is clear: employ dogs – as USA Today commented “for sure, ads with dogs had the most bark”
Much as this depresses me, I would only be reinforcing the out-of-touch-with-real-America stereotype to complain about the lack of ambition exhibited by these as well as most of the other spots aired during Super Bowl XLVI.
One thing that I can legitimately complain about (and did so last year) is how maddeningly self-referential Super Bowl advertising is. When making Super Bowl spots, we have a straightforward task – to take advantage of the fact that we have the single biggest TV audience of the year to present our clients’ products and services in a compelling context. A common way to achieve this (whether explicitly or more subtly) is with reference to popular culture – to demonstrate the relevance of these products and services by aligning them with other things that the audience finds interesting. Whatever your feelings about the finished executions, the Honda ‘CRV‘s day out’, Audi ‘Vampire Party’ and Best Buy ‘Game Changers’ spots were designed to achieve this.
What I don’t understand is when brands choose, instead of referencing a common cultural touch-point, to reference other advertising (particularly when they’re paying $4million for the privilege. The point is to engage the mass audience, not the advertising nerds but you could be forgiven for not realizing this watching some of the spots. This was true of Motorola’s labored 1984 parody from last year and the trap that others fell into this year.
Volkswagen gave us an unremarkable but inoffensive story of a dog motivated to get in shape so that it can chase the new Beetle. But then they felt the need to append an irrelevant Star Wars riff, recalling last year’s mini-vada spot. Why? VW has not built a Star Wars property, Luke doesn’t drive a Passat, it does not have special edition Star Wars products (like Adidas). Last year, VW created an engaging spot bringing to life charming truths of family life. Star Wars was referenced but it was not the focus. This year, rather than continuing with the theme of insights into family life to give us a similarly heart-warming spot, VW decided that Star Wars was the thing to take forward, leading them create an irrelevant and potentially confusing adjunct to this year’s message.
Though it did not necessarily detract from the spot itself (which I thought very powerful), I also found Chrysler’s winking reference to Hal Riney’s ‘Morning in America’ spots for Ronald Reagan a little to knowing.
But self-indulgence is not just about referencing old advertising. Another example of indulgent self-reference was to be found in Bud Light’s ‘Weego’ spot. A good showing on the USA Today Ad Meter was guaranteed by the appearance of a dog, but mutt-aside this was a spot entirely about Bud Light’s tagline. A tagline that as pointed out by the very smart Seth Gaffney @elgaffney isn’t even that good.
Of course the naval-gazing wasn’t restricted to the game itself. Many of the advertisers also put strenuous effort into pre-marketing the marketing (that’s right, instead of taking the opportunity to talk to consumers about a new product, service or offer ie. something that would actually benefit their brands or businesses, many chose to tell us that they had taken a spot during the game and that we should pay attention to it). This led, among others, to VW putting together a film of dogs barking the Imperial March from Star Wars (as it turned out this had only very tangential relevance to their spot) and Kia to create 5hr-long teaser for their 60 second spot. Can this be a good use of anyone’s time?
As a cultural phenomenon, the Super Bowl is pretty unique in that the advertising plays a role in the experience. But let’s not kid ourselves. Having a massive audience watch the game is different to having a massive audience engage with your spot or indeed your brand. And while people undoubtedly pay a little more attention to ads than they may otherwise (for one thing they can’t skip them), as advertisers we must still compete with their consumption of food and drink and the conversations they are having with friends and family. It’s probably wishful thinking to hope that we might look beyond the dogs and babies but we must stop thinking that people care about a spot we may have run in the past (or about advertising in general) and take the opportunity to make them laugh, touch them, shock them, pull on their heart-strings and generally add to their experience of the Super Bowl.
So there was me getting misty eyed about the Old Spice campaign which I characterized as a last hurrah for the beautifully crafted TV commercial, the work of great (but old school) creatives in control of both the message and the medium… and then the social media blitz began. Responding directly to the buzz that the campaign had already created in blogs, on Twitter and YouTube, the team behind it created 183 videos over the course of 4 days, adding an additional 11million YouTube views to the 13million that the original TV spot had garnered (See We Are Social’s full case study here).
Particularly smart was the choice of comments and commentators to create video responses to, which targeted digital influencers (like The Huffington Post, Demi Moore and Ellen Degeneres) who had publicized the campaign in the first place and were rewarded with special content to share with their followers which flattered them (demonstrating their influence) and perpetuated the campaign on behalf of the brand creating a virtuous circle of content creation and sharing.
In my previous post I was making the point that in order to work in today’s fragmented and multi-faceted media landscape, campaigns can no longer be the domain of individual creative teams and must bring together the varied talents of a broader team of creators. At the time, I presented the Old Spice campaign as the exception that proved the rule, though what has become evident over the last week is that the campaign’s extended life has indeed been the work of a sophisticated ecosystem of specialists working (all hours) together.
In fact, whilst I was busy comparing the team behind the original commercial to Don Draper (sitting back with their Cannes Grand Prix, scotch in hand, admiring their handiwork as it played out on TV), they were busy together with media and social specialists, production people and of course, a (“ridiculously good looking”) actor, turning their campaign into a cultural phenomenon. Much like the Budweiser Wassup guys or Aleksander Meerkat, The Old Spice Guy has transcended his original context, sitting comfortably alongside other much-loved characters like Cartman and Borat. Indeed, so powerful a meme is he in his own right that he has become a platform for the communication of other brands – I would be willing to bet that this film made on behalf of sister brand Gillette has been far more engaging to consumers than any of their own advertising.
So a huge amount of credit must go to the creators of the Old Spice campaign.
- The people who realized that there was space for a real man’s brand as an antidote to the mass of metrosexual or infantile frat-boy alternatives in the men’s grooming aisle
- The people who conceived the campaign’s wonderfully 3 dimensional central character capable of living in any channel and beyond
- The people who delicately choreographed the TV spots
- The awesome actor
- The people who recognized the cultural significance of the Old Spice Guy and tapped into the buzz around him, selecting key influencers to perpetuate the campaign
- The people who were able to turn germs of ideas planted in tweets and YouTube comments into smart, humorous and engaging video content
- The people within the client organization prepared to fund the extension of the campaign beyond their original investment who relaxed control over the content so that it could become genuinely real-time…
And finally proof that advertising agencies are able to adapt to the modern world: combining the ability to uncover powerful insights, write high-level brand strategy and craft TV spots; yet also be fleet-of-foot enough to seize real-time opportunities, create lots of content quickly and cheaply and understand how to achieve maximum exposure in social media. A lesson from the creators at W+K to us all.