commercials

Courting Controversy

A few major brands have waded into some controversial waters lately, leveraging our current national discord in order to send what is hoped to be a positive message. The results have been all over the map. Here are three recent examples:

    1. Budweiser, Born the Hard Way”

Described as “the story of our founder’s ambitious journey to America in pursuit of his dream: to brew the King of Beers,” this cinematic Super Bowl commercial drew criticism from certain folks for a perceived pro-immigrant bias, especially given that it was released around the same time the president issued an executive order regarding immigration. The hashtag #boycottbudwiser (sic) started circulating before the commercial even aired.

However, as Mashable notes the boycott largely failed, in that “The boycotters … missed the larger historical context of the Budweiser ad.”

 

      1. Pepsi, “Live For Now”

      What can be said about this ad that hasn’t already been said? Pepsi and Jenner were raked over the coals by, well, everyone, including SNL:

      The biggest complaint was that ad was tone-deaf in how it co-opped imagery from Black Lives Matter and other earnest political movements. The thinking that beautiful people drinking sugary beverages will solve the world’s problems is also flawed. In any event, “Live For Now” didn’t live for long. Pepsi wisely yanked the ad a day after its release.

  1. 3. Heineken, “Worlds Apart”

OK, so, if we take the lessons learned from both Budweiser and Pepsi, the message seems to be: Stay away from topical material to avoid ridicule and boycotts. But then along comes Heineken with this ad that takes a huge risk and somehow manages to pull it off.

Writing for The A.V. Club,Gwen Ihnat notes that by using real people, as opposed to models and actors, Heineken “very simply and succinctly accomplishes what Jenner and all those hundreds of Pepsi street-activist extras could not.”

Heineken’s strategy isn’t exactly new, argues Sarah Rense in this piece by Esquire: “It uses the reliable trope of Real People seeing something and/or someone for the first time, and then having their minds changed, mixed with a healthy dose of social awareness.” Rense also notes that, in the wake of the Pepsi debacle, Heineken had a low bar to clear: “By itself, it’s just an ad meant to sell a thing. But compared to the Pepsi ad, it deserves a Cannes Lion. Makes you smile a bit, too.”

Tapping into a nation’s divisions to sell fizzy beverages isn’t necessarily groundbreaking. Coke may have done it first with “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” way back in 1971.

Horribly cheesy? Yes. A cynical attempt to use flower children to sell soda? Yeah, probably. Offensive? Well, I didn’t see anyone in riot gear, so not really. Actually, the jingle was so successful that it was reworked into a full length song and became a hit on the Billboard charts.

I’m going to end this by recalling an earlier BEC post from 2016 regarding ethics in marketing.

In that post, we outlined a few steps on how to be ethical in marketing: Do the research, Be objective, Be the good, and Get better. We can also cull one other lesson in marketing the Heineken ad: Take the time to get it right. This is doubly true if you’re using a societal issue to spread specific message.

 

Absurdity in Marketing

After a weekend of watching ghastly amounts of television, I was struck by the high percentage of ridiculous commercials I endured. We’ve all seen ridiculous commercials- there’s the kind that has you laughing so hard, you get side stitches, the kind that leaves you bewildered and asking “What was that commercial for, anyway?,” and everything in between. The most absurd commercials seem to come out around the holidays, and of course, the Super Bowl.

I remember when the first Geico gecko commercials came out (the “Stop Calling Me!” phase), and they’re still going strong with hilarious ads. Then there’s the E-Commerce baby, although we haven’t seen him in awhile, and many food related commercials including Snickers and Jack Links beef jerky (the ones with Sasquatch).

Why do companies use humor in advertising? According to this article from The Atlantic, our attention is more likely to be held when we perceive something as either a positive (or negative) experience. Most marketers lean towards the positive experience rather than negative, because they’d rather their audience have a positive association with the brand. Humor not only grabs attention, but holds onto it. That being said, there’s a fine line between hilarious and absurd. It’s a risky marketing strategy, and yet companies still use it.

This is one of my favorite Super Bowl commercials, because it combines my favorite candy with my love for this great song (and quite possibly Meatloaf himself).

Pros

When we think something is funny, we’re also more likely to share it with others. Sharing includes word of mouth, social media shares, e-mails to friends and/or co-workers- anything that gets the word out. Ridiculous content gets shared more organically (meaning people find the content worthy of sharing with others with no incentive or push from the company that put out the ad).

Doing something absurd helps your brand stand out. By sticking your neck out and doing something different, besides the “same old,” safe, guaranteed to work advertising routine, in many ways you’re demonstrating not only innovation but passion. By doing something risky, you send the message “I believe in my product, and am willing to take this chance on it.”

This is my favorite Geico commercial to date. They’re still using the “15 minutes” bit, and adding the ridiculousness of Pinocchio being a motivational speaker. Full disclosure, I find this commercial way funnier than is probably appropriate. Even just writing a brief blurb about is enough to send me into a delirious fit of giggling. That being said, I am not insured by Geico.

Cons

Risk is a larger factor when it comes to absurdity, or humor in general. First, there’s the risk that your ad isolates certain demographics. Some people may not be as receptive to your attempt at humor, so it’s important to consider your target audience, if no one else. Second, there’s always the chance that, hey, you aren’t as funny as you thought, and people don’t respond well (especially if you go the off-color or risque route). Third, if the attempt at humor seems too forced, it isn’t going to be funny.

Another risk is that people who see your funny/absurd/ridiculous ad will be so distracted by the humor, that they pay very little attention to your product. Humor can distract people from the intended purpose of the ad, and then you’re left with a net-zero situation.

If nothing else, avoid creating an ad that is so over-the-top that people don’t understand what you’re marketing. To emphasize this point, I was going to insert a video of an advertisement that was completely strange, and I can’t even tell you the name of the product. There was an aggressive magician wow-ing an inexplicably enthusiastic crowd, and he had some sort of product that (to me) resembled Airborne. I can’t tell you the name of the product. I can’t even tell you if the ad was for the magician guy or for the Airborne-like tablets he was waving around. I even tried Googling this commercial, but clearly was unsuccessful. Moral of the story: this ad was so absurd that it achieved nothing.

Instead, I decided to insert this delightful Starburst commercial. It a) clearly explains what their product is and why it is of value, and b) has a jaunty and ridiculous tune. Success!

This article from Time magazine explains that while funny ads get a lot of laughs and general appreciation, marketers “should use humor as a supplement — not a replacement” for content in any advertisement.

Kassie is a distance runner and a distance reader really. She lives in Ellsworth Maine and, while she might be quiet when you meet her, will throw out something witty when you least expect it.