Super Bowl Ads: Tell Me Who Are You?
Monday, February 8, 2010
Legendary television producer Norman Lear often said it was best to start the story "in the middle." That's where the truth of the narrative is, and the theory held for Super Bowl XLIV. Smack in the middle of a confused and confusing collection of ads was The Who, an embarrassing half-time show of old white men singing of "pinball wizards" in the age of connected gaming, and claiming some distant insight into the "teenage wasteland" of a generation to which they do not belong. Yet, they were entirely relevant context for the general fiasco of this year's ads, asking: "Tell me who are you?" With some notable exceptions, advertisers seemed to have no idea who they were this year, nor who their customers might be.
Indeed, these are uncertain times, filled with mixed messages. The economy is recovering, even if jobless numbers have crept back up post-holiday. The stimulus has worked, but we need more of it for small business. Bankers' big bonuses are back on Wall Street, but jobs that are gone will not be part of what returns to Main Street. Not knowing "what's next," advertisers had a hard time with their points of view, and an even harder time looking forward. To address "what's next," it may be time for advertisers to consider changes to the tried-and-true Super Bowl genre in a rapidly changing media environment. Until then, this year's spots fell into three general categories: "Backwards Glances," "Emasculated Men," and "The Cultural Moment."
It is understandable that advertisers would think we need comfort these days, but they were unsure how to provide it in the current environment. So, they reached into the cultural closet of things we recognize and remember fondly. In one of the few good spots of the night, Snickers gave us America's cult grandma, Betty White, and the history of easy-watching television along with her. (Snickers was not alone in tackling women. Focus on the Family also thought it appropriate, and I'll leave the problematic "family friendliness" of Mr. Tebow's slamming of his mother to the ground in something akin to a creepy eHarmony spot to others to deal with). Boost Mobile rekindled the awkward acoustic stylings of the 1985 Chicago Bears for their version of the Super Bowl "Shuffle," a move that allowed for a unique pairing of thongs and a bit of Apple's intellectual property ("Shuffle" related to mobile devices is surely protected now, and we can expect a second chapter to this story). CBS got in on the brand hijack action themselves, linking an NCIS promo to Bud Light's "slap" commercials from three years ago. Bud Light itself recalled the telephone pass-along value of the iconic Budweiser "Whassup" campaign with this year's auto-tuned spot (feat. T-Pain), a move that also pulled on the cultural resonance of an Apple app from the artist. HomeAway.com reunited us with The Griswolds. Bridgestone offered up a paltry version of "The Hangover," with a splash of Shamu for added familiarity. And in a pre-game spot McDonald's reached into its own archives and recast its classic Larry Byrd/Michael Jordan spot. Perhaps the best spot of this sort came from VW and reconnected us to the simplest of childhood games: Punch Buggy (but with more buggies to choose from). The new ideas here were already tested, already comfortable. The spots mostly reinforce cultural associations rather than introduce new ones, thus offering some stability to the brands rather than moving them forward significantly.
There was little surprise that this year's ads proved tone-deaf to women; such a move is fairly typical for the industry. The disconnect from men, however, was a stunner. In today's environment, men are either working harder than ever to hold together their lives, jobs and homes, or they are so beaten down as to need no reminding of it. Dodge presented one of the most depressing spots in the history of advertising, casting the much needed stability of marriage and responsibility as a castrating battle requiring a "last stand" for poor, beleaguered men. Dockers assumes the goods have hit the cutting room floor already, and both shames men by marching them about in their skivvies, and scolds them to "Wear the Pants" again. In what can only be described as "cheek to cheek" spots, the Dockers' spot followed CareerBuilder's "Casual Fridays" underwear show-off, again highlighting the humiliating condition of life for men in jobs they hate. CareerBuilder seems to think the humiliation can be addressed, that job mobility has returned. Dove had the right brand positioning (skin care for men who are comfortable with who they are) but the creative was more "poor you" scenarios than imaginable. Men, according to Dove, are just so confused on how to be...men. A loofah will clear it all up. And then there's FloTV's "Jason," who is suffering from a "removed spine" and instructed to "change out of that skirt." In a shockingly bad move, Toyota presents its trucks as playthings for the irresponsible guy who doesn't want to "grow up." Given its present challenges with responsible, adult behavior in the midst of a mishandled crisis, Toyota would have been wise to stay out of the game altogether. Based on these spots, we can assume that American advertisers think all a guy needs to be back in control is a new car, his pants, a scrubby, his mobile TV and a truck appropriate for brakes-free mud-slinging. Sounds good, but it is exactly what our culture does not need and cannot afford just yet. Men know this; they are living lives that tell them so. Real priorities still rule, even if uncomfortably. The ads are irrelevant to the extreme and work only inside of agencies who think we just have to "engineer desire" again (even if doing so means ignoring the cultural moment in which we live). There are no magic pants, sadly.
The Cultural Moment
The best spots of the night encapsulated our shared cultural stories: the moments and memories that connect us and make us feel good, knowing we can go forward. They offered quiet assurance that the story would continue. Google transformed the simplicity of search into the uncovering of our own destinies, highlighting how essential the utility has become to everyday life. And, for the first time, the brand has integrated an emotional overtone to its functionality. With the tag "Search On" appearing for the first time, Google points to its role in "the game of life" and also to "whatever comes next." Audi's "Green Police" spot took on the strident tone of most of the environmental movement and pushed back on it with a better solution: one that sees the next step in the sustainability story not as "doing without" but as evolving to smarter products through better engineering. The spot was humorous but not trivial, and took on social pressures with a sophistication that could have served the makers of the "emasculated men" spots well. Coca-Cola had just two spots for its flagship brand, and both were remarkable for the cultural connections they leveraged. "Hard Times" opens with "another billionaire" going bankrupt, this one the hardly lovable Monty Burns from The Simpsons. The kindness of neighbors and the happiness of Coca-Cola show him that the simple pleasures in life are still what matter most. Coca-Cola entertains us with a custom mini-episode of a beloved show, while also speaking to the present economic moment and the lasting values that ensure us all that the longest running show (on television and in our own democratic experiment) is not about to end. It is comforting without being overly emotional or invasive, relevant without being heavy handed. In its second spot, Coca-Cola shifts focus from the fantasy and suburban life of The Simpsons to the global and real setting of an African plain. Like the beasts on their nightly roams, the "Sleepwalker" has Coca-Cola as his instinctual habit. No matter where he may find himself, with Coca-Cola, he has a special confidence and the power to survive. Across the spots, the message is the same, though the setting is different: Coca-Cola connects, comforts, gives confidence, whether locally or globally, whether personally or shared. Happiness sustains life. The cultural moment of the Super Bowl itself was at-risk just days ago with the possibility that the treasured Clydesdales would not appear; consumer action and smart brand managers prevailed, and Budweiser's "Fences" spot made sure the Big Game had its complete cast of characters. To be without the Clydesdales in this moment of cultural instability would have seemed like something uniquely American had been lost. Each of these brands lets us know that things will continue and that they will be part of the future narrative.
We expect to be entertained during the game, and the Super Bowl Genre has been well-defined. Of the other spots of the night, Doritos was heaviest in its buy but weakest in its creative, all which focused on simple "reversal of fortune" stunts; whether featuring a shock-collar, a smack-down toddler, a faked funeral or an angry gym rat, the one enjoying the Doritos ended up in a bad situation...why? Emerald Nuts turned people into dancing dolphins, but delivered only what has become its staple reinterpretation of "being nuts": bizarre for the sake of bizarre and a complete lack of desirability for the product. Bud Light's "Little Women" spot and Dr. Pepper's "Little Kiss" both were masterful, showing complete control over the plot twists and surprise pay-offs we have come to expect from big beverage brands. Motorola took on sexting with equal humorous command of the genre, though missed an opportunity for a genuine social responsibility moment on the growing issue. Kia's toys came to life in a typical enough spot, but one which was made stronger by heavy advance Internet promotion of the characters. Denny's screaming chickens seem poised, potentially, to achieve character status, like Chik-Fil-A's meat-hating cows, and should live beyond their free-breakfast tactics as embodiments of freshness, hard-work and happy mornings. ETrade's talking baby evolved nicely, with a cadre of other investors with whom to commiserate or go on business trips, and a girlfriend ready for a take-down with a "milkaholic." Once hot GoDaddy.com seemed out of ideas with uninspired Danica Patrick spots promising "unrated" content online. Overall, the genre needs updating; it is starting to go stale as both audiences and media continue to change rapidly. A new approach to the genre of Super Bowl advertising may help this year's confused brands to answer "Who are you?" for themselves and for their consumers.