Saving Face(book): three lessons from the Cambridge Analytica scandal

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The recent news that’s still in the news about the Cambridge Analytica scandal on the Facebook platform is making the rounds in marketing circles, and for very good reason. In many ways, and across virtually every category, calls will be made for heads in data and analytics departments nationwide, just as they were (initially) for the head of Mark Zuckerberg. “How could this happen?” the world seemed to ask. More accurately, the throngs pleaded, “how could YOU LET this happen?”

The harsh – and probably less titillating – reality, however, is that neither Zuckerberg nor Facebook are culpable of even a misdemeanor as far as this story goes. The folks at Cambridge were undertaking some very underhanded activities, and OF COURSE they did it out of sight of Facebook’s developer guidelines.

A quick review of what transpired: Cambridge Analytica (through a developer company called GSR,) created and then convinced 270,000 people to download an app called “thisisyourdigitallife” where users shared profile data and answered questions about themselves in exchange for a payment. That part is totally legal and fine.

What’s not legal, and very much not fine, is that the app those users agreed to have access their post data was also accessing data of their extended networks through Facebook. Unknowingly, friends and associates of those initial 270,000 had their profile data accessed too, and without consent. Some estimates put the digital swipe at about 50 million profiles (about a 20X reach.) A new report issued last week, raises the estimate to 87 million.  The algorithm GSR built used that data to create (according to some reporting) 30 million unique “profiles” that then helped in the design of highly targeted political ads.

There are numerous ways to unpack this. But for the sake of the practitioner who may be leveraging data (that’s everyone,) or thinking about it, let’s look at the basic but extremely important lessons this offers us.

Lesson 1: It’s NOT Facebook’s fault.
Let’s leave Facebook out of it (mostly) in terms of blame. Facebook was neither complicit in nor aware of the underhanded swiping of data, or the duping of unwitting consumers to grab information. They have clear policies, and those were blatantly violated by a business on the prowl. [To be clear, “data-scraping” tactics were allowed at one point for academic purposes, but have since been altogether forbidden on the platform.]

Facebook has the odd misfortune of being the central place where two billion+ people go and share information. That Cambridge Analytica stole from them is the issue, but so many of the news stories were focused on the idea that people had their data stolen ON FACEBOOK. That’s not fair, and it’s certainly not indicative of the platform’s policies and guidelines regarding third party developers.

Even if (and this is fiction,) there were some way for Facebook to oversee or even closely monitor every interaction that every third party developer has with any user while on the platform, then said third party developer with dubious intentions would first write an evasive script to keep their real intentions hidden. That’s Hacker 101.

Lesson 2:  This doesn’t make ALL data collection “bad.”
One story, even an egregious one like this, is not indicative of an obvious trend or an impending sign of where the digital marketplace is headed. So let’s not jump to conclusions about the use or misuse of data in marketing. Although it seems like the reflexive idea du jour, now is not the time to “re-evaluate every data collection activity, provider, or service” and start lobbying to pull data – or at least data collection – out of marketing. Data makes life infinitely better for the majority of consumers, whether they are clear about how or not.

Virtually every advance in marketing (from a digital point of view,) has been made infinitely more appealing because of the use of broad arrays of interoperative data sets. From programmatic advertising and retargeting to contextualized offers and recommendations that are algorithmically derived, the average online consumer is treated to a platter of timely propositions that make sense based on their online behaviors.

This is also a good time to remind everyone that maybe seeing your face squished like a funhouse mirror isn’t worth compromising the last seven years of your profile data. And that when you see that “you are now leaving Facebook” warning, it’s because You. Are. Now. Leaving. Facebook.

Lesson 3: Make it a teaching moment.  Evaluate your partners today.
This is an excellent opportunity for careful evaluation and timely introspection. Let’s take a good hard look at ALL our partners, data collection, data storage, data transfer, database, or otherwise – and give them a thorough once-over. Make sure their collection methods are sound. Make sure their statistics are sound. Make sure their conclusions are rooted in strong discipline and rigor. Make sure they’re collecting information that YOUR BRAND can actually use for YOUR objectives. (Not using your customer data pool for information your partners can sell to, say, your competitors, eh?)

As a paying customer, you have the right to ask what sample sizes your data and/or research partners will tolerate before making general conclusions, and so on. This way, when someone calls you on a “you are the company you keep” claim, you can be assured of (and even write policy around) your vetting methods. And here’s a handy little secret: you can brag about it to your clients, too.

 

Delta is WINNING in the Georgia Tax Tussle

delta_georgiaLast week, the Georgia legislature rescinded a tax break proposal that would have meant approximately a $50 million savings on jet fuel taxes for Delta Air Lines, the state’s largest private employer. This came in direct response to Delta’s announcement from February 24th, which read in part:

“…the airline will end its contract for discounted fares for travel to the (NRA) association’s 2018 annual meeting… Out of respect for our customers and employees on both sides, Delta has taken this action to refrain from entering this debate and focus on its business. Delta continues to support the 2nd Amendment.”

To be clear, Delta did not end its relationship with the NRA, or NRA members. It simply removed a special discount as a perk, and stated its rationale in fairly certain terms. NRA members are free to fly Delta any time they like.

Delta, like any brand, made this move and released this statement partly due to its convictions, and partly for the timely optics.

And several brands, including Dick’s Sporting Goods, Walmart, Hertz, MetLife and United Airlines, have also taken steps – some far more significant than Delta’s – to either enter or remove themselves from the fray surrounding this percolating national conversation.

In response to Delta’s statement, Georgia Lt. Gov Casey Cagle tweeted:

“I will kill any tax legislation that benefits @Delta unless the company changes its position and fully reinstates its relationship with the @NRA. Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back.”

The Georgia senate followed through, and sitting Governor Nathan Deal signed the bill on March 1st.

This is also an optics play for Georgia, the brand.

Mr. Cagle, the man who authored the tweet and led this movement into law, is seen as the frontrunner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, as Georgia enters an election year with primaries in May and a general election in November.

Some rash-thinking practitioners might suggest that Delta leave the state, and the 33,000+ residents it employs, to make a bold(er) statement. That would be an arduous task, complicated by the fact that Delta just renewed their lease on Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the world’s busiest, for a 20-year term. And while it might be a windfall for any other city, (what’s up, Nashville?) it might be seen as a petty slight against tens of thousands of workers, based on politics. (Not a great brand play.)

Financially, the new taxes, while significant, probably won’t hurt the company as much as one might think. Delta has laid out a long-term plan to spend between $2 billion and $3 billion per year on aircraft replacement and other capital upgrades. The $50 million in fuel taxes will likely be factored in to that budget.

From a marketing and brand sensibility, Delta doesn’t have to leave Georgia just to make a wildly expensive point. The brand “won” the optics game by sticking to its guns (reverse puns intended) on this polarizing issue, and then getting punished for it.  Those who are watching brands at this time will have taken notice, and will be impressed by its fortitude to stick to its promise as a service provider.

And now that they’re paying for that decision, both literally and figuratively, their marketing job has gotten quite clear: stand by our principles, continue to conduct business to the best of our abilities, and enjoy (and selectively promote) the wave of earned media this whole issue has garnered.

Delta can now leverage the opportunity to create a new bond with their Georgia employees with a “we’re sticking with you, no matter what it costs us” message. That’s also a strong brand move.  Think of the wave of pride and support that will generate internally.

My guess is that CEO Edward Bastian is filming that message any day now…

The Law of Environment

If you watched Super Bowl advertising this year, you saw a lot of big-budget, celebrity-filled laugh-fests during the broadcast. From Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman in a hip-hop lip sync battle for Doritos and Mountain Dew to Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. hilariously re-imagining “Dirty Dancing” as a touchdown celebration, there were some big hits during the ad breaks.

And you also saw some fumbles and outright clunkers. (Not to name names, but we’re talking to you Ram Trucks.)

Take a look at this Budweiser “Stand By You” commercial.

On the surface, this was an excellent commercial. There’s a strong narrative flow, very good performances, and a cinematic feel to how it’s filmed.

But this commercial was mis-run during the Super Bowl, precisely because it failed to maximize The Law of Environment, which I state here as:

Consumers are either open or closed – indeed available or not available – to your advertising message depending largely on the environment in which they find themselves when that message is presented.

Environment, as it’s used here, includes four important ingredients, which you can remember as the T-A-M-E scale:

Timing: What time of day or night is it? How long does the message last?  Does the viewer/reader have ample time to process the message in detail, or just in broad strokes, and general images?

Atmosphere: Is the viewer alone or with company? Is it loud or quiet? Is it indoors or outdoors? Up close or far away? If there is one, what size is the screen? What else is happening while the advertising appears?

Medium: Is the message itself in motion? Is it on a screen, on a surface, or delivered via audio? Does it use words, or just images? Can you hear sound? Is it interactive?

Emotion: How much emotion – and which one(s) – is included/embedded in the message?

If we review the Budweiser commercial against these qualifiers, we see that it demands the viewer to spend some attentive, even quiet, time with the spot to take it all in. The viewer can perceive the seriousness, and the smoldering heroics of the lead character. It’s perfect for a full-size screen to get a sense of scale and distance, and there is a swell of emotion, in the “going outside of oneself” or “doing good by doing for others” sense of service.

And while that’s all very positive, you can see how it’s a mismatch for the Super Bowl environment, based on the atmosphere.

To generalize, the “average” Super Bowl environment finds the consumer in a living room with a group of friends or family, with conversations going on, and it’s largely a social event with a lively atmosphere. When this ad comes on, it may immediately be perceived as “too serious” or “too quiet” or even too much of an intellectual investment. So it fails to connect. And that’s a shame, because it happens to be very good advertising.

Understanding your consumer is of course critical to advertising success. But when you go beyond demographics and psychographics to an understanding of these critical advertising receptivity parameters, you can “TAME” the environment to maximize your message’s efficiency, no matter where or when it runs.

Super Bowl 52 Grins and Groans

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What an interesting paradox. In a game that saw dozens of records set, including an explosive offensive output by both teams, the advertising this year was entirely meh. (Following a big meh-burger last year.)  We thought we’d see some surprises. We didn’t.

We got a few laughs, a few headscratchers, and we saw a few commercials that just didn’t make much sense. Here are this year’s grins and groans. And if you want a spoiler, here it is: TIDE won the Super Bowl, and no one else even came close.

Honorable mentions to:

Jeep: their Jurassic-Park-themed spot with Jeff Goldblum was pretty good, and their “manifesto” spot was especially good. [Take note kids: this “manifesto” spot is what they mean when they say “show, don’t tell.”]

Australia Tourism: did a nice job of disguising an ad for tourism in a weeks-long fake promotion for a new fake Dundee movie preview. With Chris Hemsworth in his native accent. A win-win for the Aussies.

Also of note:
Amazon’s Alexa  “replacements” ad;
Hyundai’s tug at the heartstrings with personal “thank yous;”
Keegan Michael Key “translating” for Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans.

GRINS:

E-Trade was a delightful surprise with their riff on the Harry Belafonte song, “Day-O.” In it, they poke fun (in magnificent ways,) with the simple fact that “over 1/3 of Americans have no retirement savings. This is getting old.” A sad truth, a smart position, a deft turn of phrase, and refreshingly good advertising for a singular concept: their retirement account offering. And best couplet of the night: “just got a job as a lifeguard in Savannah / I’m dropping sick beats, they call me DJ Nana.”

NFL teased at “touchdown celebrations to come” with a hilarious and well-acted (for football players) riff on a “Dirty Dancing” moment. Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants rehearse a future touchdown celebration with a completely choreographed dance number that, um, climaxes with Eli lifting Odell high in the air. It’s quite a moment, and a smart way for the NFL to capitalize on an organic movement that seemed to peak this past season.

Sprint pokes massive fun at their competitor (Verizon,) by showing that you can “learn” to choose Sprint, based on the sheer facts. Evelyn, an AI robot, asks her scientist/creator why he’s still on Verizon. Doc doesn’t have an answer, and Evelyn, along with all the other robots, including prototypes and spare parts, begin laughing at the doc’s expense. He’s embarrassed, and in the next scene, we see him in a Sprint store, explaining that his “co-workers” were making fun of him. It’s a long way to go, but it’s done smartly.

Hands-down, the winner of the Super Bowl was Tide. First, they do a spectacular job of staying on their core message, which hasn’t changed in decades. (Kids scoring at home – they stay true to a simple and defensible competitive position: that Tide is best on removing stains, and gets clothes cleaner. Period. Stop.)

Second, and perhaps more importantly, they shatter the concept of what “advertising” is. Instead of making a new ad for their detergent, they go into other ads – including recent and famous and iconic Super Bowl ads – and with the addition of a simple phrase, turn them all into “a Tide ad.” We’re talking cars, fashion, beer, technology, consumer packaged goods. The Old Spice guy! A Clydesdale! OMG! Brilliant!

At various lengths, and without warning, Tide continued to delight and surprise, and by halftime, I was on the edge of my seat hoping for more. So well-conceived. So simple. So stinkin’ smart. And absolutely crushed by actor David Harbour. No contest here. Well done, Procter & Gamble, and way to out-do yourselves from a winner last year. (While the spots appeared at different times throughout the game, see all of them linked together in the clip below.)

GROANS:

On a night when you have to “go big or go home,” I was surprised at how many advertisers played it safe. Let’s also note that while we’re in the opening frames of the #metoo moment and the #timesup movement, that there were ZERO ads that featured the subjugation of women in any way. But weirdly, there were nearly the same number that featured women in ANY way.

Seriously. A quick shot of Cindy Crawford, and generally odd choices in Iggy Azalea and Tiffany Haddish were about your entire feature of female actors this year. Can you say “disproportionate response?”

Compare that to the preponderance of men in the ads last night:

Danny DeVito
Steven Tyler
Chris Pratt
David Harbour
Eli and OBJ and several New York Giants
Keegan Michael Key
Dr. Oz
Peter Dinklage
Morgan Freeman
Dwayne Johnson
Jeff Goldblum
Bill Hader
Keanu Reeves
Chris Hemsworth
Danny McBride
Peyton Manning
Matt Damon
(And that’s off the top of my head.)

So, an overall groan for a generally poor response to the cultural climate. Instead of just bringing an umbrella to deal with how it is outside, the advertising industry collectively decided to shut the doors, draw the shades, and hibernate until who-knows-when. I look forward to a time when brands can deal with this shit like grownups.

In general, almost ALL the car advertising was a collective groan. (Just like last year.) Hyundai tried something unconventional, which I like. And Kia’s ad featuring Steven Tyler was at least entertaining. But Toyota was all over the place with their mixed-messages-hidden-in-you-can’t-go-wrong-with-Olympics-promotion spots. Mercedes-Benz seemed to be content with running a speedster feature spot that could have (and perhaps should have) run in June. A far cry from their Tortoise-and-Hare fairy tale positioning spot from a few years ago, eh?

Where was Audi, who has killed it (except for last year) over the last several years in the Super Bowl? Where are the truck spots for Chevy or Ford? Where was the boldness of “It’s halftime in America,” or “Imported from Detroit” for Chrysler? And where were all these Fiat spots we were promised?

But Ram (my biggest GROAN of the night,) spent a bunch of money to run multiple spots that didn’t seem to hold together very well. First, an “oops-the-Vikings-aren’t-in-the-Super-Bowl” spot was just confusing. And later, the brand was waaaaay over-reaching with their MLK spot. [Attention advertisers: if you’re going to use any quotes (or in this case, recordings,) of the late great Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., do NOT, I REPEAT, DO NOT use them to sell a bloody car. In fact, maybe don’t use them at all, mmkay? ESPECIALLY when one section of this important sermon actually goes on to undress advertisers as “gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion.”]

Turbo Tax. I don’t get it. You’ve got H&R Block throwing major shade at you with direct shots, and you can pretty much crush them by highlighting your core position (simplified online filing.) Instead, you go in a completely different direction with monsters under beds and ghosts in attics. This concept of bringing “monsters and other scary things” to life, including the dark shadows, is strategically on point, (people are terrified of doing taxes, so show other terrifying things…) but really seemed to fall flat in the execution phase.

T-Mobile just missed the mark (and essentially the year) for their “change starts now” manifesto about equality. I appreciate trying to make broad statements, but in a category that’s cluttered and centered on features and price promotions, you have a chance to distinguish yourself in so many ways. But pivoting to the “we are all equal” high ground seems like an odd choice, and just made for clunky advertising.  This is especially glaring, given that their advertising was SO good last year.

Overall, a blah year for ad geeks, and for laugh-seekers. And that’s two years in a row, now.  We’ve got to see something brighter next year, no?  Until then, congratulations to Eagles Nation on your first Super Bowl!

Audi goes vroom at the Emmys.

If you watched the 2017 Emmy Awards this past weekend on CBS, you got a real sense of what the Television Academy was interested in this year. (And apparently, it wasn’t ratings.) But you also got some interesting advertising from Audi.

Audi ran three spots (multiple times) throughout the evening under the theme of “celebrating performance.”  Take a look:
Cheers

Star Trek

Mary Tyler Moore

In the spots, three Audis (the 2018 SQ5 SUV, the 2018 TT RS coupe and the 2018 R8 sports car, which starts at $164,900,) accompany a small orchestra playing classic TV theme songs. Pretty good idea, considering that the Emmy audience is likely made up of people who love television, so the spots create immediate context.

Here’s the text that Audi posted on YouTube along with the “Cheers” spot:

Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name. Other times you wanna use three Audi vehicles to perform TV theme songs. This is one of three pieces performed by the Audi Orchestra on Emmys night 2017. A demonstration of Audi’s unrivaled technology in honor of some of TV’s greatest shows. Orchestra members include the R8, SQ5, and TT RS. All songs are performed in the key of quattro.

Progress is celebrating performance.

Hmmm. The Audi Orchestra. Television theme songs being played by vroom-vroom-vroom-ing. Can you identify the value that brings to the average consumer? Neither can I.

Let’s start with what’s good about these spots. First, they’re beautifully executed, beautifully filmed. We get a nice motion cam beauty shot of the rear-mount V10 engine on the R8, some cool in-and-outs on the high-speed-spinning rims, and gorgeous pullouts of the soundstage. Really nice. Venables, Bell and Partners have done some incredibly impressive work for Audi over the last several years, including their Super Bowl spots, which have been sweeping cinematic victories.

Oh, and they show the new cars. That’s always a good thing.

But that’s about it. From a strategic perspective, these spots would get rejected in advertising school for several reasons:

1. They’re self-congratulatory. While it’s important to tout your features, it’s best to do it in a way that helps consumers understand what those features do FOR THEM. Not for some contextualized television experiment.

2. They’re wading into positioning territory that’s blurry. Remember, when a consumer shops a category, the position of all players in the category matter. BMW, whether Audi likes it or not, owns the concept of “performance” in the mind of the consumer. Trying to wrestle that free is dangerous at least, and a colossal waste of money at worst.

3. There’s no VALUE created for the consumer. Ok, great. A limited production vehicle that starts at $165,000 goes “vroom.” What else does it come with?

Look, I’m not saying you can’t do daring, or beautiful, or interesting, or arty work in advertising. You totally can. Even if it doesn’t necessarily sell. (Sorry, Uncle David.) But if it doesn’t differentiate the brand in some meaningful (to the consumer) way? Don’t bother. At the end of the day, any car can go “vroom.” Even my mom’s Nissan Altima does that. And for about $135,000 less than your shiny orchestra piece.

The real test of any advertising is to discern whether or not you come away with any sense of VALUE. Even your basic tire dealer spot that runs on the local cable network in anytown USA is going to leave you with a basic idea like “oh, cool. I buy three tires and get the fourth one free.” That’s value. Or if it’s not an offer-based spot, you might say, “oh, cool, that little thingy there keeps my food fresh for an extra two hours.” That’s feature-based value. But I watch these spots over and over, and can’t imagine anyone saying, “oh, cool. I can vroom-vroom around town to the tune of ‘You Really Got Me’ with these really nice import cars.”

At least we have Audi’s Super Bowl spots to look forward to.

Five Reasons for a Delta/AT&T cobrand

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If you’re a business traveler who spends any appreciable time traveling, you understand the typical challenges: commercial transportation, even in its most streamlined forms, can be a lot of work. Especially if you’ve got a lot of work to do while you travel.

Some commercial carriers now offer wi-fi as a feature of their offerings. In particular, Delta Airlines touts that they proudly offer wi-fi on all flights (with a few restrictions based on the aircraft used on certain legs.)

Unfortunately, the wi-fi offered is painfully slow and doesn’t perform in any manner even remotely resembling acceptable. In some cases, the wi-fi isn’t available at all. This is especially infuriating on longer flights – like New York to Seattle, for instance – when you hope to strike several items from your to-do list, and make those hours productive.

We understand why Delta would offer wi-fi (through a fulfillment partner Gogo Inflight) services. It’s a great way to differentiate from competitors, and it gives the brand another feature to promote to consumers. And not just about targeting business travelers – even today’s average non-business traveler is in need of good wi-fi.

But when Delta can’t deliver on even the most basic version of that promise, they are losing esteem in the minds of their consumers, (this one included,) and thereby damaging their brand in the process.

This is a perfect market condition for a cobranding opportunity. If Delta dumps Gogo and partners with AT&T to deliver on an important and desirable brand feature, everybody wins. Let’s explore how.

Here’s loosely how it works: AT&T wires up all Delta flights with soon-to-be-ubiquitous 5G broadband wireless (serious network capability that’s actually really fast even when everyone is connected,) and now that they own it, AT&T can even deploy their DirecTV service into the flights where there are screens on the seats.  Great way to preview the new network, and better way to innovate (since you’d have to be creative with how to get good-sized beacons into typically tight spaces with the rest of the avionics configuration) on the installation.

What might happen in such an arrangement? The answers are five good reasons Delta and AT&T should cobrand:

  1. Consumers would enjoy a far better, far more productive online experience while flying Delta. If you’ve ever had to deal with slow or spotty wi-fi, you know how frustrating it can be. Smooth and fast connectivity that allows business people to connect to emails or shared docs and enables kids to stream movies would simply make for a stronger overall experience while flying Delta.
  2. Those consumers would form positive brand impressions about both Delta and AT&T. Smooth flights with lots of productive connectivity and streamed entertainment options that are delivered without incident looks good on both brands. This is especially true for AT&T, who is in a near-constant dogfight with Verizon for perceptual wireless network preference.
  3. Delta gets to deliver a category differentiating benefit at no carried or additional operational costs. Without assuming massive operational dollars to implement this arrangement, Delta would leapfrog its competitors with this feature. Sure, JetBlue has in-flight entertainment (ironically delivered by DirecTV,) and sometimes wi-fi, but a fully thought-out super high speed network for everyone to share would help the brand stand apart from its national rivals like United and American in a meaningful – consumers actually desire this feature – and powerful way.
  4. Although AT&T would assume the operational costs of outfitting every Delta jet with their hardware, the brand would receive (basically) free exposure to Delta’s 180 million yearly passengers. Yup I said 180 million. That’s a lot of top-of-the-funnel preference for nearly all of AT&T’s business units built around the network. If they want to beat Verizon’s brains in, getting in front of 180 million passengers and basically making their travel day is a really fine way to start. How about leveraging that exposure with juicy offers to switch to AT&T wireless for your mobile phone service, or similar offers for Sunday Ticket and other DirecTV enticements?  Did I mention 180 million passengers per year?
  5. Both brands would enjoy the benefits of individualized responsibility. Under this arrangement, Delta would only be responsible to its consumers for on-time flight performance and in-cabin service, and NOT the quality or uptime of its wi-fi. When it’s co-branded with a reputable and well-known name, Delta can actually get away with saying the wi-fi is “AT&T’s problem.” With Gogo, (a smaller player with far less brand visibility,) the average passenger assumes it’s Delta’s wi-fi. Conversely, AT&T gets to take all the credit for great wi-fi and entertainment and none of the guff for flight performance or on-time arrivals. A win/win indeed.

While we’re matchmaking, I might also propose that Amtrak and Verizon enter into the same type of arrangement. Have you ever tried to connect using AmtrakConnect? As they say in the business, “oy.”

Now that the business end is settled, all we need is a good tagline. Any ideas?

Pepsi’s Oopsies

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Pepsi is having a bit of a rough week. On Monday, the brand released a full 2:40 second version of an ad featuring Kendall Jenner. It planned to roll out a 60-second version worldwide in TV and several other cuts for digital activations. By mid day Wednesday, the brand pulled the ad and the buys altogether.

How could 36 little hours do so much? Well, let’s look at both sides of this.

Here’s the spot:

Okay. Let’s look at what you could consider as the bright sides of this ad.

  • It’s timely and topical.
    Protests and civic engagement have indeed become a part of our social fabric, here and abroad.
  • It’s multicultural, and gender equal.
    Never a bad thing.
  • It ultimately has a kind of positive aspirational tonality.
    An otherwise peaceful demonstration is rendered even more peaceful (I guess) with music, smiling, and the culminating action when the young woman (and all that the metaphor entails,) hands the police officer a can of Pepsi.
  • It puts the brand at the center of the action.
    That’s always a good idea.
  • It puts the brand in the center of the consumers it targets.
    Y
    outhful people – totally on strategy.
  • It would likely have appealed to many people around the world.
    There are millions of people who wouldn’t look beyond the surface of this, and would likely have seen it as a “nice little movie” that makes Pepsi look “relevant” or even “concerned” about what’s happening in the world.

That’s a lot of upside.

Now, to be fair, let’s look at the many down sides.

First, this is just a terrible piece of advertising. While all of us who practice in this business (and/or teach it,) can agree that it’s important to tell a story in your ads, we should probably mention that it’s important to tell a GOOD story. This ad tells a weird and disjointed set of stories that a.) don’t relate to one another very clearly and 2. ) don’t make a whole lot of sense. It sounds kind of like a bad bar joke: “An Asian cellist, a middle Eastern photographer and a socialite model walk into a protest…”

And, as far as plot, are we to believe that this otherwise unconcerned model on a photo shoot suddenly gets interested in the cause of the protest, (because Asian cellist hipster gives her a head bob,) and then joins it, only to be at the forefront of the central action in a matter of seconds? That’s kinda hard to believe, right?  It’s okay to stretch the truth in advertising – but it should be rooted in something that’s at least mildly feasible.

Second, the ad clearly co-opts the past several years of protest memories and tries to leverage them to its own gain. When Twitter blew up over this ad, most of the reaction was centered around the #blacklivesmatter theme, since that is our most open and infected social wound, and is (sadly) almost constantly in the news along with coverage of ensuing protests.

Pepsi decides to double down on the poorly conceived concept, and in the culminating scene, the star of the spot (Ms. Jenner) hands a police officer a can of Pepsi. Which seems and looks an awful lot like the very real and very terrifying moment when Ieshia Evans was arrested by officers in riot gear on the streets of Baton Rouge last July.

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Third, this ad is derivative on multiple levels. Hundreds of tweets mentioned the similarity of the spot to the first half of this Chemical Brothers video, which uses the protest scene as a vehicle for conveying chaos, passion, violence and yes, cola commercialism. But in that video, the commercialism is sort of mocked and shamed for its essence – a protestor later smashes a TV screen showing the “commercial” being parodied in the video.

chemical_brothers_video_still

Remember the 1971 groundbreaking commercial, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke?” That, too, was multicultural, gender equal, timely and topical (it was sort of the middle innings of the hippie generation, but extracted a message of peace and “perfect harmony”,) and showed a cola brand at the center of the action. But without the need for the hyperrealism or cheap celebrity. Sure, it was a bit of commercial melodrama, but it was an ambitious and original idea, had a commissioned jingle we can all still sing in tune and – to provide context and even a little cover – it was more than 45 years ago.  Pepsi has had a long time to learn how to do this.

Fourth. The Kardashianification of America continues. Can we get past these people already?

But here’s the odd truth. Despite all the shortfalls of this ad, my guess is that there would have been millions of people who would have reacted positively to it. Because a lot of people don’t want to contemplate the harsh realities of life, and the provenances of the day’s socio-visual references. This ad would have simply gone down as schmaltz liquor for millennials, and half of them would have loved it.

Instead, we live in a world where Twitter is judge, jury and ad critic.  The ad never got to see the light of day.  And, in a discussion with my students last evening, another important point came up:  where was the agency of record in all of this?  This ad was created by Creators League Studio, an in-house content development team at Pepsi.  Perhaps they should have collaborated with their agency cohorts for some racial/cultural/how-to-do-an-ad-that-won’t-get-piled-on perspective?  Where was the grownup in the room? Where was the let’s-look-past-Pepsi perspective?

I fully understand and recognize that Pepsi is competing in a crowded marketplace, answering to shareholders, and trying to stay on the crest of every commercial wave. But ultimately, brands have a responsibility to the tens of millions of people who will be exposed to their messages. If you personify a protest as a social event that somehow gets “better” because and when a Kardashian joins it, then you’ve immediately devalued what a protest actually is: an often dangerous and sometimes necessary means of engagement and disruption and communication activation. A protest is a very real, very intense reality. To reduce it to a convenient advertising convention is just asking for trouble.

This is especially true when the protests in recent memory have ended in actual death for so many actual activists. Can you hear the souls of the departed from the Arab Spring crying out, “if only I had a Pepsi?” No. Very much no.

Okay. Off the soapbox. To make this a valuable teaching moment, let me just say this. If a company hands you the keys to their brand and a big fat budget, yes, tell a story. But tell a good one, with good characters, action and development.  And yes, celebrate the brand.  Heck, exaggerate the brand.  You can still do rom-com and sitcom and even cheesy melodrama. But remember who and what you are as a brand, and more importantly, what you are not.  And for fuck’s sake, TEST IT BEFORE YOU DROP IT.