Super Bowl 53 Grins and Groans

Super Bowl LIII Logo

If you watched the national yawn that was last night’s Super Bowl, you already know there’s not much to talk about. Following an NFL season that set all kinds of records for offensive output, the game was the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in history. So yawn. The Maroon 5 halftime show, despite the lead singer removing his drapery-patterned tank top to reveal his monotone-tattooed midriff, was a nice opening act for a medium-sized dance club. Even the guest rappers didn’t elevate the performance. So yawn. Oh, and that team from New England, who apparently bought 90% of the seats in the house, won. Again. Yawn.

But perhaps the biggest yawns came at virtually every commercial break. For the third year in a row, the advertising at the Super Bowl was almost entirely unremarkable. With a few exceptions, the ads were mostly safe, predictable, and worse, platitudinous.

So here are your grins and groans.

A couple of themes emerged throughout the evening, and some of them are troubling. First, we absolutely have to stop equating Martin Luther King, Jr. with anything related to NFL football while the league (and the nation) wrestles with its own ability to formulate a realistic response to the racial inequality that Colin Kaepernick and others have tried so earnestly and intelligently to highlight. (Remember that Ram trucks tried it and failed miserably last year.)

Second, we have to get some context with the celebrities.  It’s great to have big names in your spots, but it really helps if they were relevant in the last, I don’t know, decade or so.  Li’l Jon for Pepsi, Bo Jackson for Sprint, Sarah Michelle Gellar for Olay doing her old horror movie stuff.  It just seemed like I was watching Super Bowl 43 by accident.

And what’s with the robots?  TurboTax, Sprint, and Michelob Ultra all featured robot characters, while Pringles gave a hat tip to Alexa-style AI and Mercedes-Benz touted its new AI in its new A Class.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Honorable mention to Bumble for their inspired and dead-on messaging with Serena Williams. “The world tells you to wait. That waiting is polite. But if I waited to be invited in, I never would have stood out. “ Perfect synopsis of Serena Williams and her meteoric career. And for a platform that is based on women making the first move, this is perfect copywriting.

HULU – Handmaid’s Tale season 3. The ad starts off with the familiar refrain of “It’s morning again in america,” the magical phrase written and narrated by advertising legend Hal Riney, which is an absolute dog whistle for any ad geek. It turned out to be a trick (and a good one) to get you to pay attention for the upcoming season of Handmaid’s Tale.

Stella Artois uses celebrities Sarah Jessica Parker and Jeff Bridges in their iconic roles as Carrie Bradshaw and Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski. They are both known for their particular choices in cocktails, and the ad shows that “changing can do a little good.” The reason I’ve added this in is that the ad also featured a previously-unreleased cameo from another famous beer drinker, “the world’s most interesting man.”

GRINS

Mint Mobile uses their basic positioning (wireless service for $20 a month,) and the typical consumer reaction of “that’s not right” to highlight something that is REALLY not right: “chunky milk.” The ad cuts to a commercial parody of a family enjoying chunky milk, which is gross, and funny, and camp enough to make the point. This is exactly what Super Bowl advertising should be: funny, weird, and super memorable. While I’m not sure about the nerdy fox mascot, I am sure that this spot got my attention.

Bubly is a new flavored sparkling water drink that comes in a variety of flavors. It’s bubbly, and the name is Bubly. And so who better to get to promote it than a guy named Bublé? Perfect. It’s funny. It’s simple.  And it’s smart.  A great deadpan performance by Michael Bublé feigning offense. And the best part? The name of the brand (if you include the Bublé mispronunciation,) is mentioned 11 times, along with several close-ups of the product. It’s Advertising 101 done to the highest order, and is probably the best all-around ad of the night.

My favorite spots of the night, however, came from T-Mobile. They went low-budget (not counting the $20 million+ media buy, of course,) with simple text messaging interchanges. The first spot features an exchange with Cathy. The texter (not sure if it’s a male or female,) simply asks “hey what’s up?” Cathy responds with a miles-long response about her life, and how she’s searching for meaning. If you read it through, it’s an absolutely hysterical rant in a very comedic and non-threatening way. And something we can all relate to.

T-Mobile followed it up with three more spots, including an exchange between a dad and his daughter, where the dad is texting the daughter, but is using his mobile phone like a search engine. Daughter responds “Dad, this isn’t Google!” (My guess is they underwrote some portion of this spot.)

Another features an exchange between a couple trying to figure out what’s for dinner THAT TURNS INTO A CO-PROMOTION WITH TACO BELL. And another between Mike and someone else that turns into a hysterical miscommunication THAT TURNS INTO A CO-PROMOTION WITH LYFT.

Again, this is simple, and funny, and entertaining enough to hold your attention throughout. And since the other wireless carriers were gallivanting off into honoraria of first responders and dredging up Bo Jackson, T-Mobile wins share of mind this year. A huge bounce-back from their letdown of last year.

GROANS

Weather Tech seems to have lost its focus. After coming on the scene a few years back, and making a simple statement about American-made quality, they made the mistake this year of trying to cram two ads into one with their new Pet Comfort products. Just bizarre, and unfocused, and not great advertising.

Bud Light seems to have lost focus also. For some strange reason, several of their ads chose to center on this notion of not including corn syrup in their beer. Which is fine, I guess. Except that several other beers don’t have corn syrup either. (And if you’re on Twitter, you found out in near real time.) And did they really do a Game of Thrones final season tie-in? Just weird. Especially for a brand that always seems to get it right, especially during the Super Bowl.

Speaking of weird beer commercials, Michelob Ultra Pure Gold missed the mark with their attempt to please .0002 percent of the population with an ASMR-inspired spot. ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridien Response, and gives some people a tingly feeling in their scalp and down the back of their necks when they hear certain sounds, like whispering.  So yes. They did a whole spot of whispering. During the Super Bowl. For the 42 people who have ASMR.

This is the third year in a row of wondering where the big spots were going to be. As the other 31 teams in the NFL say, “there’s always next year.”

Is THIS the best an ad can get?

A lot has been made of the new Gillette short film entitled “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be.” The spot, which challenges men to take a look at tired masculine clichés, like “boys will be boys,” and mentions #metoo within the first five seconds, depicts several scenes wherein some certain male behaviors have been tolerated almost hypnotically for quite some time.

A group of teens sit on a couch and flip through scenes of female marginalization in situation comedies and reality shows. An executive inappropriately (because he’s pandering,) puts his hand on a woman’s shoulder and starts a phrase, “What I actually think she’s trying to say is…” And so on.

Then, a new narrative starts to form in the video, where men intervene positively in several oft-tolerated situations, including cat-calling, fighting, and bullying. Underneath it all, the voiceover insists that “some is not enough.” And “Because the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.”

On its surface, this is an incredibly powerful social statement. And Gillette should be congratulated for boldly making it.

But as a piece of advertising, it may be overreaching at best, and carelessly ineffective at worst. While I can appreciate what it’s trying to do, the ad loses focus in its earnest to say something share-worthy on social media. (Although, in its defense, it has succeeded in doing at least that.)

The modern American consumer does not always make the loftiest cerebral decisions when trying to discern which brands to buy. Instead, they make simple, often one-word phrase mnemonic connections (that brands typically provide for them,) and choose based on how that singular experience makes them feel.

And for the past 30 years or so, Gillette has “won” consumers on a simple concept: the best a man can get. Strong tagline. A simple and understandable position for consumers. Advertising to support it. Not surprisingly, strong sales followed.

But now, Gillette has waded – rather, they’ve taken a rocket-powered speedboat – into dangerous waters that even their historically strong positioning may not be able to weather.

Here’s why.

It’s too little. And it’s too late. And so it looks like a desperate attempt to re-imagine the “appropriate” response. If there was a Gillette spot genie, these would be my three wishes:

  • I wish this spot was made a year ago, when #metoo was really a national discussion being had by, for, and with women. That it comes out now seems suspect.
  • I wish this spot also involved gender and sexuality issues – toxic masculinity is especially reprehensible towards non-heterosexual males and the LGBTQ universe in general.
  • I wish this spot took on the real issue, which is not just how young boys’ behavior gets formed, but more importantly, how that behavior is reinforced when it gets pardoned at nearly every important juncture of their lives.

In all the reaction I’ve seen, no one has mentioned that other brands, including other P&G brands, have tried this approach before, and to great reception. A zillion accolades (and ad industry awards) were showered on the #likeagirl campaign from Always. And the #realbeauty campaign from Dove was equally lauded.

Why is Gillette getting pounded by the social mediasphere? Probably because it’s disempowering. Probably because it’s by males for males, and about males and male grooming products. And that’s kinda not the point.

Probably because, as a brand, Gillette makes products for men that are purchased as much or more by women on behalf of men, and nowhere in this spot does Gillette equate toxic masculinity to domestic abuse towards women. Swing and a miss.

Now let’s be fair.  Gillette attempted to have an important conversation with American consumers, and they handled it awkwardly.  But that is STILL better than avoiding that conversation at all. And if you can imagine this, things are about to get harder for Gillette from here.

When a brand takes on a position, embodied by a bold tagline, then you have to own it – and that can come at quite a cost. The real test now for Gillette is where they go from here. If they continue to embody this refreshed perspective, and if all their forthcoming ads are aspirational (where we show men aspiring to be better men, especially with and around their female counterparts,) and they continue to use their brand to inspire action and help shift attitudes, then we can look back and say, “See? This was the moment they became aware of who they were as a brand, and the responsibility they bare as a consequence.”

But if they don’t?

Then the market can have at them – and Gillette will deserve every criticism they will likely suffer, not to mention probably losing market share to a host of upstart razor companies ready to eat their lunch.

No pressure, Gillette. But the world is now watching. And you invited us all to the party.

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.

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.

kendall_jenneriesha_evans

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.

How to get control of your brand. Now.

It’s tough for brands these days. All the competition. All the change. And all that damn marketing! And perhaps most difficult is getting consumers to know you, then like you, and finally, to trust you.

Brands – and I’m talking about brands of all sizes, really – invest a lot of money in so many areas – it might be research and development, or operations, offices, showrooms or retail stores, or even the “perfect” ingredients for their recipes. These are all things that are relatively controllable for the brand.

But once they’re born, brands are basically out of control. Because, ultimately, consumers decide if the brand is good or bad, cool or “over,” worth the money or not. And in the age of social media, the lack of control can really get scary.

Consider the recent tweet by the then-President-elect Donald Trump:

trump_tweet

On the surface, it sounds like another one of the Donald’s weirdly-supportive and overly generalized ramblings. But there’s something really telling about this. The account of @realDonaldTrump has about 22 million followers. That’s a really lot. All of whom now have this “advice” about supporting and patronizing L.L. Bean.

We’ll stay out of the politics of this exchange, and whether or not it’s ethical for a candidate to receive a donation from an individual, and then use his massive influence to issue a sales pitch for her company after winning. Because eeeewww.

But what happens if that brand DOESN’T WANT that endorsement?

After the tweet, a group called Grab Your Wallet added L.L. Bean to a boycott list of any companies associated with Donald Trump. What if thousands, or even millions of L.L. Bean consumers got wind of that and decided to protest the man by dropping the brand? That has real consequences for the brand – especially if it’s publicly traded.  L.L. Bean quickly issued a statement on their Facebook page (that reaches just slightly over 750,000 followers – see the disparity there?) distancing themselves from alignment with any candidate and asking Grab Your Wallet to reconsider their position. [They haven’t.]

And if you’re a brand that’s invested time, and money, and millions of dollars and hired people all over the country and have supply chains in place and employees who count on your continued success for their livelihoods, it’s a little disconcerting to know that equity can all disappear – or at least be seriously compromised – with 140 characters or less. In this hyper-polarized age, it’s certainly possible that bonds are being formed and broken in more and more capricious circumstances.

So what’s a brand to do?

Well, it’s simple. Advertise.

While there are many ways to develop and grow a brand, advertising remains the most direct route to establishing your own position, and forwarding your point of view.

So, if you’re an apparel company, and someone does or says something terrible while wearing your clothing, advertise. If you’re a food brand that gets protested by a fringe group who claims you’re not environmentally responsible enough, advertise. If you’re a retailer and you’re losing share because some influencer tells millions of followers that she overpaid for your wares, advertise.

At the very least, you’ll have had your say. You’ll have run commercials and ads and said to the world: “this is what we stand for.” “This is who we stand for.” “This is who we are.” Otherwise, you might get hijacked by someone’s wayward ramblings…even if they may have had good intentions in the process.