manthems, delusions, and other super gaffes

If you’ve been in the business long enough, you come to understand there are some basic rules to follow when running an ad on the Super Bowl.  Humor works best.  Use animals or big-breasted women – or both.  Wow people with extraordinary settings and production values.super bowl 44

Many of the advertisers on last night’s big game followed the Super Bowl advertising playbook to a tee (view all of the spots here).  And, yet, they violated some fundamental rules of advertising in general.

know thy customer

Last night there were at least three spots (I lost count after awhile) that tried to tap a certain manly spirit but failed.

Dockers called on all men to “Wear the Pants” and rebel against the growing movement of proud, but pants-less men.  In Dove’s spot for its Men+Care line, men were bolstered with the upbeat charge: “You can take on anything, of course you can — becaaaauuuse you’re a man!” The ad implied to men that although you previously felt inadequate or overwhelmed by others’ expectations, you can now “be comfortable in your own skin.” Chrysler’s manthem threw subtlety out the window with its defiant declarations of “I will drive the car I want to drive” and “man’s last stand.”

In each case, the message came through loud and clear:  Men have been oppressed and suppressed for too long.  Men, it’s time to stand up, take a stand, stand up for your rights, stand tall…in other words, be a Man!

Problem is, there is no problem.  Or at least, there’s not a problem men are willing to admit.

Such calls to arms fell flat with men because the consumer insight upon which they’re founded is inaccurate.

The movement in American culture of recent years toward Alpha Females, more matriarchal families, and Girl Power gave rise to the “I am woman, hear me roar” advertising anthems.  Ads which have resonated with women demonstrated that marketers understood their female targets and had something relevant to offer them.  Spots like Nike’s “I Feel Pretty” featuring Maria Sharapova proving that’s she’s more than a pretty face, and ESPN’s “Running Away” in which a woman goes running and leaves the burdens of her life in the dust, were inspired by years of women actually being oppressed and suppressed.

Men are in a different place.  They haven’t spent years trying to shed stereotypes and live up to impossible expectations.  They don’t feel misunderstood and misrepresented by advertisers.  There’s no widespread pent-up disappointment or resentment.  Perhaps there should be – and maybe there is, but it’s hidden.  And so rallying-cry ads don’t resonate with them.

Men don’t need to be inspired to embrace who they are.  In fact, I suspect men found such suggestions embarrassing, if not offensive.  They don’t need ads to tell them what to do – they’re men, after all.

These ads demonstrate that their creators don’t really understand their target. Instead of finding a message that resonates with men in a socially acceptable way, they simply took a formula that had previously worked on women and applied it to their male target.  Ironic, don’t you think?

know thyself

Second to knowing your customer, knowing yourself is the most critical rule for advertisers. A few of Hyundai’s spots make this point.

In one ad, beauty shots of a car getting a paint job and a voiceover talking about classical music sonatas are followed by the title card, “Better paint quality than Mercedes CLS550.”  Another spot suggests that Hyundai is the new definition of luxury.

With both of these ads, Hyundai is trying to position itself as a luxury brand — but it’s just not credible.  Comparisons to Mercedes and caviar are too far-fetched.  Given that the Sonata’s highest list price is still under $30K, it isn’t a luxury car.  Hyundai may be a very fine automotive brand, but it’s not a luxury one. It shouldn’t try to be something it’s not.

Instead it should embrace what it is – and right now, that is a superior choice to Toyota.  With all of Toyota’s recall troubles, this is Hyundai’s moment to shine.  And shine it did in its Body Pass spot.

In this ad, a Sonata is shown moving through “one of the most technologically advanced factories in the world” — but instead of machines and conveyor belts, Hyundai employees are shown passing the car above their heads like a rock star at a concert.   The spot closes with the title, “Assembled by 3,300 quality experts.”  This spot used a strong, visually-interesting way to make a credible and compelling point about the brand – it’s high quality.

I’m sure the spot was conceived and shot before Toyota’s troubles arose, but it is a brilliant execution – and, most importantly, one that is true to the Hyundai brand.

unsavory associations

The third fundamental rule broken by some of last nights’ spots relates to subliminal messaging.  Effective marketers use the power of suggestion in advertising to create associations to exist in people’s subconscious.  One might argue whether or not sexually-shaped ice-cubes and flashing images are used (and effective), but every advertising person knows to employ subtle tactics to create associations — like choosing to shoot an ad in an upscale setting in order to evoke a more premium image.

While these approaches are usually intended to create positive associations for the brand, occasionally unintended negative ones are made.  For this reason last year I criticized Cheetos for using pigeons in its Super Bowl ad – this year I have the same beef with Denny’s use of chickens.

Denny’s two spots featured lots of screaming chickens, panicked over the amount eggs they’d have to produce for the chain’s Free Grand Slam breakfast offer.  However, no one wants to think about live chickens when they think about eating eggs.  That’s why you don’t see cows in burger chain campaigns or pigs in bacon ads.

Denny’s not only made the association between their offer and the chickens their diners’ eggs will come from – they made it the core idea of their spots.  Most people might not have been turned off by the association when the ad ran, but the message was so powerful, some will likely experience a subconscious negative feeling if they recall the ad when they sit down at the restaurant.

Fortunately for Denny’s, their offer is so compelling, most people will ignore the cognitive dissonance.  But that begs the question – the offer is so compelling, why let a drove of chickens spoil it?!

Doritos is also an offender.  I don’t know which is worse — the thought of Doritos as dog food (as depicted in the dog collar spot) or the image of the gross gym guy spitting out a Dorito in the Dorito ninja ad.  Both have created negative associations in my mind that I’m not likely to forget soon.

Marketers should know better – and be more careful.

Just as winning in football requires mastering the fundamentals, winning in Super Bowl ads begins with adherence to simple, generally-accepted rules for effective advertising.

P.S. Most Super Bowl ad critiques are a matter of personal taste.  I’m hoping the above comments reflect a little less subjectivity and a little more critical thinking about advertising in general.  Having said that, I do want to give a shout-out to two spots which stood out to me simply because I liked them:

  • NFL – the drama created by the super slo-mo of the tremendous play by Reggie Bush followed by the emotion captured in the multiple shots of fans made this spot captivating.  It stirred my passion for football even though I’m not a really big follower of the sport.
  • Google – the Googly simplicity of this ad drew me in and held my attention.  Beyond that, it was such a great product demo:  it didn’t “tell;” it “showed” – the product wasn’t integrated into the story; it was the story.

I’m eager to hear your take on the spots.  Comment away!

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