We marketers are a funny lot, in that we seem to learn far better from examples than we do from theories or explanations, however detailed those descriptions might be. I’ve often argued that this penchant of ours keeps us from ever straying far from The Conventional Wisdom -- in that the next campaign must look much like the last one, by definition -- and it means most branding conversations amount to little more than vocational quibbles (versus the thoughtful, strategic analyses our business needs so desperately).
I’ve also been clamoring for quite a while now for more truth in advertising, so I thought I’ve use two examples to illustrate what I’m talking about: I give you Charles Barkley in a dress for Weight Watchers, and good-looking people acting out mini-stories for Chrysler. Barkley is all about the future of advertising. Chrysler is stuck in the past.
Barkley is the latest celeb customer for Weight Watchers and he’s helping the brand promote its “Lose Like a Man” outreach to his gender. The spot is simple, featuring the tall and still somewhat pudgy former basketball star wearing a slinky black dress, long hair wig and heels. He awkwardly walks toward the camera and then delivers a straightforward pitch for how Weight Watchers works, taking time to occasionally flip is faux locks and at the end make a lame quip about the ‘guys’ keeping their eyes on his.
The whole thing couldn’t be more contrived yet any truer. Barkley is a real person and declares he’s a real Weight Watcher user (having already lost 40+ pounds). He tells us why he thinks the service works, citing ‘real’ man meals of steak and pizza. Wearing a dress is immediately incongruous, which reveals the truth that we think Weight Watchers is for women, not men, and then blows it up. It’s not particularly artistic or memorable, but it speaks truth.
The Chrysler spot is an incredibly beautiful little movie (I just watched “Jenny in the Jeep Wrangler,” which is one of four being offered up as the “answer” or second shoe of the “Halftime in America” spot that had Clint Eastwood snarling about America’s can-do attitude during the Super Bowl). The scene starts with closeups of family photos sans dad, as a young teenager narrates how she’s getting used to making things work in a new home and town. We see shots of the Jeep as they drive on their early morning commute and then the screen fades to the phrase “If we can’t find a way, we’ll make one,” followed by “Imported From Detroit” and the Jeep logo.
There’s no truth in this second spot whatsoever. It’s a script written by a creative ad agency and acted by good-looking actors. The shots are arty and the feel of the thing is real slice-of-life, even though we know it’s fake (like Charles in a dress). But there’s no underlying truth for the artifice to reveal. We learn lots about the ersatz characters and nothing about the underlying brand, other than that it spent oodles of money to produce a really pretty little movie.
The logic that supports creating the second spot -- that advertising can attach attributes to brands that aren’t otherwise supported by facts or experience -- is cutting-edge thinking from the 1970s. While the connections between Charles and Weight Watchers brand are real and many, however inane his get-up might be, the connections for Chrysler and its movie are entirely imaginary. The ad people could have just as easily decided to make a movie about the brand’s connection to snow globes or Nazi swizzle sticks. Any brand could do the same (and they often have).
There’s complicated reasoning and math that supports this outdated approach, but the challenge for brands today is to identify, build, and then own real claims, not make believe ones. It’s a far tougher strategic and creative challenge than that presented by the new approach.
So my prediction is stark. The Weight Watchers spot won’t be water-cooler conversation and it won’t win any awards, but the business will write new accounts because of it. A broader universe of potential customers will remember the ideas therein contained. The Chrysler spot will get clicked on and talked about, and it’ll probably win awards. And then the dealers will have to spend even more money trying to entice trials and purchases. Nobody will remember the ad a year from now.
In this Tale of Two Ads, the story’s conclusion is that the future of advertising is being written right here, right now. It’s just getting penned by the most unlikely sources.
Weight Watchers is showing us a glimpse of the future. Chrysler is a beautiful reminder of what’s past.