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OPINION6 February 2017

Goodbye sadvertising, hello star power

Automotive FMCG North America Opinion Trends

During the Super Bowl, Brainjuicer live tested the adverts to see which performed the best in its emotional ad testing. Tom Ewing explains what it found.

“You’re watching history!” said my American colleague. He was talking about the 51st Super Bowl being the first to go into overtime. I watched bemused as BrainJuicer New York’s ‘War Room’ emptied out and our analysts were glued to the screen. I’m used to the other kind of football: extra time is nothing to make a fuss about, surely.

Even so, he was right. Something rather historical was happening. We were testing all the Super Bowl ads, live, in as close to real time as possible. The technique was BrainJuicer’s emotional ad test – which uses emotional response to an ad to predict efficiency and long-term brand growth. The machinery was courtesy of ZappiStore and its Zappi Pro tool, which tested, tagged and analysed everything we could throw at it.

Why were we doing it? The best reason of all – we wanted to see if it would work. Besides, with Snickers showing the first live Super Bowl ad in decades, what better year to try out live testing? (The Snickers ad came 10th, with 4 out of 5 stars on our scale. Not at all bad).

It turned out to be a very interesting year for Super Bowl ads, cementing trends in big event advertising which have been bubbling under for a while. I want to talk about two ads which capture the shift.

The first is our winner, Kia’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ (pictured), which came back with a very strong 5-star rating ( 10 minutes after airing, thanks to ZappiStore). The ad stars Saturday Night Live’s Melissa McCarthy. It’s for a Kia hybrid car, it’s big on spectacular effects and it gets its point across by making you laugh.

Now think back a few years to what a hybrid car ad might have been like. The same scenery, maybe – widescreen vistas of jungles and savannahs. But also a plinky piano soundtrack and some sententious voiceover, wringing out a small amount of emotion by making its audience feel virtuous. But now it’s 2017 and you’ve got a comedian falling out of a tree and being chased by a rhino.

‘Hero’s Journey’ wasn’t just the best 2017 commercial, it was the most typical. It did what most of our 2017 winners did: it got people feeling good via humour, and it used a familiar celebrity face to do it. This was a year when the most emotional commercials tended to bring the biggest laughs, from Skittles’ ‘Romance’ (teen throws sweets through date’s window with unexpected results) to Super Bowl debutante King’s Hawaiian’s ‘Magic Cabinet’ (one person’s hiding place is another’s magic box).

These ads carried on the fine tradition of Doritos from the past several Super Bowls – 30 second skits with a starring role for the product but no particular message to get in the way of the laughs. The ultimate example was surely ‘A Man Who Cleans’, the ad where cleaning brand Mr Clean’s eponymous mascot gets his grind on while doing the floor. It’s ridiculous, mind-boggling and the ad that puts the ‘ass’ in ‘brand asset’. It also got 5 Stars.

As for celebrities, as well as McCarthy we had supermodel Miranda Kerr magically appearing for Buick, sports announcer Terry Bradshaw racing from his commentary box to get a shirt cleaned for Tide, and Justin Timberlake showing off some crazy dance moves for BAI. All scored well. Timberlake aside, these celebrities are big US stars but not major global ones, and it felt like this year the priority was pleasing the folks at home, not trying to go viral worldwide.

If humour and celebrities were in, what was ‘out’? The big trend of the early 10s was ‘sadvertising’ – tear-jerking, inspirational mini-sagas telling beautiful stories. And nobody deployed the technique better than Budweiser, scoring 5-Star ads three years in a row with its sentimental trilogy of ‘Clydesdale’ ads starring horses and puppies.

Budweiser’s 2017 effort, “Born The Hard Way”, is the second interesting ad this year. Not because it did well – it came in at a high 2-stars. Average overall, but poor for a brand with such Super Bowl pedigree. The ad was beautifully shot, atmospheric, and an inspiring miniature epic depicting brand founder Thomas Busch’s journey to America as an immigrant. But it was also a murky ad with a somewhat unclear story, and terribly earnest. Amid the knockabout comedy of so many of this year’s ads, it stuck out for the wrong reasons, and felt like a commercial out of time.

The Budweiser ad caused controversy before the game for its apparent topicality – an ad about an immigrant airing a week after the chaos and protest caused by Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration. Since Budweiser planned the ad back in May, this was unfair (or giving it too much credit, depending on your point of view).

It got a poor reception mostly because it’s a poor ad, not because of a backlash against liberal values. After all, liberal values were alive and well in Audi’s feminist ad about equal pay, and in Coke’s multilingual version of the national anthem – a version of an ad which tested worse three years earlier. Both these got a very good 4-star rating.

So beware of any early conclusions about advertising in Trump’s America. True, there wasn’t much overt politics on show, but if the tenor of the advertising reflects anything it’s a desire to relax, chill out and have a laugh after a year which was gruelling whichever candidate you supported.

Next year, we’ll see if and how advertisers respond to the new political landscape. For now, the trends on show are the culmination of things that have been obvious for a while – the decline of tear-jerking sadvertising from its 2013-14 peak, and the rise of comedy to replace it.

Tom Ewing is senior director at Brainjuicer Labs

1 Comment

2 years ago

Tom says "The big trend of the early 10s was ‘sadvertising’ – tear-jerking, inspirational mini-sagas telling beautiful stories. And nobody deployed the technique better than Budweiser, scoring 5-Star ads three years in a row with its sentimental trilogy of ‘Clydesdale’ ads starring horses and puppies". However, Jorn Socquet, U.S. VP-marketing for A-B InBev, said in a statement to Ad Age (Nov 16th 2015): "Budweiser aired two very different spots in last February's Super Bowl, and we learned that content focused on the quality of our beer was most effective in generating sales. We’ve done the puppy commercials on the Super Bowl for the last three years and everybody loves them,” he said. “They have zero impact on beer sales. Those ads I wouldn’t air again because they don’t sell beer.” So much for Brainjuicer's emotional ad test!!

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