Super Bowl

VW Finds Viral Force With Cute Ad, but So What?

Word-of-Mouth, Social Media Is Powerful, but Did Fans Remember the Product or the Kid?

By Published on .

Bob Garfield
Bob Garfield
Me, I got my Valentine early: I didn't have to watch the Super Bowl ads this year until, you know, the Super Bowl.

It was fannnnnntastic. I got to experience the game like a normal slob, with a lap full of taco dip and genuine curiosity about how unfunny the Bud Light spots would be this year. It fell to my colleague Ken Wheaton to harvest the crop ahead of time.

I should send him flowers, the poor schnook. It is no fun chasing around for weeks in advance, trying to persuade the purveyors of expensive, mainly inferior advertising that they do not possess the nuclear secret but rather mere TV spots, which, if history and statistical probability are any guide, probably suck big time. Amazing. If these people wish to squander millions, why not invest in movies or head for Vegas? At least you impress bimbos that way.

But as usual I digress. Having retired AdReview last spring I was at long last liberated to be an ordinary media consumer. But, of course, that means running across the ads openly released or leaked in advance. The big pre-game sensation this year: a charming, funny 60-second spot called "The Force."

It shows a little boy, about 5 years old, wandering around the house decked out as Darth Vader. He goes from room to room, trying to summon the force against various animate and inanimate objects: an exercise bike, a baby doll, the dryer, the dog. He's got all the choreography -- it's funny and adorable how tiny and perfect his Darth moves are -- but The Force doesn't seem to be with him. The tyke can't even telekinetically slide a sandwich down the kitchen counter.

But then Dad drives up in his new VW. The boy runs outside in excitement -- not to greet Dad but to go all Vader on the car. Inside, Dad waits for just the right moment to press the remote ignition button on his key fob. When the car comes to life, the kid flinches in surprise, followed by a second and third vaudeville take of pure juvenile wonderment.

Like I said. A-dor-a-ble.

Others thought so, too. By game time Sunday, the spot had been viewed on YouTube in excess of 10 million times. That's very viral, very fast. Now maybe those views were dwarfed by the broadcast audience of 100 million or so, but you get a lot of extra credit for being sought out. I can't quantify the multiple for earned media vs. paid media, but it's certainly not trivial. Let's just say, for argument's sake, that volition makes each viewing three times more valuable (I'd think more). That means VW got an effective 30% audience bonus before the game ever started.

Much more, actually, because Twitter and Facebook were in overdrive -- not to mention actual, analog, carbon-based word-of-mouth, such as most marketers only dream of. In the Relationship Era, even the dearest remnant of the Old Model -- the Super Bowl spot -- puts the sponsor's fate in the hands of the people. Which is why no doubt there were high fives all around at VW and Deutsch, Los Angeles, when they saw tweets like these:

  • JenniferOB: May the force be with you
  • _MURPH__: Fyi google darth vader kid super bowl vw commercial.....amazing
  • agelessfemme: @EW great VW star wars commercial!
But if we were VW, we wouldn't be too triumphal too quickly. Another name for the Relationship Era is the Listenomics Age, and if you listen to what was being said, you'd notice that the vast majority of the Twitter traffic mentions the ad, and not the car. Not even the model -- which happens to be a Passat. Certainly nobody mentioned the ad was nominally promoting keyless ignition, and no wonder: that's all but a generic feature.

So, yeah, VW got some positive attention, and that's good. But the attention wasn't on automobiles. That's bad. This could have just as well been a McDonald's commercial. Which just goes to show: If you're peddling entertainment instead of products, cultivating smiles not constituents, the Brave New World will be just as easy to squander resources in as the cowardly old one.

Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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