Picture this ad: A Mexican man takes off his sombrero to reveal a Muslim woman underneath. She takes off her hijab to reveal a Jewish man, who takes off his yarmulke to reveal ... a Cheeto. Tagline: "We are one." The idea, pitched by a fictional ad agency in a "Saturday Night Live" sketch earlier this year, has come to symbolize the ad industry's obsession with feel-good, issue-oriented ads that are only tenuously linked to the product being pitched. In other words, it has gotten a little ridiculous.
"It was a great moment for a lot of us creative folks," DDB North America Chief Creative Officer Ari Weiss said about the "SNL" bit, which included other far-flung ideas like a transgender Chester Cheetah. Brands linking themselves to causes has "become a little bit of a parody of itself, and we need to do some brave and interesting stuff that pushes beyond this because it might have run its course a bit."
No one is predicting the end of cause marketing or saying brands should abandon emotion altogether and only go for the hard sell. But rising consumer skepticism means that marketers must stay true to the product they are actually pitching or risk being exposed. "Consumers deeply desire a sense that there is greater good in the products they buy," said Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and author of "Decoding the New Consumer Mind." But "consumers abhor fake Goody Two-Shoes," she added. "They are overwhelmed with spin, hype and superficiality and they're working to de-BS their lives. There's almost a visceral reaction to phoniness."
Pepsi learned the hard way earlier this year when its now-infamous Kendall Jenner ad sparked criticism that it co-opted protest movements such as Black Lives Matter for commercial gain. More recently, McDonald's and Leo Burnett London got into trouble for an ad in the U.K. built around a boy grieving the loss of his father—the kicker being that they both loved Filet-O-Fish.
The problem with the ad, beyond accusations that it exhibited insensitivity toward bereaving families, is that the sandwich McDonald's was trying to sell was not central to the storyline. "The brand isn't the reason that the story is happening," said Daren Poole, global brand director for creative development at global brand consultancy Kantar Millward Brown.
"When you watch a hilarious or heartwarming commercial, oftentimes all you remember is the punch line, the cute baby or the adorable puppy rather than the brand, which essentially means that someone has not done his or her job," said Rodolfo Echeverria, VP-global creative for Coca-Cola Co., which has taken a more product-focused approach with the "Taste the Feeling" campaign launched in 2016, replacing the more high-minded "Open Happiness" campaign.
Of course, making a straight product pitch won't work unless it is entertaining. "The uncomfortable truth for brand managers and advertisers is that people don't care about brands or ads, so their brains filter them out," said a new report from Kantar Millward Brown that advises brands to put emotion in their marketing. "Ads which engage people creatively and emotionally tend to work better because they're working with the brain, not against it." But the report also advised marketers to keep their brands front and center because "ads with a strong narrative only result in motivation if they are also well branded." It's not easy, however. "Telling a great story is hard enough. Telling a great story that weaves in product attributes is even harder without making it look contrived," said Peter Daboll, CEO of ad-scoring firm Ace Metrix.
Coke in its ads attempts to use the cola's product benefits, like providing refreshment, as "a fundamental trigger of the human connection," Echeverria said. He pointed to a recent ad that makes an ice-cold Coke the object of desire for a brother, a sister and a mother seeking to win affection from a pool boy.
There is even room for emotion and creativity in run-of-the-mill promotional campaigns. David Lubars, chief creative officer at BBDO Worldwide, pointed to a campaign the agency did for Snickers in Australia linked to 7-Eleven. The agency created a "hunger algorithm" that monitored the mood of the internet and lowered the price of Snickers the angrier people got. Consumers could take advantage of the deal by using reduced-price bar codes on a mobile site. The effort, called "Hungerithm," neatly tied into the brand's long-running "You're Not You When You're Hungry" campaign. "When you have a platform, you can turn anything into something highly creative," Lubars said. But "you need a credible connection between the brand and what the message is, as opposed to just putting whatever out there."
McDonald's and Omnicom agency We Are Unlimited recently found a way to creatively promote an otherwise common beverage deal where Cokes and other soft drinks were put on sale for $1. In unbranded ads, Mindy Kaling talked about the "place where Coke tastes sooooo good," and then urged viewers to Google it. The message fed into pop culture lore about Cokes tasting especially good at the Golden Arches. "This is the conversation that exists and we are just pointing you to it," said Weiss. Bonus: No dead dads.