In 2014, advertisers figured out they should stop interrupting the media they sponsor and instead start finding ways to look just like it.
Some of the year’s most memorable ads were the ones that blended into the content that attracted consumers in the first place, or ones that became a show unto themselves. Little wonder that Ellen DeGeneres’s Oscars “Selfie” generated so much attention for a Samsung smartphone planted in her hands by the technology company as part of a deal with ABC, the network that broadcast the awards. Rather than interrupt the proceedings with a commercial, Samsung added more content that people wanted to see – in this case, a star-studded moment featuring everyone from Bradley Cooper to Jennifer Lawrence to Brad Pitt.
You can expect a lot more of the same in 2015. Ever since the advent of the DVR granted viewers the power to untether themselves from the advertising onslaught that was once part and parcel of watching TV, marketers have tried to tie themselves more closely to the shows that draw a couch-potato’s attention, not the ads. Product placement in TV programming ran rampant. Now that video-streaming allows people to watch favorite shows with a fraction of the ads one might see on TV, the ability to consume content without the usual coterie of pitches from McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble is even easier to attain. Similar methods are at play in print and on text-based web outlets.
If advertisers want to stay part of the mix, they have to burrow more deeply into the content they sponsor. Many of them are creating programming and content of their own, whether it be a documentary series on HLN or a “native” ad online. Already, cable champs like Discovery Communications are starting to embrace such stuff, which is in practice on any number of new-tech outlets that never had to navigate around old rules about weaving the people who help pay for the content in and around it.
Below, a very subjective sampling of the best and worst moments in advertising and marketing in 2014. We present eight marketing wonders and eight blunders. As you’ll see, many of Madison Avenue’s highlights appeared in content that seemed less an intrusion on our time and more something that told a story or added to one already in place. The worst of it all was either burdened with a fundamental inability to entertain the consumer, or did something worse: paid customers for their attention with something that was offensive, or even more inexcusable, boring.
The ‘Selflie’ That Ate The World
What: Ellen DeGeneres sparked global mayhem by snapping a ‘selfie’ of herself and Hollywood’s elite –including Kevin Spacey, Jared Leto and Meryl Streep – with a Samsung device while holding forth in her role a host during ABC’s Oscars telecast.
Why: The smartphone was put in DeGeneres’ hands as a result of an ad pact with the consumer-electronics company and its media buyer, Starcom MediaVest Group, which got massive return on its investment. Samsung expected DeGeneres to take a “selfie” including one celebrity, but not 12 A-listers all at once, according to a spokeswoman, which resulted in an unscripted moment that was re-tweeted 2.3 billion times and shared on Facebook 24 million times, all in the first ten days after the event took place.
Share and Share Alike
What: Coca-Cola lined cans of Diet Coke to Coca-Cola to Coke Zero this past summer with the names of individuals (everything from “Brandon” to “Zach”) along with sunny terms like “BFF” and “Family” in an effort to get consumers to buy personalized cans for themselves and their loved ones. For at least a few months, the idea reversed years of declines in U.S. consumption of the popular soda, driving a more than 2 % increase in the company’s U.S. carbonated soft-drink sales.
Why: In decade after decade and ad after ad, Coca-Cola has preached the value of sharing a Coke with a friend. Would that young kid from the company’s famous 1979 ad commercial have gotten “Mean” Joe Greene’s football jersey if he didn’t offer him his bottle of Coke? But this idea transforms a message delivered via TV ad into an action one can take at a point of purchase. The idea was first put into practice in Australia by WPP ad agency Ogilvy, but seems to have translated well in the U.S. Indeed, Anheuser-Busch’s Bud Light said this week it would use a similar idea for its bottles as part of its efforts surrounding the Super Bowl.
Steak-ing A Claim
What: Rather than spraying spots across American airwaves, Arby’s chose instead to run a single 13-hour commercial that showed in excruciating detail how its brisket is smoked. The commercial appeared on a single MyNetwork affiliate in Duluth Minnesota (what TV station would allow an advertiser to take over 13 hours of broadcasting?).
Why: Once word about the stunt got out, 350,000 unique visitors swarmed to a website housing the video. The average visit lasted 38 minutes. At a time when companies can put content anywhere and everywhere at once, the fast-food chain got people to seek out their pitch, simply by being a little daring and offbeat.
What: To generate interest in a new effort to get people to consider Taco Bell for breakfast, the Yum Brands restaurant chain hired talent agencies to find dozens of people actually named Ronald McDonald – also the name of an advertising character who has held forth for decades for a rival fast-food empire – to talk up new early-bird. entries like the “A.M. crunchwrap” – whatever that is.
Why: By taking a swipe at Mickey D’s beloved clown, Taco Bell expanded its consideration set, and also made a run at luring folks who might enjoy an Egg McMuffin or McDonald’s coffee. Taco Bell’s same-store sales in the second quarter of this year – the time when the breakfast campaign was introduced – increased 2%.
What: Firestone took a gamble on a 90-second ad (very long, by industry standards ) that shunned hard-sell of its tires and instead told a dramatic story about two lovebirds using a pickup truck to elope. The results are beautiful and the message – Firestone tires will help carry you reliably into the future, even an uncertain one – resounds despite the minimized presence of the product in the commercial.
Why: The standard length of a TV spot was once 60 seconds, believe it or not, but these days : 15s and :30s are more the norm. Firestone originally planned to hew to the current norm, but when executives saw the cinematic potential of a 1:37 draft spot, they tore up the media plan and tried something different. Most extra-long ads show up in the Super Bowl or surface just once on TV before fading away. At a time when web alerts and tweets would suggest our average attention span is getting shorter, Firestone showed faith in our ability to sit still for something that goes against the grain.
Ordinary Average Guy
What: Chevrolet executive Rikk Wilde was supposed to present San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner a Chevy truck for his outstanding work in this year’s World Series. When it came time to make the award, however, the awkward “Chevy guy” bombed on national TV, stumbling through what should have been glowing remarks. Instead, he delivered a halting talk about the Chevrolet Colorado, which Wilde actually described as combining “class-winning and leading, you know, technology and stuff.” Chevrolet turned the awkward moment into a popular Twitter hashtag, #ChevyGuy
Why: At a time when capturing real-life moments has never been easier, advertisers don’t need millions of dollars and a crew of “Mad Men” to devise a winning commercial. A few keystrokes, the savvy to see an appealing moment, and an opportunity for consumers to get involved is all it takes. The General Motors-owned unit actually ran tweets touting #TechnologyAndStuff.
Netflix’ Sharp Elbow
What: Netflix debuted a new tagline that portrays it as the entertainment purveyor of the digital age: “The Entertainment of Today”
Why: This isn’t just a commercial motto. It’s a battle cry. The advent of streaming video has put every habit fostered by TV into flux, and Netflix’s slogan casts the company as the shiny new thing atop a heap of dusty old video distributors. If one carries Netflix’ logic to its end, the suggestion is that HBO, CBS and every other entertainment rival is old and decrepit. One wonders if the broadcast networks would want Netflix commercials in that vein running on their air.
What: Tiny start-up HelloFlo, a menstruation-support subscription service, launched a hilarious three-minute ad on YouTube about a pre-teen getting a “First Moon Party” from her mother to celebrate her first period (which had not actually happened). With a storytelling style similar to that of “Modern Family,” the video garnered around 30 million views on YouTube with only a smattering of early promotion (including getting the word out to subscribers), according to Naama Bloom, the company’s founder.
Why: You don’t need to be Pepsi-Cola or Unilever to have marketing muscle. Just as Doritos has found success letting amateurs come up with ideas for Super Bowl commercials, so too can anyone with a clever concept and some finesse with technology make a splash. Granted, HelloFlo’s video – replete with talk of “vagina cake” and “uterus piñata” – will likely never show up during a broadcast of “Parenthood” on NBC or “Grey’s Anatomy” on ABC (and too bad, because they’d probably be a hit with the audiences for those shows), but who cares? You can have a broadcast-TV like ad without using broadcast TV to achieve it.
Honorable Mention: A series of ads from General Mills’ Cheerios, Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble demonstrated clearly that advertisers have begun to embrace the modern demographic: people from all creeds and lifestyles, whether they include interracial marriages, people with missing limbs, or people who may have come to the United States from anywhere else in the world.
What: Anheuser-Busch paid the town of Crested Butte, Colorado,$500,000 according to press reports, to take over its main drag, paint it blue and invite more than 1,000 partiers from around the country to take part in an event celebrating Bud Light. Although plans for the September event began in earnest last Spring, most residents didn’t find out until just weeks before it was slated to start (prompting the brewer to double the $250,000 fee it had originally agreed to pay). “This is a mistake,” David Rothman, a longtime resident of the town, told The New York Times. “Frankly, it’s vulgar and it’s cheap.”
Why: Consumers are bombarded with advertising nearly every second of the day. When a marketer takes over a town, it seems to fly in the face of nearly every truism of modern advertising, which tends to work better when it is not perceived to be interrupting daily life. Sure, the thousand revelers Bud invited to the party must have thought it was great. But some portion of Crested Butte’s population of 1,500 likely felt the exact opposite, and the publicity Anheuser received over the affair was not always flattering. Microsoft learned a similar lesson in 2002, when it blanketed New York City with butterfly decals to call attention to its MSN 8 Internet service, and then had to apologize for defacing public property.
The Ugly American
What: Actor Neal McDonough touts the Cadillac ELR, an electric plug-in car, by portraying a well-to-do hard-nosed braggart who, walking around his pool and beautiful house, suggests people in the U.S. are more intense and work harder than citizens of other countries. Americans “are crazy driven hard-working believers,” he says. “Those other countries think we are nuts. Whatever.” The ad ran during NBC’s broadcast of the Olympics and in ABC’s telecast of the Oscars.
Why: Was the character extolling the virtues of working hard? Coming off smug and condescending? Guilty of American braggadocio? Suggesting the poor don’t work hard enough? Whatever the answer, the simple fact is that the Cadillac ad talk prompted too many questions and proved polarizing.
What: In response to a customer who was complaining about service on Twitter, US Airways sent a link to a pornographic image. The airline said the employee who sent the lewd photo had made a mistake, resending the NSFW link by accident as a result of trying to flag the content as inappropriate for internal purposes. When the photo went wide via social media, the airline ended up the victim of its own foolishness.
Why: There is no margin for error in social media, no matter if you run a mom-and-pop restaurant or a massive airline. The fact that corporations haven’t learned this on the cusp of 2015 as they reach further into Twitter, Instagram and the like is difficult to comprehend.
We Preferred ‘Harold and Maude’
What: A young man, “Jimmy,” assists an elderly woman in attempting to find a good hotel. Hotels.com spokesmascot Captain Obvious blunders upon the scene in the assumption the two are grandmother and grandson. Instead, they are lovers eager to display their affection. “Here comes President Roosevelt,” says the young man as he puts a move on his significant other. “I regret coming here,” says Captain Obvious. So do we.
Why: An ad ostensibly made to get people to use Hotels.com is waylaid by a combination of too many disparate elements: a high gross-out factor and one of the strangest ad characters created in recent memory.
Kids Grow Up Too Fast These Days
What: In a series of commercials, young kids are spotted acting like hipster adults, their faces buried in all the things they can do with Amazon’s new Fire Phone. “I’ve been on this earth nine years,”says one of the kids, outfitted in a cap and dark-rimmed glasses. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Why: We know how much the advent of mobile devices has shaken our ability to communicate with our fellow human beings in intimate settings like restaurants or a city street, but this eyebrow-raising ad tells us more about the depersonalization of daily life than we’d ever hope to know. Seeing children who haven’t even reached the age of ten more impressed with the opportunity to use Instagram and watch “Hunger Games” than they are with the world around them is disheartening, to say the least, and it would be fun to see an ad in this series in which the adults rip the devices from the kids’ hands and tell them to go outside and play.
A Pound of Flesh
What: Show Palace, a New York strip joint, in October unveiled something it called “SkinAds”: Sponsors would be able place ads in the form of temporary tattoos on “strippers’ backs, stomachs, legs and/or arms” and could display them in “three-day intervals and priced at varying rates, depending on location, size and time of week.” Also available: “the ‘full body experience,’ which utilizes all body parts.”
Why: Advertisers have tested this method in the past – anyone recall tattoos for online casino Golden Palace placed on contestants’ bodies during Fox’s long-gone “Celebrity Boxing? – but this sort of skin-trade idea leaves us feeling clammy.
Unnecessary Fashion Statement
What: A family warmly praises the Pillsbury Doughboy, and then urges him to “finally” put on a pair of pants. The Doughboy winces in confusion and embarrassment.
Why: Ad mascots on the order of the Doughboy are – for good or ill – sort of like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Would you tell Santa to drop a few pounds? No. And so it goes for Madison Avenue’s best-known characters. We may as well ask Tony the Tiger to “keep it down” whenever he gets enthusiastic about Frosted Flakes, or caution Ronald McDonald about approaching children. Even hinting that Poppin’ Fresh has been walking around naked since his debut in 1965 is to conjure up ideas – the Doughboy as exhibitionist? – best left alone. Besides, how would a nude Doughboy have been able to sell millions of dollars’ worth of baked goods over so much time?
What: In an ad for dating service eHarmony, a man and woman leave a party to start what appears to be the initial stages of having sex. Only two-thirds of the way through the ad do viewers learn that the pair are celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary as EHarmony attempts to promote the idea that couples who use the site have chemistry even years after they meet.
Why: Did EHarmony need a little spice to get viewers to sit through one of its ads? While there’s little new to be said about sex in advertising, something seems a little off when the sex is put in service of a dating site that has long burnished its credentials as one for people who are really serious about relationships. To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with a couple who can keep the home fires burning a decade into a marriage. But eHarmony’s brand was never based on hooking up.
Dishonorable Mention: Pepsi’s nose was put out of joint – and rightfully so – when pizza boxes delivered during the Oscars broadcast had the logo of arch-rival Coca-Cola on them. Pepsi had replaced Coke as the exclusive soft-drink sponsor of the event in 2014. How could ABC have allowed Coke’s popular trademarks to get on air?