This Is Why Those Mean Joe Greene and Audi Ads Worked So Well
SMITH BRAIN TRUST – The really good Super Bowl commercials have it all. There’s story arc, memorable characters and emotion. The ones that are well executed win the big prizes – coverage in the news media, shares on social media, plenty of workplace chatter, and lots and lots of replays online.
“It’s like the Oscars,” says Henry C. Boyd III, clinical professor of marketing at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.
The Super Bowl offers advertisers a big, pricey platform – around $5 million per 30-second spot – and, as with the Oscars ceremony, a coveted shot at an audience that will actually watch the commercials. “These are the rare opportunities to reach consumers when ad avoidance is not a common behavior,” Boyd says.
That's why viewers expect so much from those commercial breaks during the Super Bowl. They expect “new, fresh and novel mini-stories” from those advertisements, Boyd says. The storylines generally fall into two major categories – those that entertain and those that inspire.
More recently, the commercial that aim to inspire have become more polarizing, Boyd says, and linked with social, even political, posturing. So this year’s crop of commercials, he says, may lean somewhat more heavily toward the entertaining.
Budweiser, for example, has said it will seek to be “entertaining” in its 2019 Super Bowl messaging – an apparent signal to emphasize a departure from its 2017 “Born the Hard Way” pro-immigration message, Boyd says. Automaker Kia, on the other hand, is looking to inspire, touting a “The Great Unknowns” spot as a platform for funding a scholarship program. It's a departure from paying and featuring celebrities, as it has done in the past. (Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler in 2018, for example).
Should brands focus more on entertaining and less on inspiring? Reward outweighs backlash risk when brands aim to inspire via social messaging, Boyd says, adding "I don't see these as mutually exclusive. But you have to entertain at a minimum."
"When you add 'inspirational' to 'entertaining,' that’s the hard part, but it’s the differentiator – really icing on the cake if you can get there," says Boyd, whose doctoral dissertation focused on "drama and verisimilitude in advertising."
"And 'to get there' Super Bowl advertisers have to approach their spots as 30-, 45- or minute-long mini plays or dramas. And all these elements are needed to positively stand out: the actors’ traits, the actors’ interactions, the dialogue, the delivery of the lines and the setting," Boyd says.
"You check all those boxes in your mind's eye and you have achieved verisimilitude – you have the viewer buying in. That's a big win."
Audi's 2017 "Daughter" spot exemplifies this – and significantly through delivering a glimpse of the future, Boyd says. “And this vision – about equal opportunity irrespective of one’s gender – significantly is portrayed between a father and daughter, making it relatable and subsequently inspiring to a large segment of viewers.”
Another, perhaps better, example, Boyd says, is Coca-Cola’s 1979 "Mean" Joe Greene spot. He describes: “It was amazingly inspirational on so many levels. The social messaging about diversity and inclusiveness is baked in. It’s powerful. You have Greene, like a gladiator in the stadium tunnel. He’s tired, in pain and hears this kid, who’s like ‘Hey.’ He’s just a little kid. And he’s just trying to strike up a conversation… On top of that, it’s an iconic African American football player and a white, young male. They’re on very different planes, but they end up connecting to symbolize that we’re all part of the human family. And Greene doesn’t smile until the end of the spot. This built-in tension adds to the payoff – that of the kid and his hero sharing a moment to treasure the rest of their days.”
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