Super Bowl Ads 2008: Stories That Resonate
The Super Bowl lived up to its name this year. The stunning, come-from-behind victory of the New York Giants was like something out of a movie. But in addition to being riveted to that underdog story, I was entranced, as I am every year, by the commercials that ran during the football classic.
We can learn about storytelling from any type of communication, and the opportunity to reach so many people at the same time (this was the most watched Super Bowl ever) is rare in the Target Market Era.
How did this year’s batch of creativity fare?
Overall, the spots were less spectacular and less memorable than in years past. But there were still a few that grabbed me.
And the ones that worked best were those that leaned on the principles of classic storytelling as outlined in the book with the cat on the cover.
I talk in Save the Cat! about the importance of “primal.” When you pitch me your movie idea, it had better grab my attention at a caveman level. This is why movies like Meet the Parents, about a man visiting his future in-laws for the first time… works! As a caveman, I get that situation and no one has to explain what’s on the line. It’s why Jaws is such a powerful story template, because the prime directive “Don’t… get… eaten!” is one they don’t have to teach you in school.
In many ways the challenge of a screenwriter is very similar to that of an advertising copywriter, with the same layers of higher-ups (or clients) to appease to put one’s ideas across. But this task is even more immediate when you only have 30 seconds to get to the primal… and tell a story that resonates. And we saw many great examples:
The best of the bunch was the perennial Budweiser ad, in which a horse doesn’t make the famous Clydesdale team… until his buddy, the Dalmation, puts him through his paces. It’s not only an ode to Rocky but a familiar parable. The striving to succeed, to do our best, and the deeper stirring of friendship and “not giving up” are all on display… along with some funny anthropomorphic cgi… not to mention hitting every one of the beats of the BS2!
Thirst is primal. And so is competition — even when the thirsty ones in question are inanimate balloons. So when the Macy’s Day parade floats depicting Underdog, and Stewie from Family Guy, go chasing after a blow up Coca-Cola bottle through concrete canyons of New York … only to lose out to a kinder, gentler Charlie Brown… we get that, too.
But perhaps the most bizarre, and memorable, primal commercial was for careerbuilders.com which saw a dazed and daydreaming employee “follow her heart,” literally, as it pops out of her chest — still beating! — and crawls up to her boss’s desk to announce: “I quit!” It was dream-like — and spot-on. Isn’t this the yearning for a better life that all us daydreaming Neanderthals can understand?
I also liked the take-off on The Godfather that told the story of how the new Audi kills off its high-priced competition, and leaves its oil-spilling grill in the bed of the commercial’s “Jack Warner” character. I laughed. And it told a compelling story: There’s a new luxury car on the block, a lesson this particular target (older, and more affluent) can understand.
I loved the mystery connected to the girl with the unibrow: Why was this unattractive girl so attractive to men? The mystery was solved when we learn she uses salted Planter’s Cashews as perfume.
And then there were some great spoofs on display, as in the series of ads for Cars.com that showed why salesmen better darn well get with the program… or risk having their heads shrunk by a witch doctor, or challenged in a grudge match with Conan the Barbarian.
Those commercials that were less effective were ones where the primal issue was not only not clear, but unrelated to the product… and therefore, confusing.
Topping the list was the ad starring Carmen Electra. What exactly were they selling? (Oh, yeah, gum!) and what did it have to do with a series of hormonal teen boys (who haven’t checked Carmen’s DOB) trying to get their photo taken with her? The moral of the story being…?
Over the top, eventually, was a creative black-and-white animation of an ink-and-paint Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill; the primal never-give-up mantra was powerful. But what was the connection to buying a GMC hybrid? And isn’t this ad mostly about the company patting itself on the back? You work hard, GMC? Gee, me too!
Stories that resonate — that’s our job. They can be found anywhere, and we should always be on the lookout for examples of what works and what doesn’t.
What were your favorite commercials at this year’s Super Bowl — and why? I’d love to know.
Meantime, thank you to all the creative folks in the advertising world for yet another fun and educational lesson in storytelling. I can’t wait to see what you have in store for us next year!